Guest post — Emily Woods: OMG CLIMATE — Carbon Offset as an API
This is the second of a series of guest posts from OMG CLIMATE attendees, covering each of the nine sessions at OMG CLIMATE in Berlin on May 25th.
OMGClimate was held on an afternoon in Berlin on the 25th of May. It was organised as an unconference. This means that participants determine the agenda by proposing and voting on discussion topics, and subsequently involve themselves in the facilitated discussions. As a result, attendees actively participate and can chose the topics and discussions that feel most relevant to them. Throughout the event and discussions, they may invoke the Law of Two Feet at any time they wish, and go to another session that interests them.
This event provided an opportunity to engage with the tech community and fellow Berliners on the climate crisis, to discuss ideas and broaden awareness, and get a sense of what other actions we could be taking.
The following three tracks were decided upon:
- Track 1: Low-carbon travel | Green Mafia | How do you sleep at night? Coping with climate anxiety
- Track 2: Tech tools for political action | Circular economies: Re-use and tech | Company sustainability policy template
- Track 3: Solarpunk, imagination and excitement | CO2 Offsets as an API | Climate change awareness in developing countries
In this post, I will share some of the things I learned from the session: CO2 Offsets as an API.
CO2 Offsets as an API
Solarpunk, Imagination and Excitement was the first session I attended. I knew it was going to be curious and engaging, and would present me with a set of perspectives and possibilities that I possibly hadn’t considered. CO2 Offsets as an API felt like an appropriate follow-up. By contrast, it was going to be concrete and down-to-earth, and would cover things I can make use of right now. Before attending I already had an idea of the potential actions I could take from the learnings of this session. On a personal level, I’ve already been investigating various carbon footprint calculation and offset websites recently — I’ve become uncomfortably aware that my own footprint is probably not very good. For this reason, I’ve been curious about what I could use to offset my own carbon emissions. Additionally I have been interested to see whether there are tools or visualisations, that I could include on my own personal website (such as the number flights taken this year and their associated emissions). This would be for both my own awareness, and in order to hold myself a bit more accountable. So on this note, I was curious to find out what APIs are out there, and whether there are some I could make use of!
Within the group of participants of this session, the motivation for getting involved was fueled partially by technical curiosity about how such a service is implemented, but more so, by an interest in learning how to motivate people to build and use such a tool. From what I learned, both the technical and product side are rather tricky to navigate!
Notes from the Session
So, why would you want to offset carbon in the first place?
Maybe like me you’ve flown a few times this year, and wondered what impact you’ve had and whether you can retrospectively compensate for it? Or maybe you’ve built a product which incorporates travel or deliveries, and would like to provide people with the option of taking their carbon impact into account when using it?
A couple of participants in this session already had experience with building or integrating offset APIs, and were able to share some of their insights and experiences. I ended up walking away from this session with a surprisingly long list of resources to research and read up on.
There are two elements to Carbon Offset APIs as services: firstly, the calculation of the carbon footprint itself, and secondly, providing the option of compensating for these emissions. Ideally you would have both! If not, users will find themselves in a scenario of feeling bad and being aware of their negative impact, but not knowing what to do about it.
Calculating the carbon footprint requires a number of different factors to be taken into account. These factors differ depending on what is being calculated, for example for travel things such as the mode of transport and the duration of the trip, will influence the calculation. Once the carbon offset is calculated, a person may also be able to make a calculated donation (whether or not there is the option of doing this depends on the application). If a donation is made, the user may be able to choose from a provided selection of projects to donate to.
What Carbon Offset APIs and tools can I use?
As mentioned previously, a number of carbon offsetting tools were discussed, such as:
- ClimatePartner: for carbon footprint calculation and offsetting.
- Atmosfair: a Berlin-based non-profit organisation which “actively contributes to CO₂ mitigation by promoting, developing and financing renewable energies”. It’s suitable for both individuals and businesses to use for carbon offsetting.
- Cloverly: API for offsetting carbon of every day activities.
- OpenLCA: open source and free software for Sustainability and Life Cycle Assessment.
- Tmrow: an app to calculate the impact of daily choices. Beta release expected Summer 2019.
- CarbonKit: a tool to discover and calculate carbon emissions for a wide variety of datasets. Signup required.
Many of the services listed above are well-designed for users and businesses to offset their own CO2 emissions. However, when discussing the possibility of integrating existing APIs into a product, I was surprised to learn that even though there are a number of APIs available, a number of them are not particularly accessible to integrate with. For example, some are built to provide only a SOAP interface (yikes!) and lack documentation for users.
While the technical side is complicated, convincing people to use and promote them is even more so. Many people travel for work purposes, but often modes of transport for work can be selected on based on cost-saving. Even when cost is not the limiting factor, I was taken aback to hear that the usage of carbon offsetting tools may be rejected, because of assumed political implications or stance of adopting one.
There were a number of other suggested actions which cropped up in the session which I quite liked, but aren’t directly related to offset APIs:
- Organise a Tech Climate Hackathon — for individuals and companies to put their energies towards addressing climate-specific issues
- Papers We Love (but for climate/environmental papers) Meetup — Papers We Love is a community which collects and shares computer science papers, and meetups are run all over the world for this. Understanding and sharing environmental research would be a way to inform both ourselves and others.
CO2 offset APIs provide a means for us to understand and mitigate our carbon impact by calculating it and donating to environmental projects. The word to remember here however is “mitigate”. Damage has already occurred or is going to occur and using these tools you can alleviate it but not undo it altogether. In addition to this, carbon offset APIs also don’t account for the other emissions which may occur, other than CO2. Particularly for travel, it’s worth considering this beforehand, and checking if the trip is necessary, or and if so, whether there are more environmentally-friendly alternatives.