Climate-friendly apps help to take the guilt out of flying
A new breed of start-ups allow consumers to offset greenhouse-gas pollution though payments towards projects that absorb carbon emissions
London — Sally Rogers took public transport, bought locally grown food and looked for sustainable products out of concern for the environment in San Francisco. Then she realised all that was being undone by her need to travel.
Her solution was to subscribe to Project Wren, one of a new breed of climate-centric start-ups offering consumers a way to offset greenhouse-gas pollution. In a nod to the music and video streaming providers Spotify Technology and Netflix, they offer a web-based tool to quantify individual carbon emissions and then make regular payments into projects that will absorb those emissions.
“They’ve eliminated that feeling of hopelessness I used to get once I understood my carbon emissions,” said Rogers, founder of a marketing agency that helps join consumer brands with product influencers. “The biggest impact on my carbon footprint was my desire to visit friends and family in other parts of the world.”
The so-called climate-streaming services are capitalising on the instinct of millennials to be good to the environment and look for solutions on the internet — or their cellphones.
These companies are jumping into a $200m-a-year carbon offsetting industry that, until recently, has focused mainly on businesses instead of consumers. Established incumbents include British oil major BP and ClimateCare, a former unit of JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“There’s lot of consumer demand for affordable action on climate change that isn’t in the form of traditional political activism,” said Ben Stanfield, co-founder of start-up Project Wren. “A lot of people are frustrated with how local and national governments are dealing with the problem.”
His operations help offset pollution by planting trees that absorb carbon dioxide or by installing solar panels or handing out cleaner stoves in developing nations. The service applies those savings to the carbon emitted from everyday life including flying or driving.
Offsetting has been used for more than a decade by firms including Citigroup and UBS Group to minimise their environmental effect. JPMorgan offsets all its business air-travel, and the consulting company PwC has matched its emissions with forest protection. Virgin Atlantic Airways is among numerous airlines that has introduced carbon programmes to fund environmental projects.
Another service called Chooose charges less than $10 a month for a subscription plan that helps direct money into renewable energy projects. The Oslo-based company also provides gift cards and company-branded merchandise too (sustainable and environmentally friendly of course).
Its founder, Andreas Slettvoll, left a high-flying legal job in the Russian fossil-fuel industry to tackle climate change.
“If I had continued that for my entire life, nobody would have come to my funeral,” Slettvoll said in an interview. “Even if you live in a cave, you still have an unavoidable carbon footprint. We are actively trying to go out of business by solving this problem.”
In California, Stanfield launched Project Wren about two months ago with co-founders Mimi Tran Zambetti and Landon Brand. With a monthly subscription tailored to your carbon footprint, it already has about 500 subscribers.
For those who want to offset on the go, the OffCents mobile app can automatically detect and calculate your carbon emissions whether you are travelling by car, plane or train. Through their phones, users can then decide how much to spend on carbon credits.
“It’s an app that rewards you for avoiding and offsetting travel,” said Howard Jaslow, who started OffCents after leaving Blackstone Group about three years ago.
The offset business is still a fraction of the international carbon market, a sector valued about €144bn, according to financial data provider Refinitiv.
It is mainly dominated by the EU’s cap-and-trade system, where factories, utilities and airlines are legally required to have allowances to cover their pollution. The permits can be traded, spawning a multibillion-dollar market.
“We’ve seen these types of movements move from the niche to the mainstream,” Stanfield said. “A few years ago it was almost unheard of to be tracking your carbon or offsetting at all. We’re starting to see this stuff pop up more regularly.”
In the future, a carbon offset service may become a company perk, similar to gym memberships and health insurance.
“In five years, 10 years, it’ll be very strange if your employer isn’t offering some way to offset carbon,” Stanfield said.