Carbon Hero – track your carbon footprint on your phone, no guitars in sight

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carbon-hero.jpgCarbon footprints are difficult. They’ve received a lot of attention in the press, and they’re firmly stamped (no pun intended) on the public psyche, but they’re not actually very accurate. Given the complexity of power generation in modern life, it’s something that’s incredibly difficult to calculate, and very easy to underestimate.

This device, the Carbon Hero, was designed by an art graduate named Andreas Zachariah. It tracks your phone signal, and if you’re moving at train-ish speed, on a train track, then it assumes you’re on a train, works out the distance you travel, and gives you a number for your carbon footprint. Simple, right? Well, there’s about a billion things wrong with the idea.

Firstly, your carbon footprint is only tangentially related to the amount you travel, and what medium you travel on. The biggest chunk of your personal carbon footprint, by far, is heating and cooling of the space you inhabit (source).

This is followed by stuff like water heating and lighting. Unless you’re flying long distances every week, or you’re a lorry driver, a relatively small percentage of your personal carbon footprint goes into travel. You can’t claim to work out your carbon footprint from tracking your movements.

Secondly, even if it was an accurate figure, how does it work out where you are? The designer claims there are 2 billion mobile phones in the world, but the number capable of GPS is far far fewer. Even the number of phones capable of cell-tower-triangulation is small, though cell-tower-triangulation wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a train journey and driving along a road next to a railway.

carbon-hero-2.jpgThere’s some sort of keychain object attached to the device, and this could in theory include a GPS, but the article only mentions “relative location”, and GPS defines your absolute location. A keychain GPS solution would work, but I’d be concerned about battery life over long journeys.

Lastly, let’s talk about phone reception. It can only track you if you’re connected to a network, and on two very important forms of transport, you can’t get any signal. Number one is planes – “please turn off your mobile phones”. Number two is the tube, or any train that regularly goes through places with weak signal or a tunnel. Both of those forms of transport would cause the device to lose track of you very quickly.

It seems like the device is just a gateway to trying to get you to buy expensive and inaccurate carbon credits. It’s a decent idea in theory, but the implementation is way too tricky to do right – there are far too many variables involved. I haven’t even started asking about cars with differing fuel economies, or electric trains vs diesel ones, or steam trains, for that matter.

Any figure you get out of a device like this would be wildly inaccurate. Carbon footprints are important, but they’re very very difficult to accurately track, because they depend on too many different things.

The only thing that’ll get the majority of people to emit less carbon is by making the energy alternatives cheaper and easier. Solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells, and hybrids are all steps in the right direction. Let’s not waste our time (what little we have of it) with schemes like this.

(via Y! Green Picks UK)

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Duncan Geere