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Carbon Tools Scale up for City-Wide Footprinting
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by Warren Karlenzig

While personal carbon calculators are turning into a dime-a-dozen offering across the web, the unveiling of Zerofootprint’s carbon counter at the C40 Climate Summit last week ushers in a new era of a large scale web-based data warehousing that can aggregate carbon emission information from city government, companies, universities, neighborhoods, groups or families. [Full disclosure: Zerofootprint provided offsets for the Worldchanging book tour in 2006.]

Toronto Mayor David Miller announced that his city would be using the tool, called Zerofootprint Toronto, to calculate carbon emissions for the city's 50,000 employees this July. The free tool will also be available to others in the city, so that it begins to build a “bottom-up” analysis of carbon emissions complementing the “top-down” analysis cities, counties and local government are currently engaged in with groups such as another Toronto-based non-profit, ICLEI.

The mayor said Torontoans will be able to use the Internet-based tool to calculate their own carbon footprint--which includes the amount of energy and water used, waste generated, how they get around, consumption habits and food choices. Results can then be aggregated and sliced and diced so that profiles of city, neighborhood to glean personal carbon footprints. Zerofootprint runs on a database architecture developed by billion-dollar software company Business Objects, said Zerofootprint founder and CEO Ron Dembo, so it can scale up to millions of users because of its enterprise software backend.

ICLEI, which has a membership of over 550 local governments worldwide, is also updating its limited-user circa 1990s carbon emissions software to a tool accessible on the web that can run local government carbon calculations and data reports. The international non-profit is working with Microsoft to release the software by the end of 2007, according to a Microsoft executive.

The current difference between ICLEI’s approach and Zerofootprint’s is that ICLEI takes the “top-down” method by working with government in assessing carbon emissions by sector (transportation, energy, landfills, etc.) rather than by individual sources. While top down has been up until now the most practical approach to determining overall carbon emissions in order to set greenhouse gas reduction goals for national or local government, the participation of Microsoft and Business Objects introduces what promises to be a more relevant activity-by-activity and place-by-place carbon tally.
Such advances will make it possible to get carbon emissions data in near real-time, while allowing people and organizational management to manipulate variables in order to model the impact of a lower-carbon future on budgets, operations and daily habits.
Take, for example, the carbon impacts of regularly eating beef. The Zerofootprint tool allows users to choose whether they are vegetarian, eat a mixed diet of veggies and some meat, or are heavy carnivores. Subsequent carbon emissions for each choice are modeled, though I would recommend they also model local grass-fed versus commodity corn-fed beef in the choices provided.

From those types of activity dashboards, people and organizations can make informed decisions on how to reduce their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The new carbon tool paradigm will also enable competitions among cities and whoever else wants to compete to be uber-green. But instead of merely tracking CFL lightbulb sales at Wal-Marts, these competitions might be more telling as to the true carbon impacts of people’s lives individually and collectively.

I would caution that such a tool is only as good as the data input entered in—if people enter the wrong data, or if not enough representative people of a city participate, the output can be skewed or incorrect. In Toronto, a very diverse city of 2.5 million, citizens who enter carbon-related data are more likely to be more educated, computer savvy and affluent than the average resident. And at what threshold does data become relevant and actionable—when 2 percent participate, 10 percent, or even more?

Zerofootprint plans to customize its tool for each market -- liters for Toronto, gallons for New York City, for example -- so it is “culturally sensitive,” according to Zerofootprint executive director Deborah Kaplan.

Dembo said he is in discussion with other major North American cities about using the software, and Zerofootprint has been already sold as a for-profit version to five corporations. “It just seems to be the right thing at the right time,” concludes Dembo.

Warren Karlenzig is Chief Strategy Officer at SustainLane, where he directs the company’s US city rankings, and SustainLane Government, an open-source best practices sustainability knowledgebase for state and local government officials and their constituents. Warren is lead author of the newly released How Green Is Your City? The SustainLane U.S. City Rankings (New Society Publishers). His blog is www.greenacity.com

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