Image by Beatrice Sala.

Busy lives can leave us with little time to trial and adopt the kinds of major lifestyle changes necessary to reduce our carbon footprints. The intangibility of how much carbon we emit on a daily basis also means that even if we want to make changes, in practice, the urgency to act isn’t always the first thing on our minds. That’s why a new host of carbon-tracking apps has emerged, promising to take some of the cognitive—and moral—load off the shoulders’ of the carbon-conscious consumer. 

Mobile apps like Almond, Capture, and North claim to measure an individual’s carbon footprint, and in some cases, provide tips for reducing environmental impact. The calculation is usually based on data inputted by the user about their diets and regular transport use. Some even offer plug-ins to other apps that track home energy usage. But there are still several carbon-intensive activities that these apps do not account for: What about time spent on electronic devices? Or where the food we consume has been imported from? What about the carbon that users might be actively preserving by recycling, composting, reusing, or thrifting?

The near-impossibility of tracking an accurate carbon footprint is a microcosm of the climate crisis itself. It’s a problem so multi-layered that trying to resolve it often leads more to inertia than action. Beyond the figure representing the carbon footprint of the user, there is very little push from these apps to drive climate-conscious activity outside of the app. However, a new wave of carbon-tracking apps are entering the market, offering to combat this inertia using both algorithmic climate data, and clever consumer psychology that drives behavior change. The apps do so by fostering agency, urgency, and personal responsibility in users, encouraging behavioral changes through subtle UX design decisions.

Many carbon-tracking apps are based around positive reinforcement. They allow users to set “savings” goals, and the user is then rewarded when the goal is met. The reward differs between trackers: Project Wren and Capture offer opportunities to donate to carbon-offsetting projects, while Almond and WorldBeing provide discounts at local businesses. This “goal and reward behavioral feedback loop” reinforces consistent and committed behavior. Speaking to Landon Brand, co-founder and CEO at Project Wren, this level of commitment is only possible when users are rewarded for easy actions. “Our users have climate anxiety but don’t always know what to do,” he says. “They care, but they are busy people.” Small actions might feel like a drop in the ocean when we consider the scale of the climate crisis, but to establish new habits, the repeatability of these actions is key. No goal must seem insurmountable. 

Reinforcing new habits happens through creating new norms in communities, whether that’s local neighborhoods, social circles, or social media communities who have been brought together through common interest. Individuals who are part of said communities often evaluate themselves and others based on adherence to these norms, a phenomenon often referred to as “social proofing.” In the context of carbon-tracking apps, social proofing is translated in two ways: the first is to encourage community-wide action by establishing new social norms, and the second is fostering a healthy, intra-community competitive spirit. For Google Chrome extension Energy Lollipop, the real-time data of the California energy grid is shown in the form of a circular icon. The color of the icon changes as the carbon emissions from the grid fluctuate throughout the day. Katie Patrick, an environmental engineer and founder of Energy Lollipop, has a vision of a future where the Energy Lollipop goes from being a simple Chrome extension to a large circular screen, propped up in local neighbourhoods to stream live energy data. 

Screenshot of Energy Lollipop app on iPhone
Screenshot of Energy Lollipop app. Image credit: Energy Lollipop

According to Patrick, social proofing works by bringing communities together. “I anticipate one in 100 people being activated [by the Lollipop], and most people might ignore it,” she says. “But everyone has to do the work to bring the number down; there is an added psychological pressure.” Currently, the Personal Energy Lollipop provides a detailed breakdown of the most energy-intensive household appliances, as well as placing households in a neighborhood on a local leaderboard. Healthy competition—for which top-performing households are rewarded with a small badge on the leaderboard—means that users are constantly encouraged to act and better their own score. The higher the score on the leaderboard, the more you have contributed to lowering carbon emissions in your local area. 

While social proofing is one way to foster responsibility for the climate on a local level, lowering carbon emissions is unlikely to be the top priority for most users. These actions need to be positively reinforced through reminders, which in the context of mobile apps, usually takes the form of push notifications. However, developers need to be strategic about the content and frequency of notifications in order to cut through and avoid information overload, according to David Andersson and Aksel Biørn-Hansen of Swedish carbon-tracking app Svalna. Although the pair have yet to implement a notifications functionality, they recognize that the app’s ability to constantly gather and refresh data in the background, to then produce live notifications, can enhance a user’s commitment to their carbon-cutting goals. Similarly, data-driven push notifications bring personalised insights and advice to individual users, and are updated as per the user’s repeated positive behaviors. 

