Climate Change


Climate Podcast: Can apps help solve the climate crisis?

This week we are looking at apps and technology, and whether they can help us fight the climate crisis. Listen now to hear host Mark Maslin chat to Chris Tan, Co-Founder of Marble app and UCL master's student, and Ed Caldecott, co-founder of TrainHugger. Mark and his guests are discussing how apps can be vital tools for consumers, the fight to keep them accessible for all and the long-term impact they could have.


UCL Minds  0:03  
We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

Ed Caldecott  0:12  
So I have a confession to make. I hate apps. I'm a Luddite apps are just useful tools.

Chris Tan  0:18  
I've realised that users are incredibly lazy. It's very easy to underestimate how lazy people really are.

Ed Caldecott  0:28  
If someone in their 60s or 70s, or 80s, can't use this, then you're failing.

Mark Maslin  0:36  
This is generation one from University College London, turning climate science and ideas into action. Hello, and welcome to generation one. I am Mark Maslin, a professor of Earth Systems Science here at UCL. These podcasts are intended to explore a variety of subjects impacting the sustainability and climate change debates. And while understandably, the global focus is very much centred on the war in Ukraine, we believe that if we are to meet some of the targets set and address some of the issues raised by last year's con 26 climate conference in Glasgow, it is essential that we continue to talk, share ideas and highlight the work, which is really making a difference to our world. And to that end, we want our listeners to get involved not only by downloading and streaming the podcast by actively engaging with UCS working campaigns, how can we do this mark, I hear you say, Well, the answer is in many ways, we have a website ucl.ac.uk forward slash, climate hyphen change. We would obviously love it if you would rate and subscribe to this podcast, especially me where ever you get your podcasts from, not to mention, share it with your networks. We're also on Instagram and Twitter, hashtag UCL generation one where you can comment, not forgetting good old fashioned email, it is podcasts@ucl.ac.uk. If you want to send us any message or any ideas, please do. And we genuinely would love to hear from you. If you have questions or comments, you can send a voice message and we'll include it in the podcast.

UCL Minds  2:30  
You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Mark Maslin  2:40  
So without further ado, let us get into today's topic, which is all about how apps are being developed and implemented in ways that can make a difference to our environment. Throughout my career, I have witnessed a growing awareness of the issues relating to climate change, and seeing that our understanding and knowledge increases the need for action to address the situation as it has intensified. Over the same time, I have seen a revolution brought about by digital technology, I can remember the first home computers, I can remember when a mobile phone was the size and weight of a brick.

Now digital technology touches almost every aspect of our lives. So inevitably, there is a crossover. Much of the science we do is entirely reliant on digital tools. And some of the environmental problems we have created are a direct consequence of this digital transformation. Today, I want to focus on some apps that are being developed with the intention of addressing climate change, and contributing to possible solutions. I am very pleased to be joined in our UCL studio today by Chris Tan, a final year Master's student here at UCL, who is the brains behind marble groceries app, which aims to change the way we shop. Also with me is Ed Caldecott, co founder of the train hugger app, which plants trees for every ticket bought. So Chris, let me start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about marble grocery app and how it works?

Chris Tan  4:19  
Of course. So I'm the co founder of marble groceries, which is a smartphone app that allows users to walk into any supermarket. So let's say a Tesco, you pick a grocery item off the shelf, all you have to do is scan the barcode of the item. And it instantly returns you an AI estimate of the kilogrammes of carbon dioxide equivalent. So that is the amount of greenhouse gases that was emitted in order to produce that specific product from farm to store. 

Mark Maslin  4:51  
So can I ask because I'm a geek, where do you get that data from the underlying data to drive the app? 

Chris Tan  4:57  
Right so that's a great question actually. And we have, at the moment three different iterations of our machine learning model, each taking a different algorithmic approach to generating this greenhouse gas estimate. And at the moment, the one that is live on the app store right now, is a category based approach that we actually distil from a database that was released by the UK Government. 

Mark Maslin  5:24  
Well, I know that UCL is community is always very supportive, particularly of one of our own. So I'm reckon that lots of downloads will happen specially after this podcast. And for me, do you think this is going to be part of a culture that changes the way we shop?

Chris Tan  5:41  
I've realised that users are incredibly lazy. And it's very easy to underestimate how lazy people really are. So when when me and Blake came up with the idea for marble, we really had the goal of putting environmental information in everyone's hands. And we designed the user experience such that it was the simplest possible user experience that we could think of, to achieve this vision. 

