Toronto’s Zerofootprint effort

I want to like the element of inter-city competition Toronto Mayor David Miller is promoting with his “Zerofootprint” project. The City of Toronto is working with a nonprofit company running a system that’ll let interested citizens sign up, track their pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions in some detail, and ultimately compare their collective environmental virtue against people in other cities.

Also, somewhat more creepily, they’re working with an outfit called Business Objects, a for-profit, to mine the data the project generates and, I guess, formulate environmental policy that takes advantage of what they learn.

From the Toronto Star:

On the website, residents will be able to link with others to make such lifestyle changes as setting up carpools and, ultimately, to vie with other cities.Miller called the Zerofootprint Toronto initiative “exciting, innovative and, frankly, pretty cool. It’s a project that is destined to make Toronto a leader in the citizen-based fight against climate change.”

The program – a peek can be seen at http://www.zerofootprinttoronto.org – has a “calculator” that allows users to understand what effect they’re having on the environment, said Business Objects founder and chairman Bernard Liautaud.

“Individual engagement is crucial,” he said. “People don’t know what impact they would have by turning off their computer, but this will enable them to know. You could call it the power of millions.”

This is different from the One Tonne Challenge how, exactly?

Oh, it’s a social-networking site, too:

Liautaud said the site will be “like YouTube, or a green Facebook.”

I realize Liautaud was generalizing for a general audience, but being “like YouTube, or a green Facebook” isn’t a business plan. Those are two very different services that don’t, frankly, have a lot in common, and a lot of businesses want to be like them and fail. They already exist and own their niches — Zerofootprint’s thing will have to be unique and provide would-be users with something they didn’t realize they needed and can’t get somewhere else, better. Instead of being “like YouTube,” a much more likely fate is being “like Friendster” or “like Orkut” — they have their niches, but haven’t changed the world.

Or “like Commuter Challenge,” which is a nice idea to encourage people to walk or bike or bus instead of driving for a week in June that asks participants to record their distances travelled by various means of transportation. Workplaces and municipalities and whatnot “compete,” but I wouldn’t say the nation’s imagination is exactly seized. The winners are usually prosperous companies with strategic advantages, such as easily accessible physical locations. Even I forgot to record my biking miles last year.

But let’s look on the bright side.

  • This is, apparently, a good-faith effort to try something creative and trust that citizens, given appropriate and accurate information, will act on it. Showing people the consequences of their own choices is the vital first step in convincing them they’re contributors to a problem, and is much better than simply bossing them around.
  • An established, trustworthy system for setting up carpools and community-garden groups and whatnot would be a good thing, though if there’s a crying need for it the government shouldn’t have to pay for it.
  • Mining data supplied by voluntary participants (with due privacy controls) could help politicians and officials design better policies, provided they remember the group supplying the data is self-selected.

If the thing really, really works, government officials could be setting themselves up for some difficult times, facing competitive citizens angry that they’ve made poor environmental decisions on the city’s behalf, if those are reflected in civic emissions calculations. That could be fun.

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