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Dissertation: Consumption data and carbon footprint calculators require support from our everyday environment to enhance changes in consumption

Press release 2021-04-28 at 15:07

Changing consumption patterns is essential for curbing environmental problems. Several applications have been developed to collect consumption data and calculate environmental impact. A new dissertation reveals that these alone will not generate change in consumption patterns. It is important that the change is supported by our everyday environment. Marja Salo, researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute, will defend her doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki on 5 May.

“Consumption data and applications, such as carbon footprint calculators, may suffer from a lack of long-term engagement in everyday life. If we want to use these calculators to change people’s consumption, the information they provide is only a good start. Change is often hindered by very practical reasons. To overcome these obstacles, you need support from other people and an everyday environment that makes changes easier”, says Marja Salo.

Calculators give suggestions on what kinds of changes people should make in their everyday life and consumption patterns. The fact that few people make actual changes may be caused by reluctance to question established practices. For example, dietary choices are influenced by our personal habits and the habits of people around us.

Changes may be hindered by constraints in our environment, such as existing energy system in one’s home. Data-based tools cannot be used to solve these obstacles for individual people; to create real change, we need intermediaries, such as energy advisors and renovation professionals with expertise in sustainability issues, to help interpret the data and identify opportunities for change.

Data can be used to focus our attention on what’s important in the big picture

Consumption can be steered with tools such as regulations and restrictions, with economic means like taxation, and with information. Tailored consumption data and calculators are available as web and smartphone applications. Tools like this have been developed by the public sector, organisations and companies alike.

The calculators and consumption data bring light to the current state of things and the proportions of the different categories of consumption. Data can be used to focus attention on issues that are important in the big picture, such as energy consumption and the type of food items in our diets. Consumption data can be used by consumers but also by companies, such as lunch restaurants.

The development of calculators and the related research is often focused on the properties of the tool, such as how interactive it is for the user. However, this alone does not solve the challenges related to the impact of the calculators.

Different policy measures should complement one another

Large amounts of data are being collected on everyday consumption patterns, and many parties have an interest in processing this data. For example, raising awareness on the most significant sources of emissions is useful, but that alone does not lead to a change in consumption. We need several policy measures that complement one another and steer people the same direction.

“The findings of my dissertation will be helpful for designing calculators and similar tools for steering consumption so that they can be better harnessed in changing consumption patterns. When designing tools, one should pay attention to how they will be embedded in people’s everyday lives and how they work together with other steering instruments”, summarises Marja Salo.

Further information

Marja Salo, M.Sc, researcher (on leave of absence), Finnish Environment Institute SYKE
Tel. +358 400 757413, firstname.l.j.lastname@gmail.com

Marja Salo will defend her doctoral dissertation on 5 May 2021 at 12.00 in the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki. The event will be in English.
The event will be held remotely (Zoom)

Dissertation: Steering household consumption with carbon footprint data - a critical assessment


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