Carbon calculators and trackers, what is their purpose and do they work?

Carbon tools: what is their purpose and do they work?

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From the highly technical Mackay Carbon Calculator (which focuses on the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy system) to WWF’s lifestyle carbon footprint calculator, most ‘carbon calculators’ have the same aim; to help reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Although there is no right or wrong when it comes to which carbon tool to use, they will have different outcomes depending on their application. When it comes to using carbon calculators to encourage people to change their behaviours and take action, there are some benefits but also some pitfalls to look out for.   

How do they work?

The majority of carbon calculators focus on an overall sum of carbon that a person or process uses over a period of time.  Many of the personal carbon calculators are taken as a one-off set of questions. They will calculate the impact of certain activities a person might take over a 12-month period (from transport to diet choices) with the aim to highlight their carbon impact, raise awareness and hopefully result in making better/informed choices to reduce this impact over  time.

How accurate are they?

There are a number of risks and assumptions associated with carbon calculators, for example people providing false answers for fear of being judged. It means that organisation are setting incorrect baselines, which can lead to false claims of carbon reduction as they lack the necessary rigour behind them. Unfortunately, these calculations are only as good as the day they are done. For example, one calculator asks how many flights you have taken in the last (covid hit) 12-months, which is clearly not reflective of the number of flights someone would take in an average year!

How accurate are carbon tracking calculators?
How accurate are carbon tracking calculators?

Do calculators in isolation inspire action or turn people off?

Carbon calculators encourage us all to consider our actions, but for how long, and at what cost? The problem with highlighting your carbon impact in isolation, is that solutions to climate change involve giving things up, through the lens of putting the environment first, and self second. This gives the impression that an individuals’ living standards, their happiness, and their image of the ‘good life’ will need to be sacrificed to achieve their desired outcome. We know from psychological research that people regret a loss more than value a gain.

“Urgency + Pessimism = Despondency”

Earthshot – How to Save Our Planet

Enabling people and reinforcing what’s in it for them?

Instead of telling people what they should do to solve the climate crisis, we need to empower people to find environmental solutions that suit their lifestyle. Our key role in this is to reinforce the benefits as a springboard to better, more sustainable, and happier lifestyles.

“Urgency + Optimism = Action”

Earthshot – How to Save Our Planet

Regular interactions and positive feedback

An effective tool in delivering behavioural change is the use of regular feedback. From a climate change perspective, this would mean enabling people to effectively measure and monitor the effect of their actions in real time. They’re then able to judge whether these actions are sustainable; creating a positive balance between their lifestyle and the environment.

Regular feedback can help drive behaviour change
Regular feedback can help drive behaviour change

Continuously tracking carbon improvements

Carbon trackers enable this, allowing residents to review their progress which lead towards carbon savings. It helps them better understand the impact of their everyday individual actions. For example, by shopping locally and walking to shops, residents are provided with an associated carbon footprint saving. By simultaneously reinforcing this with associated health and well-being advantages, it is an example that tackling climate change can benefit them too.

Progress within the community

Gaining community support around local issues is a crucial way of making positive change happen. Community led campaigns can make powerful local partnerships that help to spread messages and increase the success and reach of campaigns. Individuals are more likely to sustain their behaviour change if they feel part of a like-minded community.

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