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Can these apps help me cut my carbon footprint?

Words: Richard Walker

Illustrations: Yann Bastard

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I tried three different smartphone apps to help me track my impact on the planet. Here’s how I got along.

Carbon footprints are as inevitable as footprints in the snow. But is yours a dainty size 7 or that of a monstrous Yeti? Our efforts to mitigate our CO2 impact are a muddle of good intentions and wobbly knowledge. Everything we do, eat and smell has a backstory of CO2 emission so how do we untangle it into actions that slow down the problem? Smartphone apps are uniquely adept at tracking our personal behavior and so unsurprisingly there are now CO2 footprint apps galore. Navigating your way through them almost calls for another app, but since such an app does not exist, you have me instead. 

The three apps in my quest all have the same goals: to engage with me on a personal level; to educate me on the many ways I can make a difference to the climate crisis; and to help me take action. Let’s see how I get along.

carbon tracking apps

Earth Hero

How many Earth points can you earn?

The Earth Hero app, as the name implies, uses language to make me feel like an everyman champion in the fight against climate change. It’s quick to flatter me as a sensitive consumer. “There are no wrong answers”, it assures me as we dive into an initial round of questions about everything from my diet to how I travel. This results in my “emissions profile”. And it turns out, my monthly footprint (thanks mostly to flights) is 14.4 tonnes CO2 per year, compared to the average Dutch person of 10 tonnes and the global average of 5.4 tonnes. 

This is interesting because I count as good friends some burger-munching, water-wasting, recycling-renegade Americans who because they don’t fly (I don’t think they have passports) score better than me on the CO2 footprint scale. Responsible consumption takes on different complexions depending on the corner of the planet you live on. For instance, many parts of the world advise extreme care over water consumption, but not where I live in Amsterdam. My toilet has an annoying habit of “running” slightly for five minutes after flushing, but I don’t know how to fix it and I don’t want to pay a plumber who’ll just tell me to buy a whole new toilet. If I lived in Greece where fresh water is more precious I would not allow this to continue. But here it’s a tolerable black mark against my name. This seems to be true, to a degree, for all of us in regard to each of our CO2 emissions.

“If I collect enough Earth points, what do I win? A clear conscience? The Earth?”

Earth Hero suggests I try a target of cutting my emissions by 10% by October 2024, making me feel like a one-man climate conference that’s not doing quite enough. But, it reassures me, if I reduce my emissions “by at least 10% per year that will keep the planet on track to achieve zero emissions by 2050”. I think they mean if everyone else on the planet is following me. If they were I’d have about seven billion followers on Insta, a big improvement on my current 270. Next I must choose my goals from a list of charmingly presented actions – 187 of them. My first choice is an easy win: “Talk about climate”. If I do this I get 100 “Earth points”.

The “Talk about climate” action has a difficulty level of “easy”. It’s starting with the easy stuff so I gain confidence with it and myself. The use of “Earth points” seems a well intentioned idea, an attempt to lighten the heavy task of addressing this serious issue. But it also makes climate change sound like a game show. If I collect enough points what do I win? A clear conscience? The Earth? 

I talk about climate with my wife for two minutes. 100 points in the bag! Earth Hero has worked me out. The realization of this disappoints me. I’m back down to Earth, and as my wife points out, I’m not a hero.

The next “Easy” task it suggests is to join a climate action group, for which I would earn 80 points. All that banner making and waving at the weekends does not sound easy. Can’t I just talk to my wife for another 100 points?

Next is “Holiday closer to home”, which is a great idea if you live in a part of the world with reliably nice summers but I live in the cold, wet Netherlands. Holidaying closer to home means… Belgium. And for this sacrifice I only earn 60 points! I don’t get out of bed for less than 100 points. Would any hero

Disappointingly, Earth points never lead to anything. It’s a bit like getting gold star stickers at primary school. Fun at first, but you can’t eat gold star stickers, as my friend Matthew discovered.

carbon tracking apps


Retro, and not in a good way

As Friendster was to Facebook, so MyEarth is to other carbon tracking apps.

Functionality is poor (it doesn’t track my behavior) and it doesn’t know why it’s an app and not a late-1990s website. It feels like a glorified to-do list on the kitchen whiteboard. As you do the task (“flush the toilet two times less today to save seven gallons of water”) you tap to tick it off your list and the app tells you “Well done”. It feels so retro I start thinking about dusting off my VHS box sets.

Some of the actions on the list come as a surprise. “Let the dishwasher do the work instead of running a tap to wash the dishes, to save 10 gallons of water”. Who’d have guessed? And is there anyone out there who owns a dishwasher but isn’t using it?

Which begs the question: if I already qualify as good with certain eco-behaviours should I be trying to improve them even further? Or just take the win and focus on my problem areas? (I fly too much). Other actions the app suggests but I already do include: recycling cans, bottles, plastics; bring my own bag to the supermarket; travel by bike (I live in Amsterdam. Duh); park that car (I live in Amsterdam. What’s a car?)

It doesn’t mention flights at all. How can a CO2 tracking app overlook flying? 

There’s a “calculate my impact” button which I press and I’m told I’ve “saved 2lbs of carbon. Keep up the good work. You have to save 28lbs more pounds to advance to prestige levels”.

There’s a calculations page with a number of links to web articles, but I nod off to sleep.

carbon tracking apps


TikTok for climate action

For me and my Yeti-sized climate footprint, Pawprint is the app that did the best overall job of being easy to use and helping me change my behaviours sustainably. Its opening gambit for your attention takes the shape of pink info-boxes suggesting you choose a plant-based meal instead of meat, or fish, or vegetarian (to avoid eggs); avoid candles made from paraffin; invest in a purpose-driven startup; fly economy instead of premium (bigger seats take up more space); recycle soft plastic (I’ve been here before) and so on. In fact, Pawprint’s Actions menu is a TikTok infinite scroll. Endless funny videos can be addictive, but endless things you’re not currently doing to help climate change can get a little overwhelming.

Having said that, some of these actions are easy wins: “Wear an outfit you already own”. I literally do this every single day. Even on the days I buy clothes. How would you get up and wear an outfit you don’t already own?

“Perhaps the easiest win of all was earning 70 Pawpoints by not washing my hair for three days”

I choose a number of actions, which each take you to fun info-boxes and add them to my action list. One of which is “empty your inbox of unimportant emails”. (Our digital footprint makes up 4% of our carbon emissions). Deleting a few emails must be the least significant contribution anyone can make to address climate change but I think the point here is consciousness raising and forming habits. 

Your action list tells you how many times you’ve done an action, qualifying as a habit after doing it three times, and earning you Pawpoints. These you can “spend” on suggested projects like “Solar Aid, to distribute solar lights to people without electricity in Zambia”. I enjoy the specificity of this. Instead of accumulating points that are pointless, or simply reflect your goodness back at you, there are real actions happening. Pawprint even invites you to suggest actions they can take. 

Perhaps the easiest win of all was earning 70 Pawpoints by not washing my hair for three days.  Although my wife says I should go back to deleting emails.

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