Mark Maslin  6:08  
So how can you make it easier because again, people shop in quite a distracted way. I mean, they go in, they basically grab something, they might look at the price, and this is why everything is 99p, how you just kind of try and make it easier because I Yeah, scanning things. It's just ah, you know, it's too much effort. 

Chris Tan  6:27  
Actually, this is maybe not a direct answer to your question, but you bring up quite an interesting point that segues into the fact that this actually has a precedent. So the precedent that I'm talking about is actually the nutrition labelling shift that happened, I think, in the 90s. And, you know, today we take for granted that nutritional information is on the packaging of every product. So consumers on mass started to vote with their wallets for companies that did put the nutrition on the packaging. And we're starting to see exactly the same thing happen with sustainability with brands like Oatly. And the goal of marble was to accelerate this process, it's almost you can think of it almost like an a propagation medium for incentives for these food manufacturers to change their polluting habit.

Mark Maslin  7:19  
 So when I'm wandering around supermarkets, I do actually see lots of people scanning their goods, mainly to save time, so they don't have to actually worry about queuing up at the end. Is there any way of embedding your technology into that sort of like scanning approach?

Chris Tan  7:34  
Right so that's a really good question. Because when you see you do see supermarkets like Waitrose, with those cell scanning devices, and it would be perfect if we could embed Marble's AI footprinting algorithm into Waitrose as native system, rather than having, you know, two different things that consumers have to like fiddle around with. But we are dealing with somewhat of a cold start problem where we are not huge yet. So we don't really have the negotiating pole, when we're presenting deals like this to these big supermarket brands. But we are planning to do that. 

Mark Maslin  8:10  
The CEOs of the supermarkets are becoming much more aware to sustainability. So I think, give it a little time with your app. I think there we use knocking on your door to actually get that embedded into their technology. 

Chris Tan  8:25  
Well, I certainly hope so.

Mark Maslin  8:27  
So another app, Ed, please tell us what is train hugger? And how does it work?

Ed Caldecott  8:34  
 So Mark, train hugger is a green train ticketing platform. So it's pretty much exactly the same as train line that 40% of all rail travellers currently use. You buy a train ticket, it costs for same as train line, train line has a booking fee of between 75 P and one pound 75. We also have a booking fee, it's one pound 50. And every time you buy a you make a booking, we plant a tree to follow through on that because you've only got a one pound 50 booking fee. How do we do that? How do we plant a tree for every booking? So we've partnered with the Royal forestry society, we've set up a grant, the Royal forest Society of 33,000, about 4000 members all over the country. So what we do is we incentivize them to plant the right tree in the right place. So we're currently we've we've planted a little over 50,000 trees in under a year.

Mark Maslin  9:32  
 So one of the questions I have is, a lot of people are quite rightly quite cynical about tree planting and carbon offsetting. I mean, we've had discussions on the podcast about that. So can tree planting really make a difference? Is it something that people should aspire to? And of course, take up your app. 

Ed Caldecott  9:52  
Okay, so there are two questions there. So there's the there's the first question is, does this work? Is it a solution for climate and the second question is, is this something that people should aspire to now, my personal feeling, I'm cynical entrepreneur. So we know that that message, buy a train ticket plant a tree cuts through. So we've got 50,000 users in the space of six months. And we aren't even we haven't even started yet. So we're in the middle of a big race. We're working out all of our different customer retention strategies. The key point is that we know that people get that message. So does it work? Yes, it works in that specific example that I gave you about, we're trying to solve the UK timber problem. So we're trying to grow. If anyone has ever had a window made, it probably the choice you get is Sequoia, like, it is actually a software, but it works as a hardwood and it comes from New Zealand. We, you could have it made from Chestnut or oak, but it's not. So that is the problem we're solving. What we are not talking about is carbon offsets. Two reasons. One is, I've been reading about carbon offsets for about two years, I still don't really understand them. Secondly, they're really for polluting companies. Consumer doesn't care. And thirdly, it's, it's boring. You know, carbon offsets are boring. And if you're trying to inspire a consumer to do something, make it as simple as you possibly can. So I buy a train ticket for the same price, but I'm already buying a train ticket, and I feel good about it because I planted an oak tree and I know what an oak tree is. And I plant it in Lincolnshire, and I live in Lincolnshire, so it's simple, simple, simple. And then of course, there's loads of questions and detail that we need to discuss on this podcast. But the average consumer does not care. 

