Croton100 Carbon Tracker: Peering Behind the Curtain

By: Leo Wiegman

Or how I stopped worrying and learned to love my data!

“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” — Lord Kelvin 

 “The environment and climate change are the most critically important policy priorities we face.” — Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

The formation of Croton100 traces back to the October 2018 Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C, calling for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented measures” to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

In July 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law New York’s nation-leading carbon emissions reduction standard, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.  This historic law sets in motion the nation’s most ambitious climate plan committing New York to a path to achieve 70% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, among other goals.

In the Fall of 2019, a group of volunteers in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, began to brainstorm a large-scale, replicable software tool that would guide each household on a path to meet the IPCC and New York carbon emissions reduction goal by 2040. A group called Croton Climate Initiative (CCI) had organized a series of informative presentations and discussions on environmental topics for over 2 years.

They had been successful in urging the Village to join a community choice aggregation program to offer residents low cost 100% renewable electricity supply working with Westchester Power. CCI invited neighboring Bedford2020 to a pivotal brainstorming session at the Croton Library. Out of this was born Croton100 as a community-based not-for-profit public/private partnership with the goal of reducing emissions in Croton (zip code 10520) by 5% a year for 20 years to achieve net zero by 2040.

Right from the early days in October 2019, Croton100 volunteers began in earnest to explore how to meet New York’s new and urgent carbon reduction goals with a meaningful local effort. “We cannot reduce something we can’t measure,” was an oft-repeated refrain in those early days.

Could a questionnaire with a calculator be devised to estimate the actual carbon emissions for a household that would be reliable, replicable, and trackable? Could the tool capture the major sources of carbon emissions in a meaningful way that pointed to actionable reduction steps? Could such a tool help a household lower its emissions year after year by giving carbon a seat at the table? 

At first, the team looked at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) carbon footprint calculator and downloaded all its assumptions and calculations. This EPA tool was a good start because it permitted conversion of a gallon of gas or diesel to equivalent carbon emissions. However, the team wanted more: the ability to model all sources of carbon, the ability to provide carbon discounts for clean electricity, the ability to customize for local conditions and the ability to encourage recycling, composting, energy efficiency and diet modifications.

The team further researched Federal resources and datasets such as EPA studies on vehicle emissions, the US Energy Information Administration’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey, the US Department of Transportation study on public transportation emissions and the US Alternative Fuels Data Center for emissions savings from bio-diesel in oil furnaces. It started to look feasible to build a workbook that could use reliable conversion factors for the major sources of emissions for a household.  The emissions sources or “pillars” to be included would be: Transportation, Heating, Electricity, Food and Waste, Goods and Services, and Zip Code Overhead. Where governmental data sets were not available, the team located reliable non-governmental sources, for example, for emissions from air travel and for the impact of diet on emissions (Shoshana Daly of Croton Harmon High School helped with the latter modeling).

An important question arose: If we tell a resident that her car emits 5 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year, is that a lot? What does it even mean? How does it compare to other households?  Even if we can calculate how many tons of CO2e emissions a household produces in a year, we need a reference number to put it in context. Could we know the average emissions per household? Could we know it on both a nationwide and local basis? Such data would allow for helpful comparisons of how an individual household stacks up.

Enter the Cool Climate Project which has as its mission “to massively scale up the adoption of climate solutions,” directly matching that of the group in Croton. The Cool Climate Project was developed in 2014 by a public/private nonprofit partnership based at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Cool Climate map depicts the average annual household carbon footprint by zip code, based on similar underlying carbon sources the Croton team had been using. From the map, the per-household annual emissions in zip code 10520 was established at 52.6 tons, broken down into various “pillars!” With this exciting find, the Croton100 carbon tracker workbook could show reference numbers for all carbon emissions, making a leap in rendering carbon emissions more understandable! The Cool Climate approach allowed the Carbon Playbook, as the tool was initially called, to show how a household’s emissions compared to an average household in the same community.

The Playbook was an Excel spreadsheet into which a household entered data on transportation, heating, electricity, diet and waste to produce a carbon result in annual tons of CO2e in the form of a bar chart. Working through a set of worksheets, the team administered the Playbook to over 30 different volunteer households by sitting at their dining tables and working with them to read off values from utility bills.

