As we take climate change more seriously, we’ll need better ways of measuring carbon emissions. That doesn’t just mean reporting and monitoring systems, but also better conceptual models, a sense of how best to compare emissions between regions or countries.

Among other things, better metrics will allow us to craft more sophisticated policy. The Kyoto arrangement — “let’s all go back to where we were in 1990” — is, to put it kindly, a blunt weapon, insensitive to participating countries’ varying levels of wealth, population trajectories, native industries, and energy needs. Expectations for any country to reduce its carbon emissions ought to be sensitive to its individual circumstances.

So we need richer, more nuanced ways of figuring out who’s doing well on carbon and who’s doing poorly. That brings us to an interesting recent paper in American Scientist called “Accounting for Climate in Ranking Countries’ Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle. Their insight is simple: Carbon emission rankings ought to be adjusted to account for local climates. Sweden uses more energy to keep people at a comfortable temperature than, say, Greece does, but that doesn’t mean Greece is doing better than Sweden on climate policy. It just means Sweden is really cold! That’s not Sweden’s fault. We need some way of comparing Sweden and Greece that doesn’t give Greece an unfair advantage for the happy accident of being located on the Mediterranean.