Mark Maslin  11:40  
I'm gonna have as my bumper sticker, carbon offsets are boring. I love that we 

Ed Caldecott  11:45  
I hope that's not heresy.  

Mark Maslin  11:46  
no, no, not at all. I mean, again, normal people really don't care. And I think the interesting thing about both your apps is that you're actually engaging with people as people and what they do every day, which I think is really, really important. I want to come back to the tree planting. Incredible. But we have an issue in the UK. I mean, aren't we going to run out of land that we can actually plant trees on? Because we've got huge amount of land, but it's all privately owned? How are we going to break through that? Because if your app takes off, incredible, but where are we going to put the trees so our ambition is to plant 5 million trees by 2025. This year alone, storm damage, we lost 10 million trees, so we're not going to run out of land. But the key question is, I've just said carbon offsets of boring, trees are already getting a bit samey. So we will end up doing wildflower meadows, we already do that and in a different way. Elsewhere, we'll end up doing kelp sea grass, there's a whole load of stuff to do. But that and then that enters the game of gamification of this system, which is kind of what you were talking about Chris, you know, which is how, how do you get consumers to keep doing what they're doing. So going to Chris's app or my app, we just want people to buy more of the good stuff. We want them to buy this part tree, or we want them to buy the right products. So let's gamify it, let's make it fun and simple. And the big thing that's happening right now in the great, evil world of capitalism, is that budgets are moving from the person in sandals by the watercooler the head of sustainability to the marketing team. And they've got massive budgets. And why is it moved there? Because they know that consumers want green stuff, they want to feel good.

You can't get away from the fact that people's phones are the thing that controls their lives. So your app is brilliant, I really hope it takes off. But how do you think apps in general are going to change lifestyles,

Chris Tan  13:41  
we've been talking about people wanting to feel good. But there is a somewhat disconnect sometimes between them wanting to feel good, and then doing what is objectively most impactful for the problem that they're trying to solve, or, in this case, the biggest reduction in their individual carbon footprint. So I think it's all about designing the incentive mechanisms, such that you can gamify the actions that are objectively impactful and remove that disconnect. So for example, in the marble app, like I was saying before, people are a bit too lazy to bring it around with them in the supermarket. But we've actually created an achievements page, such that they can unlock achievements by the number of products that they scan, or the number of sustainable swaps that they make. We have in the plans right now to make it a social experience. Because I think when we're talking about gamification, competition is a very powerful tool for that. Like, I know, a friend Statum it gets competitive over Uber ratings. So you know, if you can get competitive over that, like they can get competitive over their carbon footprint.

Mark Maslin  14:51  
I didn't realise that people did get until somebody saw my Uber rating went, how come yours is higher than mine? It's like, I don't care. So but yes, people do get very compare. So even if you can use that, so I'm going to ask both of you what's the next app? Because your apps are brilliant. What's the next one that we should be looking at? What What should we be doing next to really get sustainability into the heart of people's lives?

Chris Tan  15:14  
Right. So I guess I can speak in the area that I'm more familiar with, which is carbon footprinting. There are apps like giggy, for example, which is out there, which is quite similar to marble. It's centred around the barcode scanning user experience, but it doesn't provide a direct estimate. It's binary gives a badge whether something is low carbon or not, which is nowhere near granular enough to actually make a difference. There's also the 2030 carbon calculator, which was featured in Time magazine, I believe, which prioritises accuracy. But it's extremely long to use, you have to manually input almost 100 different details about the product in order to arrive at the final estimation. No one's going to use that. Yeah.

Mark Maslin  16:02  
I mean, it's barely barely enough that I can scan. So. Edie? What's what's the next. I mean, you talked about going on to a wild meadows and marshland and things like that other other apps that we can start to actually envisage for the future.

