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This Startup Wants to Tell You the Environmental Impacts of Every Choice You Make

To be able to choose a more sustainable diet and lifestyle, it’s crucial to know what the environmental impacts of your choices are. This can be difficult, as globalised supply chains mean that we often don’t see the consequences of our purchases directly.

Although many scientific studies have been done to quantify environmental impacts, the results are often buried in technical reports. Danish startup Tomorrow hopes to make it easier and more fun for you to find out how your actions affect the environment.

Making Environmental Impacts Easy to Understand

Tomorrow’s goal is “to help humanity reach a sustainable state of existence by quantifying, and making widely accessible, the impact of every choice we make”. Founder Olivier Corradi explains, “Our job is to deal with a lot of data, and to reduce the complexity lying therein in order to display, in a simple and beautiful manner, insights and ways to change your behaviour for the better”.

Bruno Lajoie, scientific expert at Tomorrow, described how the key to this is using software to automatically present the results of existing scientific studies clearly. They are initially focusing their efforts on impacts from electricity use and will move on to other areas later.

When Is Electricity Greenest?

Tomorrow has built two products so far. The first is the Electricity Map, an interactive display of the real-time carbon footprint of mains electricity supply in various countries. You can click on a country to find out how much electricity comes from coal, solar, nuclear power or other sources. You can also overlay wind and sunshine on the map to see where the most potential for renewable energy is.

Electricity map showing realtime CO2 emissions of electricity consumption

The second product is CO2 Signal, which uses machine learning on the data in Electricity Map to make forecasts for the next day. Software developers can set up smart devices to automatically collect information from CO2 Signal and use it to plan their electricity consumption based on when carbon emissions are lowest.

One pilot project based on CO2 Signal allows the energy-intensive task of heating swimming pools to be done when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Future projects might help electric vehicles plan when to charge. Using renewable energy when it is available and storing it for later (whether in a battery or as hot water) could help to smooth out the fluctuations caused by the intermittent nature of some renewable energy technologies.

Accessibility over Precision

One of the problems with current methods of calculating environmental impacts is that they often have to make assumptions to cover data gaps. This means that studies can produce different results even if they are assessing the same products.

When asked about how Tomorrow will work around this problem – to provide more accurate information to the public – Lajoie explained that accessibility of information is more important than precision. He added that, in many cases, orders of magnitude are more important than exact numbers. As an example, he described the choice between eating beef and chicken – beef often has a carbon footprint several times that of chicken.

Future Plans

Tomorrow has ambitious plans for the future. To start, the Electricity Map will be expanded globally. Eventually, Corradi and Lajoie hope to automatically infer your total personal carbon footprint. This footprint would be based on every aspect of your lifestyle, including purchases such as food and transport.

What Tomorrow isn’t doing, at least currently, is looking at impacts other than climate change. As we have seen in our post on Why Air Miles Are a Poor Measure of Sustainability, there are often tradeoffs between carbon footprint and other impacts such as water use. Could focusing only on carbon footprint do more harm than good? Lajoie agrees that this is a tough problem. He points out that lower carbon options are often beneficial in other areas, particularly if they are due to energy being saved.

It’s clear that there is a lot of opportunity in this area. More and more people want to know how to help the environment but may not have the time to wade through dense scientific reports. Just leave that to us!

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