We all know we need to change our lifestyles and become more sustainable. We talk about it, and some of us actively try to, but honestly, most of us don't. Living more sustainably clearly needs to be easier, more interesting and more fun. This is within reach.
Technology is evolving to enable us to measure our impacts on the environment day-to-day and broadcast the results on social media to inspire a race to the top. Meanwhile, corporations can use this info to reward positive behavior and generate goodwill. Here are some ideas for how.
Carbon footprint calculators fall short
A common assumption is that if people knew exactly what their carbon footprint was, or how big it was compared to others, they would feel motivated to make lifestyle changes.
Loads of free carbon footprint calculators have been available online for years. Some of the most popular in the U.S. come from the Nature Conservancy, US EPA, Carbon Footprint, Global Footprint Network, Center for a Sustainable Economy, Berkeley, Terra Pass and Conservation International.
Yet very few people have used them and they seem to have fallen short of inspiring significant behavioral change. There are surely a number of reasons for this, but several of their shortcomings provide insight into what might work better.
First, vast differences in their methodologies mean that the same person will get a huge range of scores from different calculators, making it hard to know how one is actually doing. For example, my lifestyle produces anywhere from 12 to 30 tons of CO2 per year, according to the eight calculators mentioned above.
Second, the questions are usually too general to detect most behavioral changes that can lower our environmental impact, such as changing light bulbs. This means that we miss getting the satisfaction of seeing our score improve.
Third, accuracy aside, the final score is abstract. Carbon is an intangible concept for most of us. How much is 12 to 30 tons of CO2, anyway? Because we all want to know how we measure up, meaningful comparisons can help make these numbers more relevant, but many calculators do a poor job of this.
Most striking, carbon footprint calculators generally fail to show us how we should be doing. What would a sustainable carbon footprint be and how does one get there? Ecological footprint calculators give perspective on this by showing how many Earths would be required to sustain our lifestyle, but they say surprisingly little about the behaviors needed to achieve a sustainable level.
So, if carbon calculators fall short because the final score is abstract, questions aren't specific enough to capture our efforts to improve and meaningful benchmarks and clear targets are lacking, what would be better?