Visualizing CO2: Making Emissions Tangible to Change Behavior

Carbon Budgets, Landmarks Help People Wrap Their Minds Around Emissions

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Despite increased awareness about carbon emissions and the ability to quantify it, there is still a gap between pledges of a low-carbon lifestyle and true behavioral change.

The reason, say carbon consultants, psychologists and policy analysts, is that carbon emissions aren’t tangible. People can’t see the CO2 emissions from their cars and homes and airplane travel, and most can’t visualize their impact.

Companies and ecopreneurs alike are now testing strategies to change that, from introducing personal carbon budgets to making carbon into relational metrics like calorie counts and spatial objects.

National governments have handled carbon tangibility to some extent through tariffs and taxes. There is also episodic evidence of effective behavioral change when energy companies provide real-time feedback, such as sending electric bills that compare neighbor to neighbor in energy use. According to an American Psychological Association study, this can lead to energy savings of 5-12% for six months or more.

“This kind of information is believed to be more effective because it is specific to the individual’s situation and is conducive for learning how to achieve the savings,” the APA says.

A separate study about changing transportation behaviors by the Department for Transport (UK), however, found that the participants’ stated intentions to change were not reflected in actual behavior.

It will be challenging to close that attitude-behavior gap, the APA warns, because “many of the most GHG-intensive consumer behaviors … may be strongly affected by contextual factors.”

Putting CO2 in Context

Carbon Sense, a sustainability consulting firm based in the UK, is attempting to contextualize carbon by creating spatial relationships between the volume of carbon and familiar objects.

“We’re saying … to people, there’s this huge problem. … We’re used to giving this as the metric, which might make sense to engineers or scientists, but it doesn’t actually make sense to many people at a deep level," explains Antony Turner, one of the founders of Carbon Sense.

To put the numbers into context, Turner takes, for example, the amount of CO2 that comes out of car exhaust every 6 km and shapes it into a balloon with a 1 meter diameter, like the balloon the girl is holding in the photo above.

“People say ‘Ah, ha!’” he said. “It tips it into the space of our mind that says this is real rather than the space in our mind that says, ‘look at tomorrow.’ “

Based on different metrics, say the amount of CO2 emitted by a government building or a school, Carbon Sense creates graphic volumes and then places those next to familiar cultural monuments, such as Westminster. The illustration at right, for example, shows London’s daily CO2 emissions in relation to its landmarks.

Turner’s newest spatial conception is the Carbon Quilt. Every day, according to Turner and his colleague Adam Niemen, a physicist, humans “gift-wrap” the planet in enough CO2 that it could form a layer roughly equivalent to the thickness of a piece of paper, 86.9 microns. Over one year, that’s 31 millimeters (roughly, 1 inch) thick — visualize a quilt covering the planet, growing thicker each year and trapping more heat, they say.

The tool at allows people to see a physical layer of CO2 emitted by a country, city, energy source, over a period of time placed over a map of a geographic area.

For example, the United States’ daily emissions average for 2006, 15.8 megatonnes of CO2, would take up a section of the quilt that covers 97.3 million kilometers squared if compressed that way (illustration at right). South Korea’s daily emissions layer is 1.3 megatonnes of CO2 and covers an area 8 million kilometers squared.

John Henry Looney, a sustainability consultant and founder of Sustainable Direction, uses two other metrics: caloric energy consumption, which he explains in this podcast, and shoe size.

Assuming that the average shoe size for women is an American 7 (European measure 37.5), Looney uses national per capita carbon emissions data — the average American emits 19.5 tonnes of CO2 per year, the average Brit emits 9.2 tonnes, and the world average is 4.5 tonnes — to calculate that the CO2 emission shoe size for the average American woman is 18.5, the average British woman a 9, and the average world citizen 4.

“You can imagine someone tromping around the earth,” Looney says, giggling, “Most people would think it quite funny if you put on a size 18 shoe and started walking around … tromping flowers. You can just kind of get an idea of an impact you would have on the world if your shoe size is 18, not a 7.”

Setting a Personal Carbon Budget

Corporate offices can provide ideal arenas to support behavioral change because of their organizational structures and processes, and David Symons, director of WSP’s Environment division, has put that idea to work.

“My teams were saying to me, we like the programs you’re doing internally around turning your lights off and reducing energy consumption in the offices, recycling programs. But let’s do something a bit different shall we? Because we’re an environmental consultancy and we’re advising clients about how to be sustainable themselves, let’s actually do something which is quite fresh and quite interesting.”

Symons came up with a voluntary carbon budgeting scheme that has spread beyond WSP’s offices in the UK and even the company itself. Based on DEFRA and British national metrics, participants are given a “generous” annual CO2 allowance that’s ratcheted downwards as participants make progress. The first year, the allowance was 6 tonnes of CO2. Now in its third year, with 500 participants in the company’s UK offices, the allowance is 5 tonnes. WSP’s offices in South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, the U.S., Australia, Sweden, and Germany take part, too.

If participants stay within their carbon budget, they are paid 5 pence per kilo of CO2 they come in under budget, up to £100. If they exceed their carbon allowance, they are fined 5 pence per kilo of CO2, up to £100.

The goal, Symons says, is to help staff develop more sustainable habits at home. The allowance is generous and the “penalty” minimal because he wants participants to feel they can actually achieve something and make progress. Indeed, year on year, the average carbon footprint decreases 10%.

“It’s not saying ‘Ok, you can’t fly,’ it’s saying ‘Ok, if you fly, great. Let’s not us get in the way of that, just remember that’s going to use up a fair amount of your allowance.’ ”

Participants report to an online database once per quarter, and they are able to see how they compare with their colleagues. The database is very specific, having been configured to allow participation from several national offices using local metrics for transport (including common types of cars), energy consumption and living situation. For example, the metrics for household energy usage for Swedish participants includes combined heat and power systems, commonly found in Swedish households. For participants in South Africa, commuting metrics include minibuses, broken down by passenger. After all the data is entered, participants are presented with a pie chart of where their emissions come from.

The scheme is meant for individuals, but families end up getting involved, too, as individuals strive to meet their goals. WSP takes the scheme further to help employees adjust their buying habits. WSP made a deal with Good Energy, a UK energy supplier, for a reduced energy tariff for participants who switch over to the 100% renewable energy supplier. The energy company was so impressed with the carbon budgeting scheme, it got its employees involved, as well.

WSP’s carbon budgeting scheme has now expanded to 10 organizations, including Cisco, Invensys Rail, the London Borough (district) of Hounslow, and it is in talks with four more. Symons hopes to have 30 organizations involved by the end of year.

Making carbon emissions tangible is the missing component to making carbon footprint reduction pledges equal action. Which metric speaks most to you?


See also:

Communicating the Risks of Climate Change

Keeping Up With The Joneses to Save Energy

Psychologists Delve Into the Paradox of U.S. Concern but Inaction on Climate Change

(Illustrations: Carbon Quilt)