The weight of emissions: how to go on a climate action diet (and have a good time while you’re at it)

by Georgia Merton - Oct 26, 2022

We sapiens are complicated creatures. We love to do things that we know aren’t good for us. Two or three or ten more Tim Tams. Another half an hour of doom scrolling. A few drinks past a hangover. Buying stuff wrapped in plastic. Just three more episodes, rendering us bleary eyed and sleep deprived all day at work. Driving five minutes when we know we could really ride our bikes.  

This phenomenon has a few names, one being the intention-action gap. It’s that gaping hole between our best, dearest intentions, and that often elusive sense of satisfaction when we actually carry them through. Officially, it occurs when one’s values, attitudes, or intentions don’t match their actions. And, alongside the way we eat (think failed New Year’s resolutions of F45 and smoothies), a pretty obvious one is climate action. We all love the planet. We don’t want it to collapse. And yet, on we go, busily consuming and emitting and heating the whole place up.  

But there is hope. While we may be complicated, we’re not beyond manipulation. As climate change consultant Carly Green points out, the right example might just be found in dieting apps. Specifically, Noom, a popular app which aims to use psychology-based methods to encourage daily behavioural changes. In fact, it’s explicitly not a ‘dieting’ app. The focus is on mindset and the emotions around food rather than banning anything, and alongside colour coding and calories budgets, the app features coaches, feedback and psychology mini-lessons.

Carly Green reckons we can approach seeking to drop our emissions in the same way we would our weight.

“I think this kind of app would be really cool for people trying to reduce their emissions,” says Green, who has a PhD in International Climate Change Policy and 20 years of experience in the space, and who, interested in Noom’s approach to the human psyche, has been doing a bit of research. Whether you’re a fan of diets is sort of beside the point - it’s whether we can learn from their hacks that matters in this case.

“We’ve been overeating for all this time, and we know we’re eating the wrong things but we still do it and that’s human nature, right?” Green says. “Noom taps into that human nature, and instead of making you feel bad about eating the wrong thing, it basically reminds you that you had another option there - one that would have resulted in a lower amount of calories taken in, or less emissions released.”

It’s essentially empowerment through education and knowledge, and while Green says she hasn’t come across an emissions app like this for individuals yet, the concept is gathering popularity. That’s probably because it has to - we’re way off hitting our global emissions targets.

“To get to 1.5℃ warming by 2100, we have to halve them, today,” says Green, who, with her consultancy company, Environmental Accounting Services, helps organisations and governments to set emissions targets and move towards them. “At the moment if New Zealand and everyone hits their pledges for their nationally determined contributions, it looks like we’ll see a 20-30 percent reduction in total global emissions and we’ll sit at 2.7℃.”

Bringing that down to what we can do now is essential. “If everyone knew what their maximum daily calorie intake, or emissions target, should be, then you could track that down to your detox level and hopefully unlike a fad diet, it sticks,” says Green. As a rough idea, she says our emissions equivalent to maximum calorie intake is about 40 percent less than what we’re emitting now. So we’ve got to halve it, stat. 

And how could this approach actually make change stick? At the end of the day, we do what we want, not what we should do. Change, then, depends on our motivation. This is something Noom taps into - influencing behaviour change through something known as ‘nudge science’. Nudging is essentially designing the choice environment to encourage certain behaviour, while, importantly, allowing a person to have freedom of choice and to feel in control of their own decisions. That means pies are not blacklisted, and you’re also given plenty of information.

Be it food or emissions, it may also be as simple as raising our awareness. Green says there’s certainly something in understanding, and in making a plan. “We definitely actively know that building calculators and getting people to understand what their emissions are and what their target is helps them to make decisions. Once they have a plan, people actually get some fulfilment from implementing it. Standing on the scales, going ‘Yes!’ And then that can cascade.”

Knowing what we’re aiming for means we can play the trade-off game, too. You know, giving the biccies at work a wide berth because you know you’re eating birthday cake tonight. Emissions-wise, biking to work for the week because you know you’re flying off somewhere next weekend. “You basically know what your max is, and how much you should be emitting each year,” says Green “So this is all I’ve got, what do I want to do with them? Do I want to eat chocolate? That’s fine, but maybe not everyday. You just choose what you want to do with your budget.”

As Green reminds us, climate action doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, it’s got to be fun so people want to join in, a point which Paul Hawken emphasised at the Wao Summit Rethink Korero on October 19. “How do we inspire people to make change? Have more fun. Better music, better dancing, better food, better parties. Seriously,” says Hawken, the author of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, and founder of non-profit Project Drawdown. “Where does change come from? It comes from people who are lit up.”

