Key Takeaway: Several startups that launched in the last year are using technology to make it simpler than ever for individuals and businesses to track and reduce their carbon footprints. Their success is riding on whether the ease of the tools will be enough to motivate action.
If your new year’s resolution is to reduce your carbon footprint, you’re in luck.
A host of startups are using technology to improve carbon reporting and management for companies as well as make such tools easily available for individuals that wish to tread more lightly on the planet.
Apps from companies such as Emitwise, offCents, CHOOOSE and Wren — all of which debuted in the last three years — are available for people who join the gig economy and become one-person enterprises who can’t on their own manage their environmental impact. Small businesses that may not be able to hire sustainability consultants or teams and want an affordable way to track and offset carbon may also find them useful.
“Really moving from carbon neutrality to carbon negative is an important step to bring our carbon levels down.”
For offCents customer Lucas Deseglise, the mobile app has been a useful way to purchase offsets for his plane travel, which he says are the biggest culprit when it comes to his carbon emissions.
“I’ve always tried to be as exemplary as I can when it comes to leading an eco-conscious lifestyle, from simple things like turning off lights to eating less meat,” Deseglise, a New York entrepreneur, told Karma. “Airplane travel made my yearly carbon footprint skyrocket.”
Deseglise says he has tried to fly less and use public transportation more often as a result of the app, which automatically detects his mode of travel based on geolocation and calculates the emissions.
“I usually used to mostly take taxis or Ubers when going out. I now either take the subway or carpools,” he said.
In many ways, businesses like offCents offer services similar to those by established organizations such as German consultancy ClimatePartner, which offers “cradle-to-customer” carbon emissions calculations for companies. Swiss nonprofit myclimate does the same for companies as well as wealthy individuals, directing funds from carbon offsets to projects it manages in 30 countries. U.S.-based service TerraPass has been offering individuals and businesses a way to purchase carbon offsets since 2004.
The difference with the new entrants is that they are laser-focused on using technology to make tracking carbon impact as simple as possible for the end user, while also equipping them with tools to reduce that footprint – not simply offset it.
That’s crucial, as current emissions levels are too high to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5°C, according to the United Nations Environment Program. In a recent report, the group warns that every fraction of additional warming will have “severe and expensive impacts.”
While individuals may not feel their carbon footprints are significant compared to the scale of the problem, the global crisis is exacerbated by the actions of individuals. The average U.S. household, for example, emits 48 tons of greenhouse gases annually, according to the University of Michigan.
ROI of carbon reduction
London-based Emitwise, which launched in June and has a team of five, is using real-time data and machine learning to automate the carbon accounting process for companies. The idea is to reduce the time a company spends reporting carbon output, and provide more time to manage the issue.
To get companies to take carbon seriously as a metric, co-founder and CEO Mauro Cozzi says his team believes they must attach a profit incentive. They want to measure it as a key performance indicator, or KPI, that can be used right along with cost to determine whether a purchase or a project makes sense from a carbon-accounting standpoint.
“Most of the large corporates in the world don’t understand the return on investment for them in carbon reduction strategies,” he said. “If we don’t show that reducing the carbon footprint is profitable, we won’t be able to reduce it.”
Emitwise received pre-seed funds from the VC Social Impact Capital, with enough funding to get started, but the startup will seek to raise a larger round of funding in 2020. The firm also generates money by charging companies for its products and services.
“We mostly survive with bootstrapping and a little bit of revenue,” Cozzi told Karma.
As some of these privately backed startups try to reinvent the sustainability space, their biggest struggle will be gaining enough traction with users and funders alike to sustain themselves.
Individuals seeking to track carbon footprints face a different challenge than businesses. Until recently, not many tools existed that made the calculation of one’s emissions simple enough for widespread adoption.
Some of the tools focus only on one type of footprint like transportation, without taking into account food or meat products. Online calculators can be cumbersome, requiring a person to recall every plane, car or train ride in the last year to determine an overall footprint.
OffCents automates that process, gamifies it, and offers a monthly automatic deduction to neutralize one’s impact.
The app, which launched on Earth Day in April and has had more than 30,000 downloads, is funded by friends and family of the founders, co-founder and CEO Howard Jaslow told Karma. The New York-based company makes money through ads and by taking a fee on the sale of carbon offsets in its marketplace of offsetting projects.
It uses geolocation to automatically determine the mode of transportation a person is using – including air travel – and calculates the carbon emissions from it. Users can monitor their footprints in real time and sign up for a monthly plan to purchase offsets based on that usage.
