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Brian Alderman, IvyCo Founder/CEO

July 27, 2021

Climate Change: there’s an app for that! Recently, personal climate apps that promise to help you fight climate change have been appearing - but not all of them are created equally. What should you look for when picking an app to use, and do they really help combat climate change? There are three key things to look for.

First, the app should contextualize your choices and how they relate to climate change. In particular, the app should be relevant to your life, not to some imaginary average American. The climate impact of a family of four is vastly different from the climate impact of a couple. The amount you travel for work or to see family changes your climate impact, as does your particular diet. The choices you make in your life are most relevant to you, and we’ll each make different decisions based on what is important to us.

One way apps help contextualize your choices is through securely connecting to your bank account to analyze your spending. This is a great way to understand your climate impact, since 60% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by household spending. However, beware of apps that calculate a Carbon Footprint! Carbon Footprints from these apps are extremely limited in accuracy, are usually the result of black box or self-described machine learning models, and are expressed in hard-to-picture pounds of CO2. The absolute amount of your Carbon Footprint is less important than understanding which parts of your spending have the biggest impact. Plus, worrying about your Carbon Footprint plays into the hands of fossil fuel lobbyists who popularized the concept in the first place. Instead, look for apps that highlight the most impactful areas of your spending rather than focusing on some absolute footprint.

Second, acknowledging and understanding the role of individuals in the fight against climate change is critical. Apps that promote shrinking your Carbon Footprint generally miss the point. To paraphrase climate scientist Jonathan Foley, the role of an individual is not to reduce your own personal footprint or reduce your own guilt - it’s about sending a signal for your expectations of the world. Companies and governments respond to the behavior of their customers and citizens. Your most powerful tool in fighting climate change is the power you have as a consumer to signal your preferences, especially when doing so alongside your fellow citizens. By recognizing the areas of spending where you have the greatest climate impact, then hesitating just a bit before consuming more in those areas, you demonstrate your priorities. Repeated over and over, this pattern becomes a trend which will drive change. Beware of apps that focus on shrinking your footprint - they miss the point.

Third, avoid apps that sell you carbon offsets. Instead, find apps that support carbon sinks and fund climate activists working to change policy. The problems of offsets have been well discussed elsewhere. Climate scientist Dr. Jonathan Foley summarizes this well, "If your bathtub is overflowing, you really need to turn off the faucet -- not just look for a bigger mop."

The primary goal right now is eliminating emissions as quickly as possible. Individuals don’t emit enough to make a dent in this goal, and with some rare and small scale exceptions carbon offsets also do not eliminate emissions so they do not help achieve this goal. A secondary goal is to protect the important carbon sinks that already eliminate and retain existing emissions. We have to make sure that the bathtub doesn’t shrink while we work to shut off the faucet. That means that investing in projects that ensure existing forests around the world remain protected or that promote climate-improved farming practices are good investments for the climate regardless of the tons of carbon they “offset”. On this goal, individuals can help by funding critical projects that are often overlooked by the companies that buy carbon offsets.

Example screenshot of IvyCo's Carbon Intensity is an example of a personal climate app that’s designed to get these three things right. Instead of a Carbon Footprint, IvyCo calculates your Carbon Intensity. Carbon Intensity is explicitly not a Footprint - instead, it's a number to compare your spending to itself which reduces some of the accuracy problems in surprisingly simple ways. For instance, instead of trying to compare vegetarians to meat eaters, IvyCo’s Carbon Intensity compares your personal diet to itself over time and helps you understand the impact of the food you eat against your travel or clothing purchases. Comparing choices in your own life helps you see the climate friendly changes you can make that are most suited to your lifestyle and properties.

IvyCo’s Carbon Intensity is also designed to focus you on the biggest areas of impact, not on getting to zero. Your goal when using IvyCo is to keep your Carbon Intensity steady over time, and make little changes that help the economic system change around us and become more sustainable. IvyCo also doesn’t sell you carbon offsets - instead, through rounding up your spare change, you fund protecting our American forests and climate activism nonprofits. So far, IvyCo users have raised over $1,000 for decarbonization.

The climate crisis presents a massive challenge to humanity, and moving to a more sustainable economy will require changes from all those who participate: companies, governments and individuals. There are many apps offering personal climate apps, but not all of them understand and incorporate the role of the individual in combating climate change. Keep an eye out for apps that provide the appropriate context for your choices, recognition of the role of the individual, and solutions that don’t involve offsetting.

A longer, more detailed version of this post appears here.

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