Andreas Birnik: World Under Water by Carbon Story

Singapore based carbon offsetting start-up named CarbonStory is getting widespread global attention with its innovative website called WorldUnderWater.org for hacking (legally of course) Google Maps to show how your home or office would look like underwater when sea levels rise (Just key in your postal code on the portal here.) Apart from causing ripples on international media, it is spreading awareness and education about the issue of climate change. Bhavani Prakash of Green Collar Asia finds out the story behind CarbonStory from Andreas Birnik, its founder. 

GCA: What is CarbonStory about?

Andreas BirnikAndreas Birnik: CarbonStory is a crowd-funding platform for climate change projects. Users can neutralize their carbon footprints by sponsoring certified green projects that have been carefully selected by the CarbonStory team. Most people are surprised at how affordable it is to become carbon neutral; users typically only need to spend the equivalent cost of buying a few Starbucks coffees per month to support projects that generate renewable energy, protects rainforests, captures greenhouse gases or improves energy efficiency.


GCA: What inspired you to start CarbonStory?

Andreas Birnik: The idea for CarbonStory originated in 2011 when I was teaching sustainability at the National University of Singapore. When teaching the science base around climate change, I felt that something more was needed to capture both the hearts and minds of students. I started brainstorming this together with two very creative former colleagues, Olof Lundström and Victor Cruzate, and CarbonStory is the product of this collaboration. We wanted to make a real impact towards fighting climate change by leveraging the full power of storytelling, gamification and social media to provide an engaging user experience. We were frustrated by how boring much of the information about climate change was and how difficult it was for ordinary people to take action. Through CarbonStory we seek to change this by providing an engaging user experience for a contemporary, social media savvy generation.

We brought in Carola Gerlach on design and Tian Meng on software development. Three NUS School of Computing students supported us with software development and two NUS undergraduate business school consulting teams conducted market research, carried out testing and came up with great improvement ideas. We also received support from the NUS Enterprise Incubator.

GCA:  What is your latest campaign “World Under Water” about?

MBS under waterAndreas Birnik: We soft-launched the World Under Water campaign on 28th April 2014 to raise awareness about climate change. The theme of the campaign is inspired by the UN’s World Environmental Day on 5 June 2014 with the current theme of “Raise your voice, not the sea level”. To create the campaign, we worked together with a great team at BBDO and Proximity Singapore. As a volunteer driven social enterprise we could not have done this without their help. The World Under Water site leverages the full power of Web GL to overlay Google Streetview images with severe flooding. The site lets the viewer explore famous landmarks around the world or alternatively to type in any address they wish and view the result as long as Google Streetview is available.

The campaign went viral within a day of launch with significant coverage including by CNN, Huffington Post, Fast Company, Sky News, Wired, Mashable, Weather Channel, Gizmodo, CNET and Business Insider. Several celebrities including leading climate change activists, politicians and UN employees generated significant buzz for the campaign.

As of 15 May 2014, 201 million people had tried the World Under Water site or seen the media coverage; this is not bad for a Singapore-based social enterprise.

GCA:  What action do you expect from it?

Andreas Birnik: Our primary objective is to raise raise awareness about the threats of climate change. We believe that the campaign “packs a punch” through the emotional impact people get when they view famous landmarks or their own neighbourhoods under water. Beyond this, we are hoping that people will use CarbonStory’s carbon footprint calculator to figure out their own carbon footprint and start thinking about what they can do to reduce it. As the final step, we encourage people to offset those emissions that they cannot reduce. Most people find it difficult to reduce their carbon footprints by more than 10-20% so we offer a solution to compensate for the rest of the climate impact they create. As an example, a single return-trip from Singapore to San Francisco in economy class corresponds to the greenhouse gas emissions of over 600,000 supermarket plastic bags. So if you do fly once in a while, it will be next to impossible for you to save your way out of the climate impact of your lifestyle. That’s where CarbonStory comes into the picture. We are sort of like the modern day garbage man taking care of your greenhouse gas emissions to help you clean up your climate impact.

GCA:  How is CarbonStory different from other offset sites?

Andreas Birnik: CarbonStory is different in 5 important ways. First, we offer some of the lowest prices available for carbon offsets. We encourage users to look around to verify this claim. Both for-profits and non-profits alike usually have hefty margins that we have taken away in order for the money to go to the projects rather than to overhead or profits. Second, we provide complete transparency about the offsets purchased by our members and retirements done in official registry accounts; this is usually missing from competing sites – or the information is presented in a complex, non-transparent way. Third, we provide all users with a personal account tracking their emissions versus their offsets. This includes a world map showing all the projects they have sponsored. Users can choose to make their profile public or private. Fourth, CarbonStory provides an interconnected experience. Users can encourage others to go carbon neutral, they can join or create teams, they can post information about projects they like or sponsor on Facebook, they can see other users sponsoring projects and they can compete on various leaderboards. This is a different take compared to what other offset sites do. Fifth, we believe we have the best carbon footprint calculator the on the web. The methodology is based on research carried out at Harvard University by CarbonStory’s co-founder Andreas Birnik. The research has undergone rigorous peer-review and is published in the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Reviews.

GCA: Why did you decide to launch your public beta at SXSW?

Andreas Birnik: SXSW Interactive is probably the coolest tech event in the world. Companies like Twitter and FourSquare have had their breakthroughs at SXSW. While CarbonStory is a social enterprise focused on climate change impact, we have focused from the beginning on building a culture more similar to a Silicon Valley tech startup than a traditional NGO. We aspire to all the buzz words of such companies including being fast-moving, lean, flat, meritocratic and born global. We look up to successful companies in the internet sector and believe that the new generation of social enterprises, like CarbonStory, can learn a lot from them.

We are very grateful for support from the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore to launch at SXW. IDA selected a number of companies to represent Singapore at SXSW as part of the Singapore Alley. We were delighted that CarbonStory was chosen for this.

GCA: You also spent some of your time in Silicon Valley. Can you tell us more about that?

Andreas Birnik: CarbonStory also took part in IDA’s iStart@Silicon Valley program. IDA selected 10 promising Singapore based technology companies for an acceleration program in Silicon Valley and we are the only social enterprise and the only company focused on sustainability to take part in this program. IDA has engaged three Silicon Valley based accelerators (Plug & Play Tech Center, US Market Access Center and Guidewire Labs) to develop an intensive program covering fund raising, networking, product development, user experience, legal, tax and accounting issues from operating in the US, and case studies from a number of companies. In how many countries around the world does the government provide this kind of support to local startups? We are thrilled to take part in the iStart@SV program.

 GCA: How many tonnes of CO2 have you offset so far and what is your objective?

Andreas Birnik: As of 15 May 2014, our members have collectively offset 1,666 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This corresponds to removing the equivalent emissions of 167 million plastic bags. This number is still very modest and we hope that more users will get to know us and start supporting the projects we feature. We cannot fight climate change alone so we need your support to make a meaningful impact towards climate change mitigation.

GCA: Where do you want to take CarbonStory?

Andreas Birnik: We have a simple ambition with CarbonStory – to create a movement that generates substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. We have started with what we call our crowd funded consumer model. Going forward we hope to make this a success which will allow us to start exploring new interesting concepts around employee engagement and brand engagement.

Further information on Carbon Story’s Carbon Calculator Methodology and Carbon Offsetting in general: 

by Andreas Birnik

The methodology behind the calculator was developed as my final project during my Master’s studies in Sustainability & Environmental Management at Harvard. I was frustrated by how various calculators could produce vastly different results and I wanted to do something to help clean up the act.

I started the research project by conducting a systematic literature review of both the academic and the industry literatures on carbon footprinting and sustainable consumption. This resulted in the 13 calculation principles used in CarbonStory shown here.

These calculation principles were vetted for relevance and comprehensiveness by a panel of Harvard professors before I proceeded to the next phase of the study. For this, I selected the 15 most popular carbon calculators on the Internet based on conducting a Google links count. Next, I scored the calculators against the 13 calculation principles to come up with an assessment. The strongest calculator met 10 out of the principles while the weakest calculator only met 2 principles. The most popular calculator met 5 of the 13 principles. This research has been turned into a paper that I seek to get published in an academic journal. I also hope to leverage the research to drive increased standardization of the way personal/household carbon footprints are calculated. The 13 calculation principles were used to design CarbonStory’s calculator so we feel that our approach is fairly solid.

Could we have gone into even greater detail? Of course. But there has to be a tradeoff in terms of the amount of detail as there is a limit to the amount of time that most people are willing to spend on personalizing their carbon footprint calculation.

How CarbonStory decides on projects to include:

We do our best to find good projects as this is a key feature of CarbonStory. We focus on four areas at present: renewable energy, reforestation, carbon capture and energy efficiency. We work directly with a number of project developers and we also source credits on electronic marketplaces. Our small size is something of a limit as we do not source the same quantities as major companies including Google, HSBC, Marks & Spencer, Aviva, Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser, Barclays, Standard Chartered and SAP. However, a number of project developers are enthusiastic about CarbonStory so we have still been able to build a good portfolio of projects.

We have included a wide variety of projects with both for-profit and not-for-profit project developers. We focus on projects that generate real impact rather than on the form of the company developing the project. In addition, we want the projects to be as rich as possible in content in order to appeal to our users. This can include having good photos and videos.

Before sourcing from a project, we review the official registry documentation as well as Google each project and look at the first 10 pages of content to try and catch any controversial projects. We also look for rejections by the UN Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism and comments done by the watchdog Carbon Market Watch. This process isn’t perfect and we might find in the future that some projects have misrepresented themselves. However, we do our best to find solid projects.

How users know that the projects are for real:

We provide full transparency regarding all projects listed on CarbonStory. This includes providing information about the project developer, linking to the developer’s web site (if any) and providing access to official registry documents including the project description document, verification and validation documents. We only work with projects that have been third party audited with a major carbon standard such as Gold Standard, VCS or Plan Vivo.

How users be sure that credits are really retired and not just sold over and over again:

This is good point. When someone offsets their greenhouse gas emissions, the offset provider should retire the credits in official registry accounts (e.g. Markit, APX, Gold Standard). By doing this, the credits are removed from the market forever so that they cannot be resold. But since carbon offsets are digital goods, this opens up the possibility that some providers might sell the same credits to more than one user. At CarbonStory we provide complete transparency with direct links to the relevant registries where users can verify that the credits have been retired in official accounts. Our transparency section is here with the links for your verification.

Whether the money paid by users really go to the projects or does it end up with greedy middlemen:

In many cases we source the projects directly from project developers. In those circumstances we know that money flows directly to the projects. In some cases we purchase credits on market places. In the latter case, the transaction fees are usually limited to a few percentage points each for the buyer and seller so not as high margins as some think.

As a more general point, we think it is important to remember that this is not charity in a conventional sense. Instead users support projects through the purchase of carbon credits. They do this to minimize the negative climate change impact of their own lifestyles. So it is sort of a voluntary tax to compensate for what economists would call the negative externalities of our lifestyles. Each credit from a project represents a third party audited reduction in greenhouse gases of 1 ton of carbon dioxide equivalents. So when you sponsor a project, you have a very tangible measure in terms of the environmental impact made. This is actually much more transparent than most charity contributions or crowd funding initiatives. In addition, many of the projects bring social co-benefits supporting the local communities.

From our perspective, users should focus on the audited impact generated by the projects rather than on whether the project developer is for-profit or not-for-profit. It is also less relevant what percentage of the money that flows to the actual project. Some NGOs may claim that a very high percentage of the money goes to the project. But in some cases this includes in-country organizations heavily staffed with expensive expatriates. It makes the NGOs look good but sponsors are not necessarily making the most environmental or social impact by going with such projects. Lean projects, run by for-profit developing country entrepreneurs, may actually offer greater environmental and social impact at a lower cost. So we think that users should look at the project impact as the key yardstick. We also encourage users to shop around on other sites to see what is on offer rather than simply trust non-profits claiming that a high percentage goes to the projects. I know that the latter sounds good and assuring but it is unfortunately a much too simplistic view of how the world works as it often hides high cost structures within the projects themselves.

Overcoming the skepticism to carbon offsets:

There is indeed a great deal of skepticism and some have even compared carbon offsets to the sale of indulgencies by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. We think this comparison is false and misleading and we feel that carbon offsets have received an unfair amount of criticism for a number of reasons.

First, the money flows to support worthwhile projects in areas such as renewable energy, reforestation, carbon capture and energy efficiency. This is quite different to money flowing to support the extravaganza of Popes, bishops and priests during the Middle Ages.

Second, we view CarbonStory as an educational journey where users learn about their carbon footprints and become increasingly engaged with taking personal action against climate change. We maintain a vibrant community on Facebook  where we educate users about climate change topics including the carbon footprints of many products and services to help guide consumption choices. Offsets play a key part as users soon learn that even after having adjusted their lifestyles they are always left with a quite significant carbon footprint and carbon offsets represent the only realistic way to mitigate the negative impact of these emissions. As a comparison, many people are used to paying charges to their municipality for household garbage collection. Sponsoring climate change projects through the purchase of offsets is quite similar to this – you pay a small charge to clean up the environmental impact of your lifestyle.

Third, carbon offsets is a mechanism that works already today. So users do not need to wait for politicians to get their act together or for corporations to do things. Instead, they can support worthwhile climate change projects already today.

The state of the carbon markets: 

The key reason is the absence of a comprehensive global climate change agreement that establishes baselines for different countries and mandates emission reductions. If we had that, the carbon market would be prospering. Instead we have a patchwork of markets. We have the Kyoto protocol which only has a limited scope. Developing countries are not covered at all despite the CO2 emissions of China alone being higher than the combined emissions of the US and the 27 EU members states (Reference here). The United States signed the Kyoto Protocol but never ratified it so the US is not included. In 2011, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol to avoid penalties for non-compliance. We have also seen various problems with the European Union Emission Trading Scheme. New regional markets are popping up in Australia, California and in Quebec but the impact so far has been fairly modest.

At the same time, the case for companies to offset their emissions on a voluntary basis is somewhat weak. Consumers do not necessarily favor companies that are carbon neutral. And there is some indication that environmental watch dogs and NGOs come down harder on companies who take a position on environmental and social causes. They may then be held to a higher yardstick than their counterparts who don’t do anything; this is clearly not fair.

And consumers only have limited incentives to go carbon neutral. It is not mandated by the government and many of their friends may not care.

Against this background you may wonder why we created CarbonStory? It is simple. We are social entrepreneurs and we act precisely because there is a market failure and we feel that we can do something about it. In fact, we feel that we must do something about it. Professor Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics has called climate change “The greatest market failure the world has ever seen”. We acknowledge the many challenges we face and try our best to make a difference.

About the Interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector and sustainability, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals, entrepreneurs and experts are brought together. Green Collar Asia is the media division of Worthy Earth, a media, recruitment and training firm.
Bhavani is a speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA (PGDM) from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London. She is also a certified EQ Coach with Six Seconds.org

Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at]greencollarasia.com or through LinkedIn

Speak Your Mind

*