OMGClimate: The Unconference Combining Tech and the Climate Crisis

June 10, 2019

OMGClimate was held on an afternoon in Berlin on the 25th of May. It was organised as an unconference. This means that participants determine the agenda by proposing and voting on discussion topics, and subsequently involve themselves in the facilitated discussions. As a result, attendees actively participate, and can chose to attend the topics and discussions that feel most relevant to them. Throughout the event and discussions, they may invoke the Law of Two Feet at any time they wish, and go to another session that interests them.

The event provided an opportunity to engage with the tech community and fellow Berliners on the climate crisis, to discuss ideas and broaden awareness, and get a sense of what other actions we could be taking.

The following three tracks were decided upon:
Track 1: Low-carbon travel | Green Mafia | How do you sleep at night? Coping with climate anxiety
Track 2: Tech tools for political action | Circular economies: re-use and tech | Company sustainability policy template
Track 3: Solarpunk, imagination and excitement | CO2 offsets as an API | Climate change awareness in developing countries

In this post, I will share some learnings and notes from the sessions: CO2 offsets as an API, and Company sustainability policy template.

Carbon Offsets as an API

CO2 Offsets as an API

Solarpunk, Imagination and Excitement was the first session I attended. I knew it was going to be curious and engaging, and would present me with a set of perspectives and possibilities that I possibly hadn’t considered. CO2 Offsets as an API felt like an appropriate follow-up. By contrast, it was going to be concrete and down-to-earth, and would cover things I can make use of right now. Before attending, I already had an idea of the potential actions I could take from the learnings of this session. On a personal level, I’ve already been investigating various carbon footprint calculation and offset websites recently - I’ve become uncomfortably aware that my own footprint is probably not very good. For this reason, I’ve been curious about what I could use to offset my own carbon emissions. Additionally I have been interested to see whether there are tools or visualisations, that I could include on my own personal website (such as the number flights taken this year and their associated emissions). This would be for both my own awareness, and in order to hold myself a bit more accountable. So on this note, I was curious to find out what APIs are out there, and whether there are some I could make use of! Within the group of participants of this session, the motivation for getting involved was fueled partially by technical curiosity about how such a service is implemented, but more so, by an interest in learning how to motivate people to build and use such a tool. From what I learned, both the technical and product side are rather tricky to navigate!

Notes from the Session

So, why would you want to offset carbon in the first place?

Maybe like me you’ve flown a few times this year, and wondered what impact you’ve had and whether you can retrospectively compensate for it? Or maybe you’ve built a product which incorporates travel or deliveries, and would like to provide people with the option of taking their carbon impact into account when using it?

A couple of participants in this session already had experience with building or integrating offset APIs, and were able to share some of their insights and experiences.

I ended up walking away from this session with a surprisingly long list of resources to research and read up on.

There are two elements to Carbon Offset APIs as services: firstly, the calculation of the carbon footprint itself, and secondly, providing the option of compensating for these emissions. Ideally you would have both! If not, users will find themselves in a scenario of feeling bad and being aware of their negative impact, but not knowing what to do about it.

Calculating the carbon foot requires a number of different factors to be taken into account. These factors differ depending on what is being calculated, for example for travel, things such as the mode of transport and the duration of the trip will influence the calculation. Once the carbon offset is calculated, a person may also be able to make a calculated donation (depending on whether the application provides both emission calculation and offsetting). If a donation is made, the user may be able to choose from a provided selection of projects to donate to.

What Carbon Offset APIs and tools can I use?

As mentioned previously, a number of carbon offsetting tools were discussed, such as:

  • ClimatePartner: for carbon footprint calculation and offsetting.
  • Atmosfair: a Berlin-based non-profit organisation which “actively contributes to CO₂
    mitigation by promoting, developing and financing renewable energies”. It’s suitable for both individuals and businesses to use for carbon offsetting.
  • Cloverly: API for offsetting carbon of every day activities.
  • OpenLCA: open source and free software for Sustainability and Life Cycle Assessment.
  • Tmrow: an app to calculate the impact of daily choices. Beta release expected Summer 2019.
  • CarbonKit: a tool to discover and calculate carbon emissions for a wide variety of datasets. Signup required.