Ed Caldecott  16:17  
Apps are just delivery mechanisms. So the b2b platform that website the app, essentially, businesses buy their tickets through train hugger. Now why are they doing that they're doing that because they have ESG targets. And you can say to Arsenal Football Club, who we're working with, they buy all of their train tickets through train hugger at the end of the year, they can say, well, we helped plant this wildflower meadow from their training ground and Hartfordshire to the Emirates Emirates, because every time they travel, we are planting five metres squared of wildflower meadow. So essentially, you can help businesses hit their ESG targets and they can get their employees to do it. So that's the first thinking answer. Second sneaky answer is as a sister business to train hugger, which is slightly younger, but it's called Green the UK. And that idea is essentially you're connecting businesses to local wildlife projects. And it's the same idea. You have the green consumer who wants to make the right choice. So Winkler, for example, they're one of our partners. Every time they sell a house, they will plant 10 Trees locally. It's just about harnessing the new demand from from consumers in a good way.

Mark Maslin  17:29  
So Chris, can I ask you a real technical question about different food sources? And what the carbon footprint would be? I mean, for example, what would be worse? Asparagus that's been flown into the UK or saved locally sourced beef steak perhaps? Can you give us an idea of how your app deals with that?

Chris Tan  17:51  
So this is actually the whole reason why Blake Bullwinkle, my co founder and I built marble is that we wanted to go above the very rough rules of thumb that we have today, like, effluent is bad, or meat is bad. But these rough rules of thumb, they sometimes conflict with each other, such as in the specific question you just gave, doing better than giving a direct answer to your question. I can actually refer listeners to this video by this YouTube channel called curse, because in a nutshell, where they basically explain the contradictions of all these rules of thumb, and they really illustrate all the various contributors to a product's final carbon footprint.

Mark Maslin  18:38  
So if I use your app that's going to do all of that for me, isn't it? That's all point of it. Excellent. There's also another complete layer of complexity. So if we look at say, be farming, it really matters. What do you feed the cows? So if you feed them, say seaweed, then you can reduce the amount of methane emissions. So it's not as easy as meat is bad. Asparagus is good, Ed. I'm one of these people that avoid train line because I know they're going to charge me I go directly to the train operators and I don't get that fee. So why are people going to be using yours? Instead of train line and why are people using train line and not just going to the train operators themselves? Soon

Ed Caldecott  19:23  
the operators will be great British railway, great British railway will inherit the same problem that the operators currently have, which is that they are in engineering projects, posing as a brand. So you get on Southern, you have an awful experience. The toilets don't have any loo roll, and there's vomit all over the seat and the Translate, who do you blame Southern and then someone wants to sell you a train ticket. So it's a really difficult thing to do. Train hugger is essentially a brand in what we regard as a brandless. landscape. So train line, of course, it's a brand but essentially it's a utility. It does it does What it does very well, it's very useful. But it doesn't make the consumer feel good. And we can't identify much brand loyalty. So we've been going on our social media for three months and not in any really serious way. And the four operators have more followers than us. So I think we will have more followers and all of them confidently within six months, because we're building a brand. And they have this very difficult problem of being engineering projects.

Mark Maslin  20:25  
On these podcasts, we like to sort of ask the final question, which is, are there any common myths or annoying myths that you want to really bust? And I'm gonna go with Chris, are there stuff out there that you just give really, oh, we're not past this? I mean, are there are there myths with apps out there,

Chris Tan  20:42  
I think I can offer sort of a hot take, not necessarily a myth. But the fact that, you know, this climate change problem is huge. And everyone is no longer an awareness issue. Everyone knows that it's one of the most urgent problems of our generation. And as a result, we have seen the birth of a huge and often blurry taxonomy of solutions to tackle this climate change problem. You know, there are there are regulatory and economic solutions, there are very techno optimistic solutions. So stuff like crazy things like reflective particles to put in the air, or super advanced carbon capture technologies, mimicking photosynthesis, stuff like that. And then there are market based solutions like train hugger, or marble. And the point that I'm getting to with this misconception is that I really do believe and it's a somewhat controversial opinion, when we look back, after we hope we've hopefully solve the climate change problem, we would see that it has really been solved by a single or small handful of deus ex machina technologies. So I do think that apps like marble and train hugger, no offence will seem very trivial in the grand scheme of things, that something like you know, these reflective aerosol particles will very much solve, like 99% of the problem. And we're just keeping the lights on till that solution arrives.

Mark Maslin  22:15  
Very controversial. We like controversial on this podcast. So, Ed, any myths you want to bust?

