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8 October 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 8:10am

Should we track our carbon use like we track our fitness?

A new wearable and app would let us measure our daily carbon use and set ourselves targets. But would anyone use it?

By Barbara Speed

Carbon isn’t sexy. We’re running out of it, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by over 140 per cent since the Industrial Revolution, but it’s remarkably difficult to get us to care. Start talking about emissions at a dinner party and faces glaze over. Share a piece about climate change on social media and there will be lots of shares, but very few clicks.

This is where Benjamin Hubert comes in. He thinks he has a solution to our carbon apathy, in the form of two of the most of-the-moment technologies around: wearables and apps. In partnership with the Carbon Trust, a body that spends most of its time advising businesses on how to cut their carbon usage, Hubert’s studio, Layer, has created Worldbeing, a bracelet and app that track individuals’ carbon usage, lets them share their results with their social networks, and hopefully incentivises them to drive down their daily result. 

“Nobody really knows what carbon is,” Hubert tells me as we perch on a few designer chairs at London’s Design Junction Festival, where he is running a Worldbeing stall. “Most people don’t actually understand how much energy their activities consume or how many raw materials we’re burning to produce certain items.” That’s why his app displays two key pieces of information on its homescreen: the proportion of your carbon target you’ve used for the day, and how many kilograms of carbon dioxide that amounts to. Hubert tells me the team debated for a long time about whether to include the kilogram figure, but decided to do so to ensure people gain a better understanding of how much a kilogram of carbon dioxide actually is.

At the moment, the app works a lot like other tracking apps, such as MyFitnessPal, only instead of entering food and exercise you enter your modes of travel, products bought and food and drink consumed. The estimates of carbon usage come from the Carbon Trust’s database, and, while not perfectly accurate, are according to Hubert “a very good estimate” – and besides, working out the exact figure for different foods or products would be prohibitively expensive. Ideally, the day-to-day logging of activities will encourage users to meet their gradually shrinking targets through lifestyle tweaks: “It’s not necessarily encouraging people to fly less if they have to fly a lot, but maybe eat less red meat.”

And as with other apps, like Nike’s running app, there’s an element of social shaming or applause, too. The app lets you share your results with your network (and, presumably, compete with them for lower goals). Hubert also plans to partner with other pro-environment companies – he suggests Brompton bikes as an example – to supply rewards to those who smash their targets. 

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So far, the app and wearable are in beta-testing mode, and Hubert won’t say how much the system would cost. It seems likely that, as with all new technology, it will start as a premium product and then gradually stick down into the mainstream. This could work in its favour: in Hubert’s view, part of Worldbeing’s appeal must be that it is attractive, something you want to be seen using. This explains the slick app design, elegant bracelet (made of recycled electrical parts, of course) and his presence at a design festival, slightly out of place next to carved furniture and elaborate wicker basket handbags. 

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Hubert imagines the app’s early adopters will be what he calls “‘green visionaries’ – people already tuned into what clothes they’re wearing, what they’re eating, where they’re shopping”. He hopes that over the next year it will become more mainstream, and acknowledges that this aim is partly why he was determined to include a wearable in the system: “we feel that for this to be relevant it has to have a component that’s part of your wardrobe, part of your expression. In the same way that fitness bands are an inward look at how you’re doing, a band is an outward look at how you’re doing. so it’s really flipping that idea that health isn’t just about you, it’s about everyone around you.”

As time goes on, the system will plug in more seamlessly with everyone’s lifestyles. It can already connect to a smart hub to estimate how much energy your home is using, and Carbon Trust may work with Google Maps to display carbon data with its route suggestions.

This integration with our increasingly tech-driven lives is what could really make the system sell to people who may not consider themselves eco-warriors, but love tracking their lifestyles and beating their own goals. Overall, Hubert’s hoping to give environmental awareness a rebrand: “We want to make sustainability sexy, so it’s no longer this tree-hugging Greenpeace sort of thing, it’s about the fact that everyone can make a difference.” 

Images courtesy of Worldbeing. Their fundraising page is here