Many of the services listed above are well-designed for users and businesses to offset their own CO2 emissions. However, when discussing the possibility of integrating existing APIs into a product, I was surprised to learn that even though there are a number of APIs available, a number of them are not particularly accessible to integrate with. For example, some are built to provide only a SOAP interface (yikes!) and lack documentation for users.

While the technical side is complicated, convincing people to use and promote them is even more so. Many people travel for work purposes, but often modes of transport for work can be selected on based on cost-saving. Even when cost is not the limiting factor, I was taken aback to hear that the usage of carbon offsetting tools may be rejected, because of assumed political implications or stance of adopting one.

Additional Points

There were a number of other suggested actions which cropped up in the session which I quite liked, although they weren’t directly related to offset APIs:

  • Organise a Tech Climate Hackathon - for individuals and companies to put their energies towards addressing climate-specific issues.
  • A Papers We Love-style meetup, but for climate/environment papers - Papers We Love is a community which collects and shares computer science papers, and meetups are run all over the world for this. Understanding and sharing environmental research would be a way to inform both ourselves and others.

Company Sustainability Template

Similarly to the carbon offsets session, I attended the Company Sustainability Policy Template discussion because I could come away with practical information, which is easy to share and understand. The purpose of this discussion was to develop a draft sustainability template which could be adopted (and adapted where relevant) by companies. This could set forth a culture and expectations on how a company and the individuals within it could work more sustainably. A 45 minute session wasn’t quite enough time to develop a full template (unsurprisingly!), but we did come up with a skeleton structure of what we thought could be the core topics covered by one, and in the remaining time fleshed these topics out a bit.

Possible aspects which could be covered by a company sustainability template are:

A. Travel

  • Distinguish between necessary and required travel
  • Supporting alternatives to travel e.g. video calls, remote conferences
  • Supporting more environmentally-friendly option when possible, e.g. travel by train instead of flight, when travel time is less than X hours.
  • Including carbon offsetting in costs of travel

B. Merchandise/Swag

  • Materials of production
  • Lifespan of merchandise

C. Energy consumption

D. Selection of vendors

  • Transparency on environmental factors and emissions e.g. some cloud providers give information regarding which of there regions are powered by green energy, enabling users to chose green regions to host their infrastructure.

E. Food/coffee supplies

Additionally it was also highlighted that individuals can leverage their own power to highlight the importance of sustainability, even through actions such as asking vendors or at a job interview: “what is your sustainability policy?”. By raising the question, you’re highlighting it as a meaningful issue for you. Maybe receiving that question once won’t trigger a company to take it seriously, but if they hear it enough times, maybe it will.

Concluding Thoughts

The unconference structure of the day enabled anybody to get involved and determine the structure of it. Having a number of discussion tracks and reminding attendees that they are free to leave and join discussions at any point, means that you are quite likely to find something engaging for you. It was also quite fun to see how people reacted to and bounced off each others input. For example, at the very beginning of the day when the topics were being proposed, only a handful of people initially stood up to propose a topic. However, after hearing proposals, more and more people got up to volunteer discussion topics. Eventually there were roughly 4x more proposals to vote on than it seemed like it would be to begin with. Moreover, while the purpose of the event was to facilitate discussions, it was also inclusive when attendees chose to listen more than speak (which is something I appreciated).

Regarding CO2 offset APIs, at present these tools provide a means for us to understand and mitigate our carbon impact by calculating it and donating to environmental projects. The word to remember here however is “mitigate”. Damage has already occurred or is going to occur and using these tools you can alleviate it but not undo it altogether. Particularly for travel, it’s worth considering this beforehand, and checking if there are more environmentally-friendly alternatives.