Ed Caldecott  22:21  
By first thing would be Chris, I don't I don't agree that that we can just go technology will solve this. I think consumers, the place to start is consumers in the West. And we were already shifting. And in a we live in capitalism and capitalism is doing two things. You've got private equity, buying sheep farms in Wales, and planting Sitka spruce, which looks like a good thing, but is not a good thing for biodiversity. And it's not really an effective way of sequestering carbon. So essentially, that's the that's the smokescreen for our for our big polluters. So we do need consumers to learn about the problem. And I think the real challenge is education. And I believe that there's a natural history GCSE coming up about to be announced. But most people, you know, couldn't identify five trees. So we're talking about planting a tree, but most people don't know what an ash looks like. And we all knew that 50 years ago, 100 years ago, so we need to get that knowledge back. And then once you have the knowledge, you can then fall in love. And once you're in love you care. So I think that the big myth for me is that 10 Punch is going to solve it, we need to solve it.

Mark Maslin  23:28  
So I have one final question, which is you too young, dynamic entrepreneurs, you our generation app. Okay. So that's great for your generation. But what about more mature people who the phone is still an item whereby actually downloading apps isn't always as simple and as straightforward as they think it is? How are you going to spread this influence beyond your generation to perhaps more mature people.

Ed Caldecott  23:57  
So I have a confession to make I hate apps. I'm a Luddite apps are just useful tools. And what we're looking at at the moment is that apps are on the on the decrease, I mean, and the QR code is massively in fashion. And even if you don't really know how to use your phone, you know how to use the camera on your phone, you scan a QR code, and you get a menu. And we've all experienced that for the last three years. So technology needs to be easy. If it's not easy, it won't get used. And technology is really just a facilitator for a brand to do whatever it needs to do so. But it goes back to this whole point that if someone in their 60s or 70s, or 80s can't use this, then you're failing, like you are failing as a business you. There's absolutely zero reason why they're not in your target market. So I don't accept the question that that we are generation out. We all have mobile phones, and if the technology can't be used by everyone, then it's failed.

Mark Maslin  24:51  
I love the fact that I've been told I'm wrong. I love that on this podcast. So, Chris, do you think I'm wrong?

Chris Tan  24:57  
I don't think anyone should build an app for the sake of building out. Speaking on behalf of marble, we created the marble app to, like I said before, just simply accelerate the process by which the carbon figure will be on the packaging of every product. And anyone of any age can just see it explicitly, like the kind with the nutritional label

Mark Maslin  25:21  
Brilliant. So it looks like I am part of generation app. Thank goodness for that. But I have to say listening to both Chris and Edie, I am literally getting my phone out now and downloading that app straight away. Again, it's really interesting how technology is helping us change our lifestyle, making us able to actually do our little bit in a positive way to save our planet. So Chris, Ed, thank you so much for being on the show. 

UCL Minds  25:53  
you're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Mark Maslin  26:03  
In a moment, I'll be rounding up some of the notable climate news stories that I've been tracking this week. But before I do that, let me remind you about all the ways you can get involved in the podcast and UCL 's work in relation to climate change. You can find us on ucl.ac.uk forward slash climate hyphen change, please rate and subscribe to the podcast and send us a comment or question to the podcasts@ucl.ac.uk. And you can of course, follow us on Instagram and Twitter at hashtag generation one. That conversation with Chris and Edie was recorded a few weeks ago. This is the climate news summary for the week beginning May the 23rd 2022. For those of you enjoying the warm spring weather, maybe with a glass of chilled wine, be aware that climate change is already affecting the wine industry. France, the major centre of winemaking for centuries, is experiencing increasingly higher temperatures and extreme weather events last year was particularly dramatic. France recorded its smallest harvest since 1957 and lost more than 2 billion in sales. Also, according to colleagues at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, we could lose 50 to 58 hours of sleep per person by the end of the century. Because of those warmer and more humid conditions. They say that sleep loss could be larger for residents from lower income countries, as well as older adults and females. Bit of a hero. Caroline Dennett, a senior Safety Consultant at Shell has quit after 11 years, accusing the fossil fuel producer of double talk on climate and causing extreme harm to the environment in a bombshell public video. And then we have the climate denier think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation that has been reported to the Charity Commission over fossil fuel interest funding. The signatures to this letter made it clear that the Global Warming Policy Foundation is a lobby group, not a charity and brings about no public good and does not deserve charitable status. That was the roundup of the climate news from reduced sleep and wine to climate heroes and villains. The next edition of generation one from UCL will be available next Wednesday, when my co host and cyclist extraordinaire Helen Czerski will be talking about the delights of life on just two wheels. So it's goodbye for now.