Gavin Starks wants to track the Earth's carbon footprint—every single step. But he insists his ambitious vision is not hot air. His start-up, called AMEE, can build a complete picture of CO2 emissions, benefiting companies, governments and individuals alike
In the middle of a serious conversation about the fate of the planet, the trace of a mischievous smile passes across Gavin Starks's face. He's talking about naming his carbon calculation company AMEE, which turns out to be an acronym for Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine. There's nothing inherently funny about the imminent destruction of the human race, of course. But this is climate change. There are cynics to provoke. "We're of the Python generation," he points out. "You've got to say 'we're all doomed' with a glint in your eye. It's the thing that gets you up in the morning."
For the past three years, Starks has been getting up every morning to measure the carbon footprint of the Earth. Just so we're clear, that's the entire planet, every person, company and building. Every flight and car journey: tracked, measured and logged. The scale and intricacy of this task doesn't appear to faze Starks at all. On the contrary, it seems to stimulate him. "It will be fraught with complexity," he says. "But we thrive on that." Potential clients give him puzzled looks. "We say we're trying to measure the carbon footprint of everything on Earth. They look at you as if you're a bit mad."
Starks is a former astrophysicist. "My job used to be measuring the whole universe," he says. "So measuring the Earth is a lot easier." Before he joined the corporate world, he was part of the research team at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, home of the famous Lovell Telescope. Having mapped "substantial chunks" of the universe—"it's a big place"—he left to become employee number five at Virgin Net (now Virgin Media). In 1999, he left to start his own streaming company, Tornado Productions, eventually selling what had by then become a reasonably successful creation to Servecast.
Starks "chilled for a bit" before joining Consolidated Independent (CI) as managing director in 2004. His time there gave him a useful grounding in co-ordinating huge data sets. CI's remit, he explains, was "to aggregate all the music and deliver it to the digital marketplace". But it wasn't until he witnessed a presentation by Climate Group chief executive Steve Howard that he turned his attention to the fate of the planet. Howard had used the phrase "mass extinction" and Starks was hooked. To an ex-scientist, the carbon calculation industry looked like "a complete mess". Emissions were being measured, says Starks, "but everybody was using different methodology and different emissions factors: there were no standards, effectively. We thought we could do it a whole lot better."
Initially, he ran AMEE as a side project, but last year he quit CI to focus his efforts on building an aggregation platform capable of co-ordinating the world's entire carbon consumption data. In the same way that Google aggregates all the world's websites into one searchable database, AMEE's platform will be the key to our carbon data.
Why do we even need such a platform? Consider the huge market for flat-screen TVs. Even if you discount the effects of nitrogen trifluoride, a harmful greenhouse gas used in the manufacturing process, flat-screen TVs rate highly on the average household's carbon scorecard. Direct emissions relate to how often the set is switched on. But that's only the tip of a large iceberg. You also need to account for the set's journey to your living room. How much of that was by sea? How much by air? What type of plane? What type of boat? How old was the lorry that transported it to and from the warehouse? Dig deeper. The main TV chassis might have been manufactured in Taiwan, but the backlight and electronics could have been made in India. Every component has its own carbon history. The problem is in piecing that background together to build a complete picture—a full, transparent and accurate carbon footprint.
It took Starks and a small team 18 months to develop AMEE's labyrinthine algorithmic engine. The complexity was in building software robust enough to cope with myriad emissions factors and protocols that make up the world's carbon-calculation industry. As Lucy Candlin, a sustainability consultant with Future Perfect, says: "You need a very flexible system because every protocol may be slightly different. I can think of four schemes in the States that cover the same area but have slightly different rules."
The timing was good. It just so happened that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was looking for software to form the backbone of Act On CO2, David Miliband's campaign to reduce household carbon emissions. Starks was asked to write a paper for the then environment secretary to take home over the Christmas holidays. By January 2007, the project was signed off and AMEE had its first client.
DEFRA proved a useful catalyst. It sparked interest from Google, which agreed to use AMEE's software engine as the back office for its UK Carbon Footprint project. Organisations as diverse as Morgan Stanley and the band Radiohead were to follow, as were accusations of "greenwashing", particularly against