But a project based in the U.K. is proving that capping carbon can be effective--if not for actually cutting emissions directly, then at least for engaging employees on sustainability, and driving wider organizational goals.
The scheme, set up in 2007 by an engineering consultancy called WSP, has signed up 2,200 members in the last few years, and is now available to employees at 15 companies, nonprofits, and government agencies.
It works as follows: Staff voluntarily agree to a personal carbon limit--for example, on their travel to and from work, and their energy use at home. They enter their monthly output to a website, which calculates their ongoing totals, and suggests ways to reduce emissions. If employees go over their limit, then nothing happens; there is no penalty. But if they come in under, they get an annual bonus in their paycheck.
David Symons, director the environmental practice at the 9,000-employee firm, says the idea is not to so much to enforce a strict carbon regime. The target, which varies by country, is generous compared to national averages. The average Brit emits about 2.75 tonnes of CO2 a year; the WSP target is 4.4 tonnes this year.
Rather, he says, the idea is to get people thinking about sustainability issues in a relatively fun, interactive way.
“We’ve found that this a good way to increase staff understanding and awareness of environmental issues, and that it does it in a subtle way, rather than it being a formal training course," says Symons.
“We wanted to set a level that was achievable for the majority of our members, recognizing they are a bit younger than average, and probably travel a bit more. We could have set it at the national level. But we felt there wasn’t much point if people were just going to go over that.”
Symons says about 70% of members hit their target every year, getting about £100 as reward in the U.K. ($100 in the U.S., where the system is also used). The target varies according to grid conditions and car types, and falls every year. The Swedish one is set at 2.5 tonnes this year; the U.S. one at 6-7 tonnes; and the one for the U.A.E. at a little more than that.
The target doesn’t adjust for whether people live in the city or countryside. But it does take account of personal circumstances: people with families of four, for example, divide their home and car emissions accordingly.
Symons reckons the scheme, known as PACT (Personal Allowance Carbon Trading), is unique: he doesn’t know of any other company doing something similar.
But in fact he plays down the importance of the tracking tool. Increasingly, what’s important is the community element: that people swap tips about sustainable living, “heroes” are recognized, and the peer group challenges itself. As well as its own website, PACT also has a well-used Facebook page.
“The core premise is to demonstrate that sustainable living is easy, interesting, and can save you money, which is in contrast to many sustainability programs, where life is bit grayer and meaner and people are told they have to stop doing things,” Symons says.
Nor is PACT as aggressive in enforcing the carbon limit as it used to be. When it started, members were fined for not reaching their target, which helped offset the bonuses. But Symons says penalties also discouraged people from joining.
Asked why companies should get involved with employees’ personal lives, Symons emphasizes that the scheme is voluntary, and that people are more receptive to sustainability if they are thinking about it in their personal lives, rather than as a work chore.
“If you’re engaging people at home and you’re doing it positively, that means people will bring those practices into work. It’s a clever way of motivating people,” he says.