Carbon calculators – Top down or bottom up?

Right now, personal ‘carbon calculators’ seem to be all the rage. Encouraged as a primary method of getting individuals to start to address their personal carbon footprint, and make lifestyle changes to lower personal CO2 emissions, most of the calculators have up until now come from large corporate companies. A couple of weeks ago, however, and responding to a general feeling of confusion amongst the public, the UK Govenment launched its own definitive carbon calculator website – billed as the most comprehensive, accurate tool of its kind. True? Well certainly the amount of time it takes to work things out at the end of each section gives the impression it’s doing some major number crunching. But as with all of its ilk, it has flaws. For instance, why are only my personal flights (a measly three in the last year) included, yet the ones I’ve taken on business (a more eco-conscience bothering 17) not? That skews my score entirely. Now a new site in the US – ‘Make me sustainable’ – promises to monitor carbon emissions on a daily basis – the thinking here is that carbon monitoring becomes an everyday part of your routine – like cleaning your teeth or updating your facebook status, so you start to think about the impact of your actions more. Sadly, you need to be in the US to use it, as it calculates various factors depending on where you live. Anyone in the US who’s trying it out, we’d love to know what you think of it.

The fundamental issue with all of these systems is that they rely on some level of estimation and guess-work, it’s inevitable. So perhaps, if we’re really serious about monitoring our emissions, we need real-life personal monitoring systems, that are discrete and ‘fit’ with our lives. That’s where Andreas Zachariah – a graduating MA student in Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art comes in. His “Carbon Hero” calculates a user’s carbon footprint from transportation by identifying the different froms of transport being used as they moves through space. The idea is that you carry the key-fob sized unit with you, and then download the data to your PC later. Then the data is collected by the computer’s software, which tells you the exact amount of carbon dioxide emitted from your movements, and how many credits are needed to offset it. Could this be the future? Well, the product has alread won a British Sustainability Index award, so watch this space.


  1. says

    German Railways offers a service that you can calculate you CO2 emissions for a specific trip, compared to emissions the very same trip would have caused if made by car or plane. This includes the railway’s primary energie mix (electricity created with coal, nuclear and hydro plants). A fine example for a bottom-up carbon calculator.
    See my calculation for a business trip. A business trip for a PR event on eco responsibility, so we have dilemma here:

  2. Lee Bryant says

    Hi Joe,

    Sceptical as I am about expensive Flash widgets, the UK gov calculator is not as bad as I thought it might be. What I like about it is that is shares data with the AMEE Web service, which is a useful first step towards joining up the various profiling and calculator tools.

    I am highly doubtful about the prospects for people calculating real impact day-to-day, useful as that might be.

    Do you think we really need the calculators to know what we have to do? Surely the difference between what we emit currently and what the world can support is so large that the fine details of how many KgCO2 our drive to work involved is not exactly the point. The behaviour change we need is surely bigger and more fundamental. We don’t want this to become like dieting where we can ‘treat’ ourselves to a CO2 blowout after a week of good behaviour.

    I guess the calculators play an important role, but they are just a means to an end with limited utility in actually changing habits, behaviours and lifestyle.

  3. says

    This is a bit of a hot button. excellent. great entry joe!

    Rolf- that’s a very interesting example about the railways. especially given some road lobbyists in the UK have begun to push a line that trains are less energy efficient than cars.

    Lee – you make an excellent point, but I also tend to think that every little helps. Its a core belief of Greenmonk that we can drive change from the bottom up, and anything that encourages that is likely to be a good thing. Sure we need major changes, but we can’t rely on others to make them. I agree they are a means to an end. And your idea of the CO2 blowout is such a scary/good one I think I will be writing a follow up post on that..

  4. says

    James – of course I favour trains, being a train nut since the age of 6 and having toured Britain by train during a long Interrail Summer.
    But the Auto lobbyists have a point: If every car would occupied by 4 people and if every car would have a lifetime of multiple million(!) kilometers (not unusual for trains) than the whole eco footprint equation would favour cars. Until then – I’m with the trains.

  5. Andreas Zachariah says

    Hi all, especially Joe for spotting Carbon Hero. Its really nice to see it being flagged(green?) in tandem with a argument. It was exactly my frustration with online carbon calculator that got my two cells all excited and busy.

    First off I’m a very firm believer in “every little helps”. Lots of little differences can soon add up to a big difference. Remember Richard Pryor in Superman III, creaming of fractions of cents into millions. Despite the comedy example, I think its a serious proposition.
    Secondly my research has shown that people tend not to like being told too much what to do, they like to find (re)solutions themselves(its much more satisfying), even if they dont realise there being guided. Sounds like a certain way of handling sexual sterotypes ;))
    Anyhow… thirdly using an example of a concerned motivated environmentalist, I sought to try and get a quantity and quality of data that could be likened to them keeping a diary of their every movement(literally-how did i travel).
    And then I sought to use a platform as large as I could find to facilitate this service.

    So, CarbonHero calculates your carbon footprint based on your travel choices. The flash widget(the sensor) is in fact detecting the users speed and location and bluetooths it to your mobile(the brains). This then through the already designed and working software, uses algorithms and a special database to try and figure out what mode of transport you might have just used. The mobile also doubles as my User Interface and communicates a range of values and graphics as you go about your business. Not only that you can compare today with yesterday, last week, even the month. Even your efficiency is given, i.e. miles/carbon kg.

    So unless you dont own a mobile and dont leave your house with a set of keys, CarbonHero should pretty much work. Even if you dont have a mobile, a stand alone device could easily be developed.

    It’ll even know if you’ve taken a plane(as well as the bus, tube, train, car and walking). And as a keen cyclist my hardest part was the pattern recognition of a cyclist vs. car vs. walking, but that too has been resolved for now. Currently optimising the software further and looking for sponsorship and right partners to bring to market. FoE and RSA already expressed big interest.

    The response at the show from general public and pros was nothing short of life enhancing.

    Thanks Rolf for the spot with DB system, shame they’re on strike…radical way of cutting down on emissions no doubt! Do they really think they can get 30%pay hikes?!

    Looking forward to your comments 😉

    PS.Love this site and movementdesign too…big respect.

  6. Andreas Zachariah says

    Hi,sorry…first time I’ve done this…Didn’t realise it would take up so much space!

  7. says

    Hey Rolf the interrail thing is great fun. i travelled through europe at 16 and 18. Good point on cars – they usually carry one person.

    At Andreas, lets stay in touch.

  8. says

    Great to have started such a great debate, and really pleased Zac found this too. Sorry for tardyness in replying – I have been without the internet since Wednesday.

    Interesting to see that DB do the system you mention Rolf, I didn’t know that – I believe that the National Express Group are either about to, or have just launched something very similar in the UK. It will be interesting to see how everything shakes out in this area in the next couple of years. I tend to agree with Zac in that although I think most people now ‘get’ climate change, and understand how much of what they do makes an impact, they want to be able to help themselves – and that being dictated to, ‘put on cabron diets’ or given ‘carbon allowances’ is likely to be met with much unpopularity, and perhaps even prove counter productive. That’s what struck me about being so nice about CarbonHero – I could see someone like my dad ‘getting’ it, and becoming quite obsessed with it, in a way which didn’t intrude into his life in a ‘big brother’ style, but made him think about jumping into the car to drive a mile down the road to the paper shop.

  9. says

    A lot of online carbon calculators are unfortunately not very good. I have published a peer-reviewed article in the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control evaluating the 15 most popular calculators on the internet ( My analysis documents significant shortcomings of many of the calculators. To remedy this situation, CarbonStory was created as a free calculator meeting all 13 evidence-based principles identified in the research (