Why carbon footprint will be the KPI of the decade

If you’re interested in climate change, you’ve probably heard the term carbon footprint a hundred times. CO2 is generally portrayed as the cause of all evil, and in order to save our planet we need to drastically reduce our carbon footprint to maintain the earth's temperature below 1.5°C.

Like the transparency revolution within the food industry that took place at the beginning of the 21st century, carbon footprint may well become the new KPI (Key Performance Indicator) of the decade. Is carbon footprint the new calorie?

In the 2000s, displaying food calories on reports or packaging helped change behavior, both for customers and companies. A study showed that food’s labeling on packaging reduced fat by 10,5%, and unhealthy choices by 30%. On the company side, it motivated food companies to change their products, for instance, companies reduced harmful trans fat by 64%.

What if displaying the carbon footprint of each product we buy could have the same impact? When we know that consumer decisions drive 72% of global emissions, it gives us reasons to be hopeful.

Carbon footprint: what is it?

Before going into details, let’s do a quick recap of what carbon footprint is.

Greenhouse gases (GHG) are naturally present in the atmosphere and are essential to all life forms. They help keep our temperatures at a livable constant, trapping some of the energy from the sun inside our atmosphere. Without the greenhouse effect, the average temperature of Earth would be -18°C. There are different types of GHG, but CO2 accounts for 80% of global GHG emissions. It is mostly released by burning fossil fuels, trees, or organic waste. But as humans release more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, the carbon cycle becomes overloaded. Just recently, CO2 in the atmosphere reached levels 50% higher than the start of the Industrial Era. The second most well-known greenhouse gas is methane, which represents 16% of total GHG. Methane is mainly released through agriculture and the decomposition of landfill waste.

Because there are many different types of GHG, in order to make their effects on the environment comparable, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created the CO2e, which stands for CO2 equivalent. Put simply, CO2e gathers all greenhouse gases into one place.

Our daily choices and activities are responsible for emitting multiple types of greenhouse gases. For instance, driving a car burns fuel that releases carbon dioxide, or drinking milk or eating meat comes from cows that emit methane.

So to sum up, a carbon footprint is the total GHG emissions caused by an individual, organization or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent.

Everything starts with a carbon footprint calculation

For a long time, it was really hard to calculate a carbon footprint because we didn’t have the technology to track emissions. Carbon footprint is not a new concept, some companies started experimenting with carbon counting in 2007–2008. For instance, in 2008 the international retailer Tesco said they were going to put a carbon label on all their food. But it didn’t have the expected effect. Consumers were just confused, and at that time it was really hard to track the carbon footprint of their food products because the technology wasn’t good enough for tracking yet.

But things are changing really fast now. We have the technology to collect and assess carbon emissions, consumer’s consideration for climate change has strongly increased, and in some countries legislation is even helping. For instance in France, article 173 of “la loi de transition énergétique pour la croissance verte” requires companies of more than 500 employees to include the carbon footprint of their activities in their annual management report.

So carbon transparency is on its way.

Thanks to the rise of technology and big data, it is much easier to calculate your carbon footprint, and this market has exploded very rapidly in the recent months/years.

A lot of startups are taking advantage of this momentum and develop products to help you calculate your carbon footprint, as an individual or a company. And more than $19m has been raised by carbon tracking startups for the past three months!

So now that we can have access to the carbon footprint of almost everything, what do we do with this information?

Carbon footprint is just the first step, what matters is what you do with this information

Being aware of your carbon footprint is a great first step, but it is not enough. Once you get your carbon footprint, what do you do with that number? There is a saying that says “what gets measured gets managed”. It fits perfectly with carbon footprint, and there are currently a lot of solutions to either 1. offset it or 2. reduce it.

  1. In order to offset your carbon footprint, many solutions offer to finance carbon sequestration projects or renewable energy projects. A clutch of startups is making this offsetting really simple through software. Among them are Cloverly, Patch, Pachama, Klima, Single.earth or Carbo. They are all part of a new movement to launch services for businesses and consumers that offer ways to examine and reduce their environmental footprint.
  2. Offsetting your carbon footprint is great, but if people reduced their carbon footprint in the first place, it would be better right? There are a lot of solutions that use carbon footprint calculation in order to help people reduce it. Indeed, by knowing our carbon footprint we can then try to reduce it. And this is the case for both individuals and companies. If I know that the most important share of my carbon footprint is linked to transportation, as an individual I can try to take the bike, or as a company, I can use electric vehicles to deliver my products.

In both cases, calculating your carbon footprint is only the first step, the end goal is to help people compensate it or reduce it. So carbon footprint calculation is a great tool to foster climate action.

Here are some examples of startups we’ve met during our trip who use carbon footprint as a first step to foster climate action:

  • Klima is a rising German startup founded in 2019. Klima app allows anyone to become carbon neutral with the tap of a button. You can calculate your own carbon footprint and then offset it by supporting science-backed climate projects that remove or prevent the same emissions elsewhere. To access our full interview and analysis of this solution click here.
  • Deedster, a Swedish startup enabling the shift to sustainable living by making climate action fun through engaging technology. The first step to do that is to calculate the carbon footprint of your action, then you get “deeds” which are tips and suggestions on how to reduce your carbon footprint and introduce greener habits. Click here to learn more.
  • Ducky, a Norwegian startup using carbon footprint as a first step to help people change their behaviors. Ducky created a platform to encourage and motivate people to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon emissions footprint. Click here to learn more.

To reach its full potential, carbon footprint needs to be broadly accepted and understood

So carbon transparency is on its way, and thanks to carbon footprint calculation we now have valuable information to start climate action. This is why we believe that carbon footprint is the KPI of the decade: it is the gateway to reducing the carbon footprint of us all. As we said, what gets measured gets managed. Now that we have the tools to measure it, let’s make sure that everyone manages it! And climate education can help us just do that.

Thanks for reading!

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The Ikigaï Project is 5-month travel to find universal ways to learn about climate change and foster climate action for all!