Interestingly, about 100 tons of CO2e reduction has been achieved by these 30 early participants! Through this process, the playbook was continually refined to be more accurate and usable through 19 versions in the fall and early winter of 2019.  The team, which initially consisted of Chandu Visweswariah, Tim Dinger and Eliza McCarthy, was expanded to include Danny Oppenheim and the author of this piece, Leo Wiegman.

By the time the team had reached version 12, the plans evolved to create a web-based application, to be called the Carbon Tracker. The need to scale up the number of households that could access the tool required an internet-enabled application and mobile friendly user-interface.

In the meantime, Croton100 sought and achieved 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and launched a website, croton100.org.  Croton100 organized itself into numerous functional committees to focus the work effort and delegate tasks more effectively: Carbon Committee, Partnerships Committee, Communications, Governance, etc. Croton100 had chosen its name to set out the goals: 100% of the households and businesses achieving 100% net zero emissions by 2040, a simple if ambitious goal.

On February 29, 2020, Croton100 unveiled the Carbon Tracker at a well-attended launch event at the Croton-Harmon High School. The Carbon Tracker would be launched by June 2020 as a fully functional web application applicable that would work for a household in any zip code, again a simple if ambitious goal. For this, the team had to get in touch with the authors of the Cool Climate study, download the nationwide database of carbon emissions, marry the data with the EPA’s EGRID data to understand the carbon content of electricity in any zip code, and create a customized database that would be consulted by the Carbon Tracker application at run-time – quite a feat of data wrangling!

The Carbon Tracker (CT) has multiple benefits:

  1. CT helps you measure what you want to manage.
  2. CT offers a comprehensive and quantified carbon footprint calculation.
  3. CT focuses awareness on the biggest contributors of your carbon footprint.
  4. CT dispel myths about those carbon contributors.
  5. CT provides clarity about short-, medium- and long-term carbon reduction measures:
    1. Undertake immediate short-term easy and inexpensive steps.
    2. Plant seeds for medium-term steps (such as vehicle purchase, furnace replacement)
    3. Create 10-year plan to cut carbon footprint in half by 2030.
  6. CT encourages each household to create a framework for planning reductions with the “My Plan” mode for each carbon source.
  7. CT allows community-level tracking of carbon reductions, e.g., by and across zip codes.
  8. CT emphasizes that each carbon reduction step also saves money and improves health to appeal to as many motivations as possible.
  9. CT allows users to share experiences with friends and neighbors.
  10. CT encourages mass-scale, localized adoption through its unique viral license.
  11. CT offers household carbon emissions tracking for households in any zip code in the United States through use of data derived from the Cool Climate study.

Carbon Tracker asks you questions such as: How many miles do you drive and what is the fuel efficiency of your car?  How many airline flights do you take?  What fuels are used to heat your home?  How much fuel do you consume to do so?  How much electricity do you use?  Which materials do you recycle? What are the meat-eating habits of your household members? It is designed to be intuitive, graphically attractive and easy to use. Each carbon source is accompanied by tips for carbon reduction.

Each household sets up a profile in its account and can return as often as desired to update data about any of the carbon sources. The data is secure and will never be provided to a third party and will only be used in aggregated or anonymous form. 

The version targeted for release in late June 2020 will enable other nonprofits to have a customized front-end. This will allow the Carbon Tracker to launch from that organization’s website directly into the database, and enable customized logos, local carbon-reduction tips and links to local campaigns.  An organization will be able to aggregate data from all the participants that completed Carbon Trackers arriving from its website.

Even before the first production version of the software has become available, the app has caught the attention of neighboring towns (Bedford2020, Yorktown100, Sustainable Hudson Valley, Pleasantville, Sustainable Putnam) and organizations (Sustainable Westchester, NYSERDA) who are eager to license and try the software. It has also permitted “Operation Office Hours” whereby Croton100 volunteers guide groups of people through creating their own profiles and understanding their carbon impact in virtual sessions.

Including immense amount of volunteer time and donated software development resources, an advanced Carbon Tracker development tool that would have likely cost $100,000 has been developed with no out-of-pocket expense for Croton100. It is expected to serve as a lynchpin of our carbon reduction efforts far into the future.

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