Measuring your carbon footprint? There's no app for that

Smartphones can keep us informed about everything other than environmental impact. That needs to change

Column I recently installed an app that promised to measure my carbon footprint, then offer meaningful recommendations that could help me to reduce it.

I thought that sounded like a good enough offer that I was willing to endure a modestly nosey survey that gathered information about my lifestyle, income, and personal habits. The result was an indication that my footprint was in the "high" range.

I found that a little surprising. I did fly a lot, back when that was still a thing. But I don't have a car, walk and bike everywhere, use renewably generated electricity, and am vegetarian.

The app informed me that 70 per cent of my CO2 emissions came from an area defined simply as "purchases".

Uh … ok? I tapped on that, to see if it might be broken down in any meaningful way, only to find that my rating was an estimate drawn from averages that may or may not have reflected my personal circumstances.

I'd like to believe that I tread lightly on the environment, though I know as a middle-class Australian that's unlikely to be the case. In the absence of any meaningful information, how can I make changes? I could follow the app's suggestions – though these seem to be more broad brushstrokes than highly targeted activities.

That leaves me little wiser than before I launched the app.

It's not really the app's fault. It's doing the best it can to offer advice in an environment that almost completely lacks auditability, transparency, or solid sources of data.

When I buy an apple at the supermarket, I have no idea how much carbon was burnt bringing it to me, nor do I have any obvious way to learn this. That's broadly true for almost everything – although here in Australia automakers are required by law to let you know how many litres of petrol it will burn to take you 100 kilometres, and appliances are rated by energy consumption.

We all have good reason to doubt even those ratings, thanks to the Dieselgate scandal sparked by Volkswagen nobbling its emission-measurement software.

Why don't we have proper transparency of emissions associated with, well, everything?

If I know that I need a new smartphone, how can I weigh out the relative merits of an iPhone or Galaxy or whatever against the cost to the environment? What about all those cloud services I consume directly through web sites I maintain, or indirectly, through services I employ? All of it adds up – and that's precisely why we need to find a way to add it all up.

It's not so much that this is impossible – it's just that we don't yet think in these terms even though it's clear we need to.

We account for every penny spent and earned and pour the results into apps that inform our everyday decisions, but we don't yet have any carbon dioxide on our balance sheets. Organisations talk big about their plans for carbon neutrality, but we need to break that down into atomic detail, so that every act of creation or consumption carries with it a planetary 'price tag'. That way, we can know how we're traveling.

Then, perhaps, we can have apps on our devices that have access to a rich enough depth of insight to allows us to monitor and manage our own activities, informing tiny changes in our choices. When aggregated in the actions of billions, those changes can make a big difference.

Properly accounting for CO2 will require an effort. Business will almost certainly complain (disingenuously) that it is an expensive effort. But it would be far outweighed by the benefits.

We always hear that 'you can't change what you don't measure'.

So let's measure – and change. ®

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