What carbon impact tracking apps are getting wrong, and how to fix it

What carbon impact tracking apps are getting wrong, and how to fix it

In the fight against climate change, a new idea is gaining popularity: apps to track your CO2 footprint and take action. The actions that these apps suggest however limit their focus on what you can do as an individual. What all of them are missing is the element of collective, mass action. So we started asking ourselves what a carbon tracking app would look like that would inspire both individual and mass action strategies.

The birth of carbon impact

The concept of a personal carbon footprint was invented by professor William Rees in the 1990s and infamously promoted by BP in 2005 through an advertising campaign. Today it triggers strong feelings and debate between those who feel that the responsibility for carbon emissions falls on individuals or on governments and corporations. The answer is, like many things, somewhere in between as individuals (especially the wealthiest 10%)  can affect emissions through their life choices. But we also need the system around us – especially powerful industries – to invest in making carbon-free living possible. 

Individual vs collective responsibility

As individual choices do make a difference, and as individuals need to be taken on the journey to an emissions-free future, companies and governments are looking for ways to engage employees, customers or the public. We have seen a range of ideas for the engagement of individuals over the years and recently explored it from both a consumer and citizen perspective with organisations in the Netherlands and the UK. So we want to dig into what would make this concept truly effective.

It all starts with insights

The challenge for the individual is understanding and making decisions about lifestyle choices and what impact they can make. A plethora of messages about carbon emissions is springing up when we shop, buy a ticket for travel or pay our energy bills. It is hard to know our CO2 from our KWh so this is a clear area when technology can contribute. An increasingly popular idea is to help users through an app that shows the impact of everyday choices and helps with making more sustainable ones. 

Numerous banks, startups and governmental organisations have recently launched apps that help consumers in tracking their carbon impact. Financial institutions have an advantage here because they are able to use transaction data to gain insight into what you buy and then calculate the carbon impact of those purchases. For instance, if you spend a certain amount on groceries it will give you an estimate of the CO2 impact of that. 

Mapping carbon impact apps showing opportunity for collective action strategies

Encouraging action, but is it the right type of action?

To nudge users towards behaviour change the apps employ various strategies. Some purely provide insight into the carbon impact of your lifestyle to build awareness. Others provide suggestions on how to reduce your impact, for instance by buying second-hand clothing. And some even take a more restrictive course of action by blocking you from spending more money once you’ve reached your carbon limit. 

Most of these apps however function solely on encouraging individual action and lifestyle changes. Critics comment that this focus on individual action shifts responsibility away from corporations and governments. In an op-ed for USA Today, the climatologist Michael Mann states. “A fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable,”. Yet vice versa, if we focus on corporations as the culprits of climate change, this leads to excusing ourselves from taking action. Therefore a third way suggests moving beyond this binary opposition and combining individual and collective action. 

It’s only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis. – Martin Lukacs, the Guardian

Designing combined individual and collective action

With our CarbonApp design, we’ve explored how we might combine individual and collective strategies for action toward climate change. Next to the individual actions, we showed how people could join forces to campaign together to create mass action. An individual that might want to reduce the impact of their travelling can be limited by their employment context, which demands them to travel. This is where collective action comes in by enabling individuals to group together and challenge their context, demanding their employers to change travel policy, work-from-home conditions, or CO2 compensation for travelling.

Similarly in an employment context, people join forces to campaign for their pension funds to divest in fossil fuel. Additional social tie-ins can help to mobilise co-workers to join a campaign. Real-world examples from platforms like Make My Money Matter, and the recent divestment from pension fund ABP show the potential of mass action. Linking this back into your personal carbon footprint tracker would help this move beyond a one-off campaign and would enable people to see and track the impact their actions are having, inspiring their social circles to follow suit. Some early user feedback showed that it is important for people to balance their actions on an individual level with collective actions. 

Our company has been doing a lot in terms of sustainability. Which made me feel like something was off. Felt like I wasn’t doing enough on an individual level. These things have to be in balance for me, otherwise, I feel like an imposter.

Screens from our prototype Carbon impact app

MAO model: A model we often use when it comes to behaviour change is the MAO model. It states that 3 things are needed for behaviour change. Motivation, Ability and Opportunity. Especially for the latter 2 our environment and context play an important role. People might not have the financial resources and knowledge (ability) to make changes to their lives, or their employment situation might require them to travel daily by car because they can’t afford to live close to their jobs (lack of opportunity). When we think about how to design for effective behaviour change we focus on more than just motivation. We also think about how we create the opportunity to act and strengthen people in their ability to make a change.

What we learned from our experiment

What we feel this experiment shows is that action on climate and the way we design for it must move beyond the individualist models of our consumer society and build collective action, community and impact. Individual and collective responsibilities can’t be seen as opposites. They need each other. First of all not to undermine each other – why should I act if corporations are doing nothing? And secondly because, when designed right, individual action and collective action can reinforce each other and create more sustainable change. 

I like the community aspect of this. You read that individual actions are not enough & instead that the top 100 companies should act. But maybe as a community, we can make a difference.

Photo by Kit Ishimatsu on Unsplash