The Network Effect on Carbon Footprints

carbonminderlogo.jpgLet’s face is it: Shame can be a much stronger driver of behavioral change than positive reinforcement. A mandatory note on my Facebook page that lets everyone know how much I’ve driven, or how many plane flights I’ve taken since the beginning of 2008, would be a bigger incentive for me to cut down on fossil-fuel-based transportation than some kind of prize if I succeeded in cutting down.

And I’m not alone. With our lives constantly connected through broadband and various social networks, the network effect will inevitably start to have an impact on our energy consumption and carbon footprints — and, hopefully, it’ll be a big enough movement to eventually effect global warming. This morning the New York Times’ John Tierney penned an article entitled “Are We Ready to Track Carbon Footprints?” in which he points out research that says knowing the average energy consumption and electricity bill of their neighborhood causes people to change their energy usage to fit within the average. None of us wants to stand out as that extreme energy consumer.

There’s already a growing number of companies that are using broadband and web 2.0 tools to try to find the unique combination that will have the greatest impact on our energy consumption and carbon footprint behavior. The Times article names a few that we’ve covered before — the Ambient Orb and the Wattson, which both monitor and display your home energy use.

We’ve written about startups such as Lucid Design Group, which are working on a wireless sensor and online dashboard kit that monitor energy use and display it in a software-friendly format. Check out our presentation at the South by Southwest festival for more details on networked gadgets, startups and web sites that can help.

Tierney (the writer) takes a cue from the Orb and calls for a new fad of electronic jewelry that would display our carbon footprints. And sure, we’re all for these networked objects displaying our carbon identity. But we think it’s going to be the simple, free and easy-to-use applications that can be displayed on a Facebook page, web site or social network profile that will automatically compare you to your peers that will have the biggest effect. You can choose not to participate in a jewelry-wearing campaign, but it’s harder not to participate in a free Facebook campaign if your entire network has joined.

There are Facebook applications out there working on this.One of our favorites, Carbon Minder, lets you calculate your carbon footprint and then compares it to your network’s footprints. Make it viral and easy to use, and it could reach a tipping point where you can’t not join.

When I joined Carbon Minder, I immediately noticed that my displayed footprint was bigger than the rest of Facebook’s — those flights to different conferences this year really screwed up my carbon profile. But also that my footprint was a bit smaller than my network of friends that had downloaded the application. So, yes, it actually got me thinking where I stand in relation to my peers and the bigger community. Beyond the obvious environmental impacts, as an editor of a cleantech news site, I really want my carbon identity to be a good one. And one tip for that: keep your peer network filled with carbon-offenders.
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