Meet the sustainability scientist behind the Codebots Climate Action app

19 August 2020 • 6 minutes

Written by Christine Chien

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Chris Dey has spent 20 years building clunky carbon calculators in spreadsheets but now he has teamed up with Codebots to bring these tried and tested concepts to life. The result is a web app that can map your expenditure as a business to your carbon footprint. In this interview he shares the history, the ideas and the future of measuring impact.

To measure our carbon emissions, we needed an expert partner who understood the science of sustainability.

We partnered with the team at Arete Sustainability who came up with a unique solution; based on our expenditure across categories. To learn more about their approach to sustainable measurement we interviewed their cofounder, Chris Dey.

Interested in finding out more about our Climate Action app and how we built it? Click here to explore our full series.

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your background.

I’m Chris Dey. I’m a cofounder of Arete Sustainability. I worked as an academic in Applied Physics and worked for many years on energy conservation and solar thermal concentrating systems. In parallel with that work, one of my colleagues at the University of Sydney, Manfred Lenson, and I started to think about personal greenhouse gas responsibility. Since then, Manfred has become the world’s leading researcher in quantifying these economy wide socio-economic and environmental linkages, and the research group we started is still going. I’ve generally focused on applications of our work, first at the university and then with Arete Sustainability.

What is the idea behind Arete Sustainability?

Arete Sustainability is about measurement. The word ‘arete’ is Greek and it means ‘integration and excellence across all facets of life’. I think a lot of sustainability focuses on one aspect of a company’s performance, but we want to try and capture all aspects of a company’s performance and everyday operations. As a former academic, I was quite frustrated that we had a lot of existing technical solutions, which were easily applied to real problems, but which were not getting out there, and that’s why Arete was founded.

Why did you want to work with Codebots on creating this app?

We are always looking to work with progressive partners. Like Codebots, we like to apply good technology, good research, and good background work to solve real problems. I’ve always been doing that, even as an academic. There’s always a frustration that we know that we can measure things, that we’re relevant in terms and how to do it, and how often, but the challenge is getting getting that out there and having some impact. I remember, 15 or 20 years ago, we had basic calculators for emissions in a spreadsheet form, and they were clunky. Now what you can do on a smartphone with emissions calculators is so much easier. It’s not that the ideas or techniques are that different; it’s how you operationalise it that matters. Codebots’ approaches it in a smart way, and that’s why we like working with them.

How did you calculate emissions in the Climate Action App?

Our approach is what’s often called lifecycle thinking. You start with the available physical information you have of a company or a project. So, electricity usage, gas and fuel usage, for example. But then, if you try to understand the wider impacts of an organisation. A proper Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is expensive and difficult, and often a one-off process. So for the Climate Action App, we used a different technique using research of detailed economic models and then marrying those with expenditure profiles. The expense profile could be an organisation, a household, a project, or a product, it doesn’t matter. The financial basis of the calculation makes it a much more tractable problem and is remarkably accurate if you have good detailed models underneath it.

How is what you do different? (Feel free to get technical!)

The technique behind our work is called input output analysis. The input output table is a is a big table of interactions, and it is the basis of most economic models. What we’ve done over the last 25 years, is generalise it so you put in emissions in the sectors and you put in energy, water, and a whole bunch of other indicators, and you can use the input output algorithms to calculate, track and trace all the feedbacks and flow on effects associated with a modern economy. Where we’ve gotten really sophisticated, is that now with increasing global trade, you can’t just stop at a country’s boundary. You have to have impacts which trace around the world and if you do an engineering or an audit approach, you simply can’t capture everything until you can get a consistency of measurement with full coverage. Input output analysis is the perfect way of doing that.

How do future-focused leaders measure sustainability?

After measuring their baseline for a few years, some of our most progressive clients take a much more future looking approach to their footprint. For example, if you have three options for product development or for a project, how can you apply measurement to estimate the impacts of those three options? It’s much more prospective than retrospective and that’s when it becomes part of every business decision. You might have a business case for a project, but that project has an emissions footprint associated with it. Now you can compare project A, versus B and versus C. That’s quite exciting because it’s a much more holistic way to decide where to put capital, how to develop, and even if a project might be sustainable. It might be sustainable financially, but not sustainable in some other way.

Why is understanding your corporate carbon footprint important?

You can criticise greenwashing and measurement for measurements sake but without a baseline and understanding your impacts, it’s hard to know where to start. If you calculate a footprint of any organisation, like you’ve done for Codebots, it reveals the major components. By doing some analysis to understand the magnitude of components, you’re able to address these and you have your starting point.

Ultimately it is about being a good corporate citizen. I strongly disagree with with the view that good environmental stewardship and good environmental performance is at a cost of something. New sources of power are cheaper than conventional sources of high polluting power. It’s as simple as that. So it doesn’t have to be a trade off, reductions in waste for example, can save you money. It’s not a choice of either/or, that’s why you need to start with measurement. Then ask yourself, “What are the important things to focus on? What can we do about them? And once we improve those, what do we do next? What about our supply chain?”. That is what comes out of a full footprint approach.

How do you keep yourself motivated and pushing for change?

We’ve been doing this work for a long time and it can be a bit frustrating at the slowness of change. But saying that, technical capabilities have come a long way in the last 10 years and my colleagues and friends at University of Sydney have developed really amazing global models, which are computationally quite impressive. Some of those things weren’t possible, even 10 or 15 years ago, unless using the best supercomputers in the world. The ideas weren’t new, but the implementation is. We are increasingly looking for applications and relevance for that for that sort of work. I get my motivation because we’ve got this great tool, we’ve got many, many years of really good research, now let’s get it out there and let’s use it to make better decisions. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, it’s about setting a target, committing to it, and having good ways of measuring it. That’s when major changes can happen and it can be quite achievable.

If you would like to be a beta tester of the Codebots Climate Action app you can register here.
Christine Chien

Written by Christine Chien

Marketing Operations and Partnerships

Our very own Christine is a marketer by day, nerd by night. If she isn’t developing our marketing strategy, she is usually found by her 3D printer or at a local plant shop.