Canadians worried about their carbon footprint now have access to a new app that tracks and helps reduce how much carbon dioxide they emit as they go about their day.
Developed by a Canadian tech company for the national non-profit Tree Canada, the free “Carbon Tracker app” allows Canadians to break down the environmental footprint of things like a daily commute, diet choices, energy use, and air travel.
“People sometimes need help to know where to start to make changes,” said Robert Henri, spokesperson for Tree Canada.
“The app is meant to give you some actual data to help you make more enlightened decisions.”
When you first download the app, Henri says it will offer you a questionnaire that will allow you to input how you get around and what kind of heating your home has, among other categories.
You can either manually input or turn on tracking so the app records your trips throughout the day. At night, you can then tag your trips with the kind of transportation you used. The app then calculates a net carbon output for the day, which you can compare with the Canadian average.
“There are many ways to address climate change. We’re trying to do it in a very positive way,” Henri said.
More than one way to calculate a carbon footprint
There are many ways to calculate an individual’s carbon footprint. Some take Canada's total carbon greenhouse gas output and divide it by its 40 million-plus population. That method would mean Canadians produced 14.2 tonnes of carbon-equivalent emissions in 2020 — placing Canada among the highest per capita emitters in the Western world, only surpassed by the United States and Australia.
Some critics say carving up Canada's emissions into 40 million pieces can blind people to the role of the oil and gas industry, which produced 28 per cent of the country’s carbon pollution in 2021 (the most of any sector).
At over a quarter of Canada's emissions, the fossil fuel industry is the country's largest single contributor of atmospheric carbon.
Another way to look at one’s carbon footprint is through actual lifestyle emissions. An October 2021 study from the Hot or Cool Institute found that of the 10 countries surveyed Canada had the biggest lifestyle carbon footprint of any country studied (other slightly higher emitters, like Australia and the United States, were not included).
Canadians, found the study, need to reduce their personal emissions by 82 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030 if they want to do their part to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 C — the threshold scientists say will lead to catastrophic damage to the world climate system.
Avoiding fossil-fuel powered travel — like international flights and gas-powered vehicles — is among the biggest changes one can make, found the study.
If you can't get rid of a car and can't find or afford an EV, the next best thing is to switch from an SUV or pickup truck to the most efficient car you can find. Alternatively, finds the Hot or Cool report, you could drop your travel by about 6,900 kilometres per year to meet the 2030 target.
Housing and the energy to heat and cool a living space was the next big source of individual Canadian emissions, though it varies by province depending on the source of energy utilities rely on.
Reducing meat and cheese consumption, followed by eliminating regular purchase of clothes from fast-fashion brands and adjusting leisure activities were found to be the next largest sources of emissions for the average Canadian.
Meant to stimulate self-reflection, not guilt
The Tree Canada app, available for both iOS and Google platforms, says it helps to quantify those choices, and includes tips to reduce individual carbon output and leaderboards to offer a sense of “friendly competition” with friends, colleagues or strangers.
“It’s very flexible for different kinds of lifestyles,” Henri said.
The app also calculates how many trees would need to be planted to help offset your emissions. If desired, users can donate money to plant trees in urban areas or those hit by wildfire, while indirectly offsetting their emissions.
Some experts say taking action on one’s carbon footprint should not be seen in isolation. Studies from Canadian climate researcher Seth Wynes suggest climate change is as much a collective action problem as it is an individual challenge.
Volunteering, protesting and convincing friends, colleagues, influential business people or politicians to take action can have a much larger impact than one person’s daily lifestyle choices, Wynes says.
Voting appears to have an outsized impact on any lifestyle changes you could make to lower your carbon footprint. And once in office, holding politicians' feet to fire using analog communications such as hand-written letters or face-to-face meetings have proven to be most effective.
Henri said the app is not meant to replace political action or volunteerism. Rather, he said he hopes it's a fun way for people to reflect on their lives.
“The point is not to guilt anyone," he said. “It’s to encourage people to think about this on a more regular basis.”