According to Dr Yael Parag, the Vice Dean of the School of Sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya in Israel, real-time data that is constantly updated gives room to “timely and accessible advice” for a user, which in turn gives the numbers tangible and unique meaning. While meaning varies user-to-user, and certainly between geographies, Energy Lollipop uses color as a universal language to communicate meaning. The numbers attached to carbon emissions might themselves mean little to the average consumer, but Patrick represents the numbers as colors, from an urgent red to a calming blue. The meaning of these colors need little explanation to the same average consumer. On this subtle, ambient messaging, Patrick claims that “it unconsciously goes into your psyche; research shows that people will save energy even if they don’t remember seeing [a reminder]. Exposure for even a third of a second will help people to internalise the message.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution [to encouraging carbon-cutting behavior],” says Parag, “I, as a mother of three, might have more constraints than someone else.” David Andersson and Aksel Biørn-Hansen of Svalna echo the importance of customization. “There are cultural and infrastructural barriers to changing behavior; what if you don’t have enough money for certain [eco-friendly] activities?” These barriers cause inertia amongst consumers and policymakers alike, reinforcing both the difficulty of tracking carbon emissions and getting enough users engaged to make a tangible difference.   

By virtue of being technologies that you can opt into, carbon-tracking apps risk preaching to the choir, rather than targeting the apathetic or climate-denying consumer. Reframing the problem as a financial one increases its salience amongst the general consumer population, and could drive unconscious climate-friendly behavior. Parag highlights that “when you ask people what sort of [energy consumption] information they are after, they want to know how much money they could save.” Money can feel more tangible than emissions; Parag also suggests wrapping carbon information into smart homes and security offers, both of which are also more likely to be on consumers’ and households’ radars. 

However, research suggests that it’s not the climate-deniers who are necessarily the issue, but rather the supposedly climate-conscious consumers. Ian Monroe, founder of climate-tracking app Oreoco, said in an interview with Grist:

You have a lot of people who are using reusable bags and water bottles, driving a Prius, maybe eating a bit more of a veggie friendly diet. But then they’re flying to Bali or South Africa or something once a year. They end up having a larger carbon footprint than a conservative guy who drives an SUV in the suburbs of Atlanta but doesn’t fly anywhere.”

This value-action gap suggests that consumers who already believe they are “green” are less motivated to adopt further changes, because they believe they’re already doing enough. Svalna’s Andersson and Biørn-Hansen reinforce this research, finding that their users—who are on average, well-educated, middle-class, and in their thirties—are sometimes “disappointed with [Svalna] because it gives them bad results.” 

This sentiment shows just how challenging it can be to generate and communicate a more nuanced picture of an individual’s carbon footprint. Svalna integrates user-inputted data with objective data from financial transactions and government reports to generate a more balanced carbon footprint calculation.

“There is a difference between actual footprint and perceived footprint,” Biørn-Hansen says. “Cognitive dissonance means that people tend to forget or lie to themselves to produce better results.” While a mix of user-inputted data and objective data is necessary to allow for a fuller representation of a user’s carbon footprint, relying purely on real-time data outputs can be “problematic because users [do not] understand or misunderstand the connections between consumption data acquired through raw sensors and their own behavior change.”

Screenshot of Svalna's app dashboard.
Dashboard of Svalna’s app. Image credit: Svalna

Patrick’s vision to make the Energy Lollipop part of neighborhood architecture is a conscious effort to mobilize groups of people to take collective and corrective action. Both Patrick and Landon Brand, Co-Founder of Project Wren emphasize that activated communities provide leverage to spark systemic change. “If consumers care, businesses will care,” says Brand. “And we can elect officials who care about climate sustainability.”

The implausibility of both the amount and depth of data required to calculate an individual’s action carbon footprint also proves the need for top-down structural change. Parag, alongside Dr Deborah Strickland of the University of Oxford, proposed a Personal Carbon Trading policy for the UK in 2011. They envisioned a radical, data-driven overhaul of the current system, giving individuals and households carbon budgets that would be “spent” as currency. By turning carbon into a currency—complete with dedicated swipe cards— they believed consumers would become more conscious of their environmental impacts. 

The policy was considered too radical for its time, Parag says. Both the technical infrastructure and the socioeconomic impacts had to be ironed out to ensure that the policy was not unduly “punishing” those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And this issue stands true in the context of carbon-tracking mobile apps as well. Most, in their current state, fail to account for structural inequality, while pushing a green-centric narrative and rewarding green behaviour. The community focus of Energy Lollipop and the increased accuracy of Svalna’s calculations both show signs that the technology is inching in the right direction, but there’s still work to do to ensure carbon tracking personal technology is fair, equitable, and accurate for people from all backgrounds.

This story is part of an ongoing series about UX Design in partnership with Adobe XD, the collaboration platform that helps teams create designs for websites, mobile apps, and more.