For Canadians who want to reduce their carbon footprint, there are now, as the saying goes, apps for that.
A growing number of apps, internet plug-ins and features promise to help users track, and in some cases offset, the carbon emissions of everything from their daily commute to their travel plans and online shopping habits. Just as many people use digital tools to track their household budget, these new tools can help them measure another kind of cost of their consumption behavior.
Last October, carGoogle takes into account the cities of origin and destination, the type of aircraft, the engine and equipment of the aircraft, the number and arrangement of seats and the number of passengers, on average, who take flight.
“Very often low-cost flights can have a lower emissions footprint because there are more passengers on a given aircraft,” said James Byer, senior product manager for Google’s flight team. “It’s a wonderful result, because those trying to save money and be kind to the environment can do both at the same time.”
Mr Byers said a flight’s emissions are displayed prominently and in an accessible way – a percentage below or above the average for a typical route, rather than a figure in kilograms.
Toronto-based Neutral, an app created by a group of Western University students, aims to make online shopping more sustainable by showing users the carbon footprint of their Amazon purchases. Cem Torun, one of the founders of Neutral, said the emissions are an estimate based on the average lifecycle emissions of products and product categories.
Tree Canada launched a Google Chrome extension called Offset Mode in mid-April that calculates the carbon impact of internet habits. Users can donate to the charity’s mass seedling planting program to offset their footprint.
Robert Henri, director of communications and marketing for the charity, acknowledged that internet browsing is not a major individual source of emissions and that users will not see their cost tracker increase rapidly. But at the macro level, the Internet is responsible for more emissions than the aviation industry.
“It is expected to increase even more because of online streaming, video calls [and] the metaverse,” Mr. Henri said. “It’s important that we realize that what we do online has an impact.”
The German company Klima allows users to calculate and neutralize their carbon emissions by financing climate projects for a monthly subscription. The Capture app, meanwhile, uses GPS data to predict mobility-related emissions and has an auto-offset feature to donate monthly to carbon offset projects.
According to app providers, this carbon accounting is changing consumer behavior. Mr Byer said Google had seen a change in consumer behavior with more people choosing to choose a low-emission flight, although he declined to share specific figures.
Mr Torun said Neutral, which has more than 1,000 users, calculated that users made different purchasing choices that led to a reduction of 150,000 kilograms of carbon emissions. These numbers are an estimate given the way Neutral calculates emissions. “We are located in the user’s shopping experience [so] we are able to have a direct impact on shopping habits,” he said.
These applications serve to illuminate a concept that may be difficult for people to grasp. According to a 2020 study by three researchers at the University of British Columbia, consumers struggle to understand which actions have the biggest impact on reducing their carbon footprint.
Respondents incorrectly perceived certain low-impact actions, such as recycling, to be more meaningful than taking fewer flights, using their clothes dryer less frequently, and eating less meat. However, participants correctly identified the shift to public transit as having a high impact.
Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral fellow now at Concordia University and one of the paper’s co-authors, said it’s likely due to something called the availability heuristic — the tendency to use information which come easily to mind.
Mr Wynes, whose research focuses on improving climate change communication, said carbon tracking apps and plug-ins can be most useful when they alert users to actions that have a high impact on emissions. Being able to see the carbon impact of booking a flight is a “great service”, he said: it helps consumers choose more efficient flights, while incentivizing airlines to offer them .
But apps that focus on emission sources that make up a much smaller share of a person’s carbon footprint, like internet browsing, could be misleading or lead Canadians to be “wise and foolish, and to focus too much on these minor things,” he said.
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