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Carbon tracking apps and plug-ins can be most useful when they’re alerting users to actions that have a high emissions impact.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For Canadians who want to reduce their carbon footprint, there are now, as the saying goes, apps for that.

A growing number of apps, internet plug-ins and features are promising to help users track, and in some cases offset, the carbon emissions of everything from their daily commute to their travel plans and online shopping habits. Just as many people use digital tools to track their household budgets, these new tools can help them measure a different sort of cost of their consumer behaviour.

Last October, carGoogle takes into account the origin and destination cities, type of aircraft, the plane’s engine and equipment, the number and layout of seats and how many passengers, on average, take the flight.

“Very often, lower-cost flights can have a lower emissions footprint because there are more passengers on a given plane,” said James Byer, senior product manager on Google’s flight team. “It’s a wonderful outcome, because those who are trying to save money and do well by the environment can do both at the same time.”

Mr. Byers said a flight’s emissions are displayed prominently and in an accessible way – a percentage lower or higher than average for a typical route, rather than a kilogram figure.

Toronto-based Neutral, an app created by a group of Western University students, aims to make online shopping more sustainable by showing users the carbon footprint of their Amazon purchases. Cem Torun, one of Neutral’s founders, said the emissions are an estimate based on average life-cycle emissions of products and product categories.

Tree Canada launched a Google Chrome extension called Offset Mode in mid-April that calculates the carbon impact of internet habits. Users can donate to the charity’s mass seedling-planting program to offset their footprint.

Robert Henri, the charity’s director of communications and marketing, acknowledged internet browsing isn’t a major individual source of emissions and users won’t see their cost-tracker increase quickly. But at a macro level, the internet is responsible for more emissions than the aviation industry.

“It is set to increase even more because of online streaming, video calls [and] the metaverse,” Mr. Henri said. “It’s important we be aware there is an impact to what we do online.”

Germany-based Klima allows users to calculate and neutralize their carbon emissions by funding climate projects for a monthly subscription fee. The Capture App, meanwhile, uses GPS data to predict mobility-related emissions and has an auto-offset feature to make a monthly donation to carbon offsetting projects.

According to app providers, this carbon accounting does shift consumer behaviour. Mr. Byer said Google has seen a change in consumer behaviour, with more people opting to choose a lower-emitting flight, though he declined to share specific numbers.

Mr. Torun said Neutral, which has more than 1,000 users, calculated users have made different purchasing choices that have led to a reduction of 150,000 kilograms of carbon emissions. These figures are an estimate given the way Neutral calculates emissions. “We’re located within the user’s shopping experience [so] we’re able to directly impact shopping patterns,” he said.

These apps serve to illuminate a concept that can be difficult for people to grasp. According to a 2020 study from three University of British Columbia researchers, consumers struggle to understand what actions have the greatest impact toward reducing their carbon footprint.

Respondents incorrectly perceived some low-impact actions, such as recycling, to be more meaningful than taking fewer flights, using their clothes dryer less frequently and eating less meat. However, participants correctly identified switching to public transit as high-impact.

Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral fellow now at Concordia University and one of the paper’s co-authors, said this is likely due to what’s called the availability heuristic – the tendency to use information that pops readily to mind.

Mr. Wynes, whose research focuses on improving climate change communication, said carbon tracking apps and plug-ins can be most useful when they’re alerting users to actions that have a high emissions impact. Being able to view the carbon impact of booking a flight is a “great service,” he said: It helps consumers pick more efficient flights, while also incentivizing airlines to offer them.

But apps that centre on sources of emissions that make up a much smaller part of someone’s carbon footprint, such as internet browsing, could be misleading, or lead Canadians to be “penny wise and pound foolish, and focusing on those minor things too much,” he said.

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