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How gamification-based apps are aiming to reduce your carbon footprint

May 2, 2022, 3:00 PM UTC

Christian Arno traces his climate epiphany back to June 2019, when his 68-year-old father spent the night in jail.

His dad, Per Erik Bjorn Arno, had gotten involved in climate activism, eventually chaining himself to a fellow protester and blocking a road in Edinburgh. He was arrested, but he had a few words of advice for his son, then the founder of a translation tech company called Lingo24.

“Climate change is existential for humanity. You should really try and work on it,” Arno recalls. At the time, he admits he was more worried about Brexit.

Less than a year later, Arno had used that advice to launch a new startup, Pawprint. That led to an app, launched last May, which helps users track and reduce their carbon footprint through leaderboards, rewards, and a polar bear mascot called Bjorn, inspired by his dad’s middle name. 

The Edinburgh-based startup is one of a small but growing group of companies using the tools of gamification (applied to everything from meditation to learning languages) to help users understand where they are burning carbon. But now, those familiar nudges and notifications are being applied for a new purpose aligned with the state of climate emergency: They are trying to help us change our entire lives. 

A growing industry 

As pressure to reduce emissions intensifies, so-called clean tech has proved to be a growing industry for investors. From January 2021 to March of this year, 40 companies focused on climate, finance, and tech have raised $475 million, mostly in early-stage funding, according to Crunchbase. That subset includes startups focused on “carbon accounting,” which tracks how much carbon a person, operation, or company emits and is crucial for businesses figuring out how to lower their carbon footprint. Companies that make apps using gamification to spur behavioral change, however, are still a small group, including Pawprint, Oakland-based Joro, Paris-based Greenly, Berlin-based Klima, and the nonprofit Earth Hero. Collectively, those startups (not including Earth Hero) have raised roughly $47 million since 2018. 

Some of those apps, including Pawprint’s, have focused on developing a user base largely through catering to businesses and their employees. Forty companies now offer the Pawprint app to staff, including BNP Paribas, IT consulting company CGI, and British smoothie company Innocent Drinks. The app currently has 20,000 users, says Arno. A free consumer version is also available.

Since launching in May 2021, the startup has raised more than £3 million ($3.8 million) from crowdfunding as well as backers including the cofounder of travel search engine Skyscanner and the CEO of Aberdeen Asset Management, now known as “abrdn.” It now has nearly £350,000 ($440,000) in annual recurring revenue, a common measure for subscription services.

At many companies, Pawprint is a perk offered to climate-conscious employees, particularly in fields where concern for the environment is high and the battle for talent is fierce, Arno notes. 

But other organizations do see their employees’ carbon footprints as one part of their own commitment to hit net-zero emissions by 2050, he adds, especially in the age of working from home, when company emissions have in some cases been transferred from the office tower to the home office. When announcing their partnerships with the app, companies such as CGI and Tesco Bank have typically cited their broader environmental goals, including emissions cuts, alongside efforts to engage employees in lowering waste and energy use. Others, like Innocent Drinks—which is owned by Coca-Cola—have closely tied their company brand to sustainability. 

But not all the apps are focused directly on employers. Many are targeted to concerned individuals, such as Joro, an app that uses real-time financial data to track and understand users’ emissions and give them nudges to change their behavior. 

Founder and CEO Sanchali Pal tracked her carbon footprint painstakingly over six years in an Excel spreadsheet, gradually reducing it by 30%, before launching the app in 2020. The startup has raised $3.5 million in funding over two rounds led by Sequoia Capital in September 2019 and December 2020, with backers including the founders of Headspace and Fitbit as well as the maker of Candy Crush. The app is free, while Joro takes a 17% cut of the small group of carbon offsets it offers and monitors. The price of those offsets is linked to users’ carbon footprints, declining as their footprints diminish and operating as a reward, Pal says. 

Can a nudge change your habits? 

What the apps have in common is using “gamification”—techniques to encourage engagement and repeated play in video games—to nudge users to make concrete lifestyle changes. 