“With our current infrastructure, it’s almost impossible not to emit CO2 in our daily lives,” said Jaslow. “Transportation is so vital to our economy, which is why we focus on it.”
Offset Vs. Reduce
Like Emitwise, offCents encourages customers to go beyond paying for offsets to actually reducing their carbon emissions. The app incentivizes walking and biking by offering credits for rewards such as Whole Foods gift cards or bamboo toothbrushes designed to gamify the experience.
“Really moving from carbon neutrality to carbon negative is an important step to bring our carbon levels down,” he said. “We are looking for ways to not only have more of an impact but to refine the offsets model.”
Yet sometimes offsetting is the most convenient way to tackle a problem. CHOOOSE, which launched in 2017 and closed a $4.1 million seed round in spring, offers a subscription plan for individuals and businesses to contribute to carbon reduction projects.
“Some people tend to criticize CHOOOSE and similar companies because they believe we see carbon offsetting as a tool that solves everything. But that’s not the case at all,” Andreas Slettvoll, co-founder and CEO, told Karma. “We see offsetting as an additional tool that enables you to compensate for your unavoidable carbon footprint.”
CHOOOSE also works with consumer brands to offer customers a way to offset the carbon footprint of purchases as part of the checkout process. Norwegian Airlines partnered with the group to put a price on the carbon emissions of its flights so customers can buy offsets while booking a flight.
“Emission-free flying is not possible today,” Geir Karlsen, the airline’s acting CEO said in a statement. “Carbon offsetting is an important tool in managing today’s emissions.”
Less ‘doom and gloom’
Another consumer-facing tool is Wren, a Y Combinator-backed startup based in Silicon Valley that launched in June and focuses on automating the process for individuals to go carbon neutral. Rather than an on-the-go calculator of one’s footprint, it uses a questionnaire to estimate one’s carbon impact and establishes a monthly amount for offsetting it – 20% of which goes to Wren’s overhead.
In designing the app, the team’s main focus was creating a positive conversation about climate change so that more people feel that a solution is possible and want to get on board, co-founder and CEO Landon Brand told Karma.
“We want to make this fun,” he said. “When people talk about climate change, it’s usually very heavy, dominated by doom and gloom. But we really think humans can still reverse climate change.”
They also want to increase the transparency around projects used to offset emissions, which can sometimes feel too disconnected for the user to feel the impact, Brand noted. They are using GPS-linked photos, stories and data to offer details about projects such as tree plantings in Kenya, so that people truly feel their money is going to help the planet.
By using technology to make carbon impact easier to track than ever, these startups are enabling individuals and businesses alike to take action and do something about climate change. Ultimately, their success will depend on how motivated those actors are to avail these tools.
“The world is in a precarious state. It really is a race for us to figure out how to solve this,” said Emitwise’s Cozzi. “We’re in the business of actually trying to hopefully save the planet and buy us some time.”
A Few Tips: First Steps to Reducing Your Footprint
Whether you are an individual interested in reducing your carbon footprint, or a company that is looking to improve sustainability practices, the very first step is to identify your biggest source of emissions.
“The first step is to know what your current situation is and how complex it is. Only with this information can a conscious decision be made,” said Tristan Foerster, managing director and partner of ClimatePartner. In operation since 2006, the group has helped measure and offset the carbon footprint of more than 2,000 customers in 35 countries.
For people and businesses alike, travel is likely to be a big culprit. For individuals, food consumption can also have a big impact. Try an online calculator, but don’t overcomplicate measurement, said Kai Landwehr, head of marketing for myclimate, which has directed more than $123 million to about 100 climate protection projects over the last 18 years.
“Be as accurate as possible, but make it as accessible as possible, especially for private clients. If the measurement is too complicated, people will drop off,” Landwehr noted.
The next step is to identify ways to reduce that impact. Offsetting is a useful and sometimes necessary tool, but it should be a second option to reducing the emissions in the first place.
“If you fly a lot, then you might be able to avoid a couple flights and cut as much carbon as if you went vegan. Or, if you eat a lot of red meat, it might be easy for you replace that with chicken,” said Brand of Wren, which offers reports such as this one that highlight areas for improvement.
What’s most important is identifying action that is doable, he added. Maybe it will be easier to follow through with a pledge to pay for offsets than give up red meat, so start there.
“Start with whatever you think you can succeed at, and increase your commitment from there,” he said. “The most important thing is to commit.”