Friday, 18 January 2008

Personal Carbon Disclosure

Why arent the carbon diets working?

The Guardian for instance, from their 12 million online readers have drummed up 3839 who so far have pledged something to the Tread Lightly programme. The 3839 people have saved 36.70 tonnes of carbon so far, which is a little less than the average annual emissions for two people in the USA. The site is still very new (launched end October) and maybe they are still populating it with content before any recruitment drive. Still worth doing I'm sure and maybe quite a few are also using the site to get tips. And it is stuffed with useful content. But I for one am slightly disappointed on their behalf that more havent signed up. If you compare pledging on this site for instance to the hundreds of thousands willing to shell out for (Tread Lightly contributor) Leo Hickman's bestselling books on ethical consumerism. And if the world was crying out for a carbon diet, surely it would probably have taken off by now, Facebook style?

I dont mean to pick on that scheme.

I could just as easily have chosen global cool. Launched to a fanfare in 2006 with the aim of saving a billion tonnos of carbon, they are so far claiming people have pledged 1049 tonnes = 55 average Americans' annual emissions.

In fact I dont mean to be negative about any such schemes, but rather want to wonder how they COULD take off.

If you compare carbon diets to real diets the one big problem is NO-ONE CAN SEE HOW FAT YOU ARE. That's not as true of celebs. The Beckhams were reported to have "the biggest carbon footprint in the world" flying 163,000 miles just to play in the Euro 08 qualifiers, not to mention trips to New Zealand just for fun, advertising commitments racking up another 50,000 miles each, 15 cars including a Hummer. The thing is, it sounds really naff doesnt it? Like modern versions of Marie Antoinette. And at some level I imagine this kind of reporting does trouble celebs, because it makes them look greedy, selfish and out of step with the times? It's certainly something the tabloids were very happy to report (I got those details from the Daily Star website). It's scandalous, in other words.

It's been suggested recently (in a talk by Dan Hill - video and text available - via PSFK) that we might engage in carbon reduction schemes if there was a gaming element involved, if we could see our footprint relative to others in places like Facebook.

"Essentially, the idea is for a system that makes previously invisible aspects of people's behaviour visible, in order to help change individual and collective behaviour. In this case, the primary drive is towards leading a more sustainable personal life, encouraging less consumption and more contribution, also taking into account the context of your behaviour in wider neighbourhood and city. By tracking your energy and resource usage, and playing this off against possible contributions made through generating energy or resource, systems are able to build simple aggregated profiles for these aspects of a person's or household's behaviour. Using popular techniques drawn from social software, these profiles provide users with historical trends for their behaviour, and allow the profiles to be compared, contrasted and recombined with those of others. By opening up these data feeds through APIs, within appropriate ethical and privacy frameworks, unforeseen applications of this information can emerge, even enabling the 'gaming' of consumption and contribution profiles, encouraging civic and sustainable behaviour through competition. By conveying this information through multi-sensory feedback and persuasive visualisation distributed across discreet domestic interfaces, the effects of a person's behaviour can thus be discerned in the everyday."

It's an idea we've played around with at Onzo too. I think there is probably a lot of truth in it. But it raises the issue of disclosure. Who would want others' to see theirs? Arent most of us somewhere on a spectrum from being ashamed we arent doing more, to being in denial...?

A big step forward in corporate social responsibility has been the success of just getting companies to report what their impact is. Its not just that if you dont measure it you dont manage it. Its surely more that if you dont account for something you are not accountable.

I think everyone should have to disclose their carbon use. Perhaps it should be an annexe to the tax form. And this data should be published for all to see. It strikes me as potentially more effective than even rationing. Once people can see that you are overweight in carbon terms (the over- implying a degree of social disapproval) dieting will make sense. Especially in the Uk where we are a nation obsessed with what others (the neighbours) might think of us. That would take the debate beyond what we can be seen to be doing now (using the right bags, driving a less obscene car). Into less visible measures like lagging your loft. Into all the stuff in the carbon diet plans, in fact.

Disclosure. My carbon footprint last year wasnt great. I did turn down more than ten long haul conference appearances/workshops which would have added up to about 50,000 miles - or 50 tons of carbon. By turning these down (on the grounds that I couldnt justify the carbon) there was a notional saving. And we took a summer holiday at home. But even so I had three client projects in Scandinavia and flew there quite a bit. Must try harder. Should probably put myself on a further carbon diet, but basically flying is 'the pies' and as I dont believe in offsetting and cant always manage to find work on my doorstep, it's still going to be tough & like most people I have to live with a certain amount of guilt, regret and the resolve to be better one day. On the other hand it's pretty clear what I need to do, I guess. Just writing this here is maybe a step in the right direction?


neilperkin said...

That's a brilliant thought John. I wonder if you could make a widget that instead of just showing what your footprint was now showed how much you'd lost on your carbon diet. I could see people putting that on their Facebook profiles, no?

Simon Donner said...

First step is admitting the problem, right? A big step would be making virtual conferences the norm. True, it is not as productive as being in the same room with people, but it is better than not attending. I suspect it will become increasingly common in the scientific community over the next few years.