There is plenty of evidence that gamification—in its most old-school form simply the competitions and flash cards you used at school—can help us learn. What’s less clear is whether it can really change our behavior and then ensure those new habits stick, whether it’s eating less meat or shifting the way we commute to work or school. 

In a paper published last May in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison reviewed studies conducted over the past five years that assessed gamification in 24 sustainability-based apps and board games. One conclusion may not surprise you—the games that were actually fun were more likely to work—but it also wasn’t clear how effective the tools were in changing our behavior, especially long term. 

“Basically, we can increase people’s knowledge about sustainability,” says Benjamin Douglas, a Ph.D. student in the department of psychology and the lead author on the paper. “Or we can even get them to know what behaviors they should and shouldn’t adopt, but it doesn’t actually mean they will adopt them.” When it comes to making permanent changes, he says, “guilt is not the goal.” 

But founders of apps that use gamification to track and encourage shifts in behavior say that there is already evidence the tools can inspire some changes. 

Users of Pawprint have lowered their carbon footprints by 150 kilograms on average over the past 12 months, the company said, including months when the app was still in testing stage. Meanwhile Joro users lowered their carbon footprints by 21% on average in the first year of using the platform, says Pal. To her surprise, she says users who purchased carbon offsets through the app reduced their footprints by an additional 6% above the average, based on behavioral change alone, likely because the price goes down in line with users’ emissions.

Personal versus structural 

Still, many climate experts say focusing exclusively on personal carbon footprints rather than on structural, society-wide shifts can be counterproductive, and even delay climate progress. 

The idea that climate change is caused exclusively by individual demand and personal choices is a common theme in arguments that downplay climate action, despite the fact that even personal shifts in consumption often require huge structural changes in the makeup of our energy grids and transit options. The same can be said of arguments around climate “purity” that contend if someone flies or eats meat they don’t seriously care about climate change. 

But most credible sources, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), argue that behavioral shifts conducted en masse are a crucial piece of the effort required to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees this century. The IPCC’s Working Group III report noted that such shifts, along with policy changes and sociocultural shifts, can have a rapid impact on global emissions in the short term, and form a crucial part of cutting emissions by 2050. 

These shifts include everything from eating less meat, to flying less, to driving an EV. And because affluent people living in developed countries tend to have disproportionately large per capita emissions, changes in their lifestyles can be particularly significant. 

There’s also a symbolic value to showing that you care about the emissions connected to your everyday choices, argues Arno. 

“Obviously, if you look at it purely from a numbers basis, the system changes are more important,” he says. “But what’s going to lead to that is incontrovertible evidence that lots of people care [about climate change].”

In most cases, encouraging behavioral change isn’t about providing hyper-accuracy, Pal notes, but rather comparative choices. 

“Our goal is to be accurate enough to inform decision-making. So we want people to understand the relative impact of their choices so that they can focus on the choices that matter most,” says Pal. “We want people to focus on buying chicken over beef, not which brand of beef to buy.”

That doesn’t mean making those shifts is easy. While writing this story, I tried out Pawprint and Earth Hero (Joro is not yet available in the U.K., where I live), using the apps to assess my emissions and log individual choices or swaps that I made. 

While the assessments of the size of my carbon footprint varied from app to app, the largest source of my personal emissions was clear: too much flying. In particular, the two transatlantic flights a year back to western Canada, where I grew up. I was often frustrated by how little my other choices like eating less meat or walking to do errands seemed to matter in comparison. And frequently, I couldn’t find information or data on behavior I wanted to change: Was the train I was taking electric or diesel? What happens when my “green” electricity provider goes bust?

I asked Pal about my predicament, and she encouraged me to start with whatever I could actually change and work from there.

Ultimately, Pal notes, the real barrier comes from the fact that simply not knowing anything about your carbon footprint, “and feeling like you’d rather not,” is still the status quo. 

“It’s like if you didn’t have to know your calories, and all of a sudden someone was like, ‘Now I’m going to tell you how many calories you’re eating,’” she says. But despite this resistance, knowing your carbon footprint allows you to feel like there are steps you can take to lower it, she argues.

“We’re trying to frame it in terms of, like, this is happening anyways,” she says. “And you might as well be in control of it.” 

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.