Why your personal carbon footprint might be worth money someday

A marketplace for carbon consumption may finally address consumer behaviour

The most important metric of our collective existence hinges on reducing carbon emissions.

Carbon emissions due to human activity continue to change the planet’s climate, resulting in melting ice caps, rising sea levels and extreme weather. The bulk of carbon output comes from burning fuels in industry, transport and energy generation. Almost anything we do or buy has some kind of carbon balance that makes its way into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Consider this: in a single year the world emitted more than 28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the climate change-inducing gas. Sound like a lot? Well, that was back in 1800. Fast forward to 2019 and that went up more than a thousand-fold to well over 35 billion tonnes per year.

If we are to survive this century, this course must be reversed.

In the future, I predict there will be carbon trading among people to limit individual carbon excesses. Folks with carbon-intensive lifestyles may purchase unused allocations from people with fewer emissions, thereby moving back into an acceptable carbon range. Indeed, there may come a time when we are assessed as individuals against our carbon consumption.

To an extent, we are already there: it is possible to purchase carbon offsets when buying an airplane ticket, giving peace of mind that the emissions associated with your trip are offset with some tree-planting project. Then there are a number of locations – principally in Europe – that forbid the use of high-emission vehicles (not just carbon, mostly particulate matters) in city centres. In some cities an emission fee must be paid, yet many cities are entirely off-limits to older, more polluting cars. And the list goes on.

But it’s not enough.

As much as we find this transitional period painful, it is necessary to change our habits as individuals and consumers.

Much of what we do today as individuals and nations is determined by financial wealth. As folks at Sodertorn University in Stockholm demonstrated a few years ago, a growing economy leads to increasing carbon dioxide emissions. In other words: wealth means carbon-rich.

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It is necessary to change our habits as individuals and consumers

But as carbon is increasingly considered a liability, how might societies anticipate this to play out equitably?

It is not unreasonable to imagine that consumption data may one day be aggregated to calculate an individual’s carbon profile. To meet national emission targets, our individual consumption - from how we get around to the way we heat or cool our homes and the kinds of clothes and food we buy - might be monitored by algorithms that churn the data and block our credit cards as we reach our carbon allocation; or increase prices to purchase a carbon offset.

Such a solution isn’t so far-fetched, but there are major open questions: How much control might we have over how our consumption habits are measured? Could such a concept be trialled out on a voluntary basis? And how will our individual, family or community allocations be determined – and who will be in charge?

As we grapple with such a future, we need to get a number of things right to anticipate and prevent the worst fallouts.

Imagine what cybercriminals might get up to.

Hackers may dump masses of excess carbon onto our carbon accounts, and remove them only when a ransom is paid. Insurance coverage may shift to provide peace of mind in case of a dreaded carbon-cyber-hack. This would guarantee that plans we had made for a trip – saving up both money and carbon – are not derailed by a hack, and the mandatory boarding pass, health certificate and carbon balance will be safeguarded.

Data will help: optimisation, new business models and enforced limits will all play their part.

I mentioned a painful transition: at first it is imaginable that low-carbon products are costlier as the required industrial processes do not yet exist, or are just budding, to cater to mass markets. The more data there is about consumption, production and transport, the better we will be at finding solutions to fit everyone’s needs. It’s therefore also critical to ensure the algorithm-based decision-makers that are put in charge are trained to understand the diversity of countries and their people.

Yes, I am thinking of artificial intelligence. We are already beholden to algorithms that push on us all manner of hyper-individualised products and services, catering to our every whim. In future, will we take notice if algorithms nudge us to low-carbon anything in advertisement sidebars as we are inching closer to our carbon allocation?

Perhaps that’s precisely what we need: someone or something else to take a decision conveniently for us – is this not how we got into this 35bn tonne-a-year mess in the first place?

Published: July 9th 2021, 8:00 AM
Updated: July 12th 2021, 5:17 AM
Patrick Noack

Patrick Noack

Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation