Do you know how much of the world’s carbon budget you “spend”? While individual amounts vary greatly, on a per capita basis each American emits more than 14 tons of greenhouse gases per year. The statistic globally is 4.47 tons per capita, with people in developed countries emitting 2-5 times the amount of carbon dioxide as those in emerging economies.

Line graph with markers displaying the per capita CO2 emissions between 2000 and 2020.

Meanwhile, the latest IPCC report finds that the world needs to cut emissions by nearly 50% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050 to prevent the worst effects of climate change. According to the IPCC, individual behavior change needs to be part of the solution — especially for the wealthiest 10% of households that are responsible for a whopping 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Color coded map indicating which countries had higher or lower per capita CO2 emissions in 2020.

The problem is that most consumers don’t have a good understanding of how their actions affect greenhouse gas emissions.

While governments and corporations measure and quantify their emissions using greenhouse gas accounting methodologies and tools, consumers themselves lack data about their own carbon footprints. Imagine if we had better information to understand the emissions cost of our everyday decisions? Could we then shift our actions to reduce personal carbon “spending” toward the goal of a sustainable and prosperous net-zero economy?

Unfortunately, few tools exist to quantify individual carbon footprints, but we have some ideas on how businesses and others can provide consumers with the data they need. Here are three that could offer inspiration:

1. Carbon accounting for businesses to empower consumer choice. Investors have long been clamoring for transparent, comparable and verifiable carbon disclosures by companies. In response, the SEC’s recently proposed climate disclosure rules, if adopted, would require publicly traded companies to disclose, among other climate-related items, emissions from their operations and supply chains in much greater detail and rigor than ever before. Similarly, climate-related disclosure standards proposed under the EU's Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive would require large European businesses to disclose carbon emissions from operations, supply chains and product use.

While these disclosure regimes are driven by investor demands, having this corporate data would also allow consumers to aid in the net-zero transition. Before making a purchasing decision, a carbon-conscious consumer could assess whether the companies that make, distribute and deliver the products and services they buy are on track for achieving their corporate decarbonization goals. Such carbon-conscious consumers may wish to patronize businesses that are on track and avoid businesses that are not.

Beyond the SEC’s and EU’s proposed rules, modest changes to some existing consumer-facing disclosures could further bridge the data gap. For example, local electric utilities could provide household-specific emissions data in monthly utility bills. Consumer-facing companies that make sustainability marketing claims could publish the carbon data that supports those claims. Food companies could supplement nutritional labels with carbon data that would help consumers better understand the value of local sourcing, smart packaging and alternative proteins. Large online retailers could provide transparency on carbon emissions of different products and delivery methods.

We recognize that carbon accounting is both complex and imprecise. Utilities would have to know and report fluctuations in their generation mix. Food companies would need to track energy intensity across a wide range of agricultural practices and supply chains. In an effort to raise consumer consciousness and empower better choices, we should not let pursuit of perfection be the enemy of the good. Nor should we impose high compliance costs on companies that will unduly burden consumers with increased prices.

Consumers are well-equipped to make choices based on price and quality because these factors are well-disclosed. Providing similar data on carbon would allow consumers to impact emissions reductions in a meaningful way.

2. Incorporating emissions data into weather information. Weather forecasts provide data that mass populations consume daily on their smart phones and treat as actionable. Those weather reports now routinely include air quality data, and local pollen alerts. Why not also include carbon emissions?

Like the stock market charts on smart phones, including a carbon emissions chart on every weather app would allow consumers to understand if emissions are going up or down in their country, state or region based on changing factors such as power generation mix, vehicle fleet registrations, hydrocarbon fuels purchased, traffic reports and industrial emissions in a defined geographic area. Utilities would need to share hourly emissions data in ways they never have before. And yet with today’s digital capabilities, this is not as far fetched as it might have been at the turn of the century. It does, however, require regulatory and policy action. Demand-response programs and “virtual power plant” concepts could become much more actionable – matching the kind of data that homeowners who have solar panels love to monitor on their solar output. Making energy emissions data easily accessible to average citizens could raise consciousness and reinforce the group behaviors and peer pressures that lead to progress.

3. Personal accountability monitoring. How can we develop and promote the best apps that are like "Fitbits" for personal carbon, and that offer a menu of personal actions anyone can take to reduce personal carbon emissions? Several startups in this space have recently launched. But what will cause them to become ubiquitous?

Could emissions data be accessible through a QR code on product labels as some companies are already doing that links to a personal carbon counter app? Could retailers offer coupons or other rewards points via the personal carbon counter app, and monetize the carbon awareness of consumers? And could this kind of app be used to crowdsource emissions-conscious purchasing behaviors affecting local communities? Just as it is more difficult to adhere to a calorie- or carbohydrate-restricted diet without nutrition information, it is more difficult to adhere to a personal carbon budget without personal emissions information.

A recent estimate shows climate change impacts could cost as much as $2 trillion per year in the United States alone by the end of the century. But if companies and consumers collaborate to tackle the problem, this may be a bill our children and grandchildren will not have to pay. The ideas above are meant to offer some inspiration, but there could be countless ways to potentially use carbon data to influence behavior. Getting consumers to understand the emissions impact of the choices they make can be a critical first step toward action.