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The Biggest Carbon Calculator: Measuring Emissions at the City Level
Sharon Hoyer, 10 Mar 09

516602042_758545ede9_m.jpgMeasuring our individual carbon footprint helps us see where our choices fit into the bigger picture. And, because various tools allow us to calculate our impacts at the individual level with relative accuracy, it's easy to discuss what they are and how to change them. But as we've noted before, hyper-focusing on individual responsibility in the face of climate change can be confusing … or worse.

Now, Microsoft is working on a new software tool with the goal of helping measure and understand the climate-changing impacts of entire cities. I first learned about the project in February, when business executives from a cross section of industries met in Chicago to discuss the urgency and potential economic advantages of corporate environmental responsibility. The mid-morning panel discussion deteriorated into bickering for a few moments, when one panelist reached for one of the plastic water bottles set out on the table. The chairman of Ikea’s GreenTech operations objected to the presence of plastic bottles at the event; Coca-Cola’s Senior VP of Technical Sustainability contended that the bottles weren’t necessarily problematic, contingent on a number of variables. The debate temporarily diverted attention from the panel topic, “The Sustainability Advantage: Who Will Survive and Why.”

Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist for Microsoft and one of the panelists at the discussion, believes this squabble represents a widespread problem in the dialogue about best sustainability practices.

“You can talk about how much post-consumer content is in the bottle, about whether it gets recycled. The answers are often so complicated it’s hard to know where to start. The problem,” Bernard says, “is that our debates are emotion-driven, not data-driven. How do you use software so that we can debate based on data instead of perception?”

In an effort to make these data sets both accessible and standardized at a scale beyond the individual, Microsoft is developing software to quantify extraordinarily large and complex environmental footprints. Partnering with the Clinton Foundation, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, Ascentium Corporation and the Center for Neighborhood Technology in an initiative called Project 2˚, Microsoft is developing software to track GHG emissions generated by major cities. The free web-based application will be available to the C40—a summit of the world’s 40 largest cities—as a means of sharing information online and tracking the efficacy of current programs. The idea is to standardize the language describing metropolis-scale environmental impact and facilitate discussion about best practices.

The application is similar to another release from Microsoft called the Environmental Sustainability Dashboard, which allows businesses to track resource consumption and emissions by plugging in figures from past utility bills. Applied at the city scale, the software could be a valuable tool in assessing and deconstructing the impact of massive, complex systems, and could provide insight in drafting future climate initiatives.

Sharon Hoyer is a freelance writer covering sustainability, culture and arts in Chicago. You can find more of her writings on the environment at Centerstage Chicago. You can find her in the garden or on her bike.

Photo credit: flickr/kosheahan, Creative Commons license.

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