This first feature in a new “On the Quad …” series by college students studying climate change and communications was written by Amelia Prior, now in her sophomore year at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. A student of writing instructor and Yale Forum regular contributor Michael Svoboda, Prior in this piece looks at carbon footprint calculators and their potential as communications tools.

Carbon calculators may offer some valuable tools for strategically communicating the nature of climate change challenges and potential practical solutions that could help promote individual actions. With complex methodologies and mathematical formulas, they can calculate an ecological footprint to measure sustainability and resource consumption on an individual, corporate, or national level.

But do they really work?

The Global Footprint Network (GFN) and Carbon Footprint are two examples of carbon calculators, both easily accessible to the public and on the first page of Google, Bing, and Yahoo search engines when the keywords “carbon footprint” are entered. Users are asked to enter similar information, but the two calculators have very different aesthetics. GFN’s calculator is much more interactive, more like a video game than a calculator, while Carbon Footprint’s is much more plain. Comparing these two calculators could reveal if an interactive, personal calculator can nudge people toward a more sustainable lifestyle. But there is a bigger question: are individual carbon calculators even effective in the first place?

The Global Footprint Network

The Global Footprint Network offers a sophisticated calculator — self-described as an “interactive, fun way for people to explore and reduce their Footprint” — that takes viewers on a journey through their everyday uses of energy. Before the questions even start, users are asked to personalize an avatar — gender, hairstyle, skin color, even clothing — to represent themselves.

Next, the selected character walks down an empty sidewalk while a developed city looms in the background. Questions about the user’s lifestyle appear in three different categories: food, home, and mobility. Cutesy, computer-generated graphics make answering the questions visually pleasing and entertaining. Eating more poultry makes a bigger chicken wing appear. This subtle humor can engage users. By answering questions about resource consumption, the test taker gradually builds a graphic city. By the end, the once-empty patch of land consists of grocery stores, trucks, cars, a house, power lines, and airplanes in the sky to visualize the individual impact.

Finally, the numerical carbon footprint is measured in “Earths.” Users are offered three suggestions of how to live an eco-friendlier lifestyle. This tool also calculates how many Earths could be spared if the user exercises these options.

Carbon Footprint

Another carbon calculator, Carbon Footprint, aims at reducing individual carbon footprints with a very different aesthetic. The white and green color scheme with simple text boxes and a few graphics is not nearly so engaging as the elaborate colors and animations of the Global Footprint Network’s calculator. Carbon Footprint divides the questions into five different categories: house, flights, car, motorbike, and bus and rail.

After users enter their information, Carbon Footprint generates an ecological footprint measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide. After comparing the individual’s footprint to the country’s average and the world target for carbon emissions, it prompts users to offset their footprint by donating to various environmental projects.


Visuals consolidate information and help translate it more effectively. Studies of general communication techniques in the media, video games, and climate change communication suggest that audience interaction and visual imagery can be persuasive in communicating the need to be sustainable. Studies of educational video games also show that actively engaging the visual literacy of gamers can help retain messages more effectively. The visuals combined with audience interaction in the Global Footprint’s calculator may help to spread awareness and make a lasting impression on the overshoot of resources we are using.

An informal experiment performed by the author confirmed this hypothesis: more time was spent on the Global Footprint Network’s calculator than Carbon Footprint’s; people were entertained and engaged by GFN’s game-like visuals. By contrast, some individuals actually asked to quit Carbon Footprint’s calculator before they were finished.

The Dangers of Fear and Guilt

Both calculators tell users if they are using far more resources than Earth can sustain. Multiple studies cite the correlation between scare tactics, guilt, and apathy. In their 2010 Environment article, “Human Identity: A Missing Link in Environmental Campaigning,” for instance, ┬áTom Crompton and Tim Kasser describe the “threats to identity and self-esteem” that can “result when people recognize their own complicity in exacerbating environmental problems.” A May 2011 article in Miller McCune also suggests that the guilt raised by high environmental footprints may be counterproductive, provoking a backlash.

Because users of carbon calculators are self-selective, this phenomenon poses an even greater danger, as individuals who search to find their carbon footprint are likely to care substantially about the environment in the first place. The concern here is that in seeing their own high ecological footprint, some may be discouraged from living a more sustainable lifestyle in the future.

Carbon calculators might work better if they create awareness without imposing guilt. People must not only become aware of their individual impact; they must feel a sense of control to change their behavior. The Global Footprint Network suggests actions users can take to lower their footprints, for instance, while also implying that reaching “one Earth” is impossible. (After all, a vegan living in a small, sustainably designed home who barely uses any form of transportation might still have a footprint of more than three Earths.) Cutting one’s footprint down to one Earth would require large-scale societal changes, but the visuals imply that the individual is fully responsible. There are concerns that arousing guilt without providing a solution to eliminate the cause of that guilt can backfire.

Alternatively, Carbon Footprint’s calculator offers an option to offset the whole footprint in one step: making a donation to an environmental project such as a reforestation program. Suggesting one easy solution may give an option to reduce guilt, but only if the audience is sufficiently engaged in the first place to spontaneously make a large donation — one that might actually have some impact — to offset their footprints.

Personal carbon calculators aim to change individual behavior and promote action against climate change, but reaching that objective can be difficult. Audience engagement techniques and visuals may be helpful for awareness and memory retention, but they do not necessarily change behaviors in a meaningful way.

In today’s world, awareness often is not enough. Many people have heard about global warming and resource depletion and may want to do something on their own to contribute to solving related challenges. Carbon calculators can be one piece of the information puzzle … but in many cases, it’s going to take many other pieces too.

Amelia Prior is an undergraduate student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., majoring in Environmental Studies and Geography. This is the first installment in a series by G.W. students who have taken an intensive writing course focusing on climate change issues under faculty member Michael Svoboda, a regular contributor to The Yale Forum.

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