And the thing is, though our earnest individual efforts can feel wildly insignificant in the face of larger systematic inaction, Green insists that we do actually have the power to make meaningful change. “We can’t just sit around and wait for big business to step in, thinking that it’s not our fault and we don’t really have any other options,” she says. “The reality is, they respond to us. They provide the things that we’re willing to buy. So they’ll change, because we don’t want their stuff anymore.” 

It’s a point that Hawken emphasises, too, saying the tendency has been to look to national governments and international agreements for change from the top. “Then what happens is there’s a sense of disempowerment,” he says. “You do what you’re doing and you know that it’s right and ethical, but unless you have an IQ lower than room temperature, you know it’s not enough. So it creates this gap between these international and national policy initiatives, and what you can do at home.”

Where true agency lies, Hawken explains, is everything between those two. “That’s where it’s happening. It’s happening in communities, neighbourhoods, cities, companies, colleges, temples and churches and synagogues,” he says. “There are lots of policy ideas, but I don’t think we can wait for them. We can do everything we can to vote for them, but at the same time, where we can really get things done is where the things that unite us are much more important than the things that divide us.” That is, the spaces where individual motivation gathers into the swell of a collective.

An app's being developed to help outdoorsy folk figure out the carbon emissions of their next adventure.

It’s a message which is growing in volume around the world. Climate change organisation, JUMP, is a ‘joyous, people-led movement’ based on the idea that, as they state on their website, ‘Every actor has their part to play.’ Their research is showing that citizen and community action, empowered by knowledge, has a huge impact in preventing ecological breakdown. That, in fact, this kind of action can deliver over 25% of the changes needed by 2030. In other words, power to the people.

So how can one get on the emissions-calculating bandwagon? This is what Green and her team do: they create the science-based emissions versions of target diet plans, and help businesses or countries to reach them. As far as individuals go, well, watch this space. “If you want to get started with a rough estimate, you can use the personal emissions calculator on the Toitu website,” Green says. “They’ll tell you your emissions but they won’t give you a target. They won’t give you the Weight Watchers diet plan, they’ll just tell you you’re overweight.” Once you know that, she says that as a rough guide you then need to halve your intake.  

Green and her team are currently working on a piece of software pro-bono for the New Zealand Alpine Club - one which, when completed, will likely get plenty of use from folks in the Southern Lakes. “It’s allowing outdoorsy people to work out their emissions for the expeditions they’re going on, whether that’s on the weekends or bigger ones,” Green says. “Then they can compare the emissions for different trips, so they can make choices about how they get there or where they go.” That will be available for everyone to use, for free.   

They’re also busy developing a piece of software around menus, to try and help people make decisions around the food that they buy. “Restaurants can type in their recipe for their plate of food, and then you get a number or at least an understanding of which plate is going to be more.climate intensive than another one,” Green explains.  

Just like any diet can be brought to its knees by hidden baddies (sugar-loaded muesli and the like), Green says there are definitely equivalents in the emissions space. Namely, food and fibre. “So the fibre that we use in clothing is a big one, and this is where the complexity comes in,” she explains. “People think wool, for example, because it’s a natural fibre, has low emissions. But it’s twenty times more climate intensive than cotton, because it comes from livestock which emits methane, whilst cotton is a plant fibre.”

But wool has other environmental impacts, and this is where it becomes hard to look at emissions or climate impact as the only indicator. “Cotton has significantly more water and nitrification impact compared to wool,” Green says. “And of course, where was it made? Did the wool fly from here to Bangladesh and then get shipped back, or was it made here in New Zealand?” Making decisions, she says, can be a minefield of information, because it’s not just about the carbon all the time. But as better tools are developed, it certainly makes being informed and making choices easier and easier.  

The other big ticket item for change, as Hawken says, is what we eat. It’s where a lot of climate impact and personal emissions hide, and most people aren’t aware of just how much our food matters. “The impacts of our food are extraordinary. It’s so important,” he says. “Eat from your place, that connection to place and people and community is everything.”

At the end of the day, just like a diet that actually sticks, long-lasting change is not about being perfect. It is, as Green describes, about becoming more mindful of what we’re putting in our mouths - and doing to the environment. “I’m a shocking dieter,” she admits, “But I’m more conscious after that diet, that the thing that I’m doing is not right. It does influence me everyday and I do think about it.”

With that mindfulness, we can make decisions every day that decrease our emissions. And it doesn’t mean giving up everything we love - it’s just changing the way we’re thinking about them. Like travelling to meetings. And pies. “I love pies,” says Green, “But I’m not going to eat them every day.”

Read more from Wao:

The lost art of feeding ourselves

Waste not want not

Why offsetting is not the answer

We've just got to get out of the car

Degrowth: Is this where capitalism comes to die? 


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