Almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by transportation, which is travel is the focus of a new app that allows users to find out how much carbon their plane, train, and ride-hail trips have emitted into the atmosphere—and to rectify those emissions somewhat by balancing them with actions that help the environment.
Aerial, which launched October 20, is the brainchild of three tech entrepreneurs with combined backgrounds at Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, who wanted to allow everyday travelers to be able to involve themselves in doing their part to reduce global warming. “A nice analogy is: the same way Instagram turned everyone into a photographer,” says Ebby Amir, one of the cofounders, “we want Aerial to turn everyone into taking climate action.”
After downloading Aerial, users can connect it to their Gmail accounts, and over the course of about a minute, the app scans the inbox for travel itineraries—flight reservations, Uber and Lyft ride receipts, and train tickets—and presents users with an estimate, in kilograms, of carbon emissions of each trip taken. “After a couple minutes using the app, users will be able to calculate their carbon the same way they might do their calories or their steps,” Amir says.
For each of those rides, the app will also produce a currency figure for a recommended contribution they can make to help offset that trip, at a rate of $10 per ton. “So, you’re essentially purchasing a carbon-offsetting credit,” says Andreas Homer, one of the other cofounders. Aerial is partnering with a forest conservation project verified by Climate Action Reserve, and with each contribution, users can help conserve a given number of trees in McCloud, a forest near Mount Shasta in Northern California, 9,000 acres of conifers including incense cedars, ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and sugar pines. They chose this particular partner because forest conservation is often better for carbon sequestration than reforestation, because mature trees are better at absorbing more carbon.
Two days after the launch, the team has calculated its users have saved 301 trees. That metric will be the one they track as they chart the app’s progress, and as they gather more data and feedback, they hope to add more features and launch a new version next year, which will hopefully allow users to select from different offsetting initiatives. “In the future, we will offer users choice, to allow them to pick a project that resonates with them,” Homer says. These may include verified reforestation or sustainable energy projects, and ones specific to users’ geographic locations.
Experts generally agree that carbon offsetting alone is not a viable solution to reduce emissions enough to reach sustainability targets—we’ll need more major policy changes instead, along with changes to our lifestyles. “We do recognize that carbon offsetting has its limitations,” Homer says, “but at the same time, we think it’s the easiest way for most people to get involved and to start doing their part.” To encourage well-rounded lifestyle changes, the app’s Discover tab is filled with tips and context on sustainable habits.
Fewer people are traveling during the pandemic, but because the app searches your inbox, it also lets you retroactively balance out past trips, says Ari Sawyers, the third cofounder. Also on Aerial’s roadmap is branching out from transport to include other sectors. The team has started testing home utilities, which is currently relevant, Sawyers says, because users “can really monitor what their climate impact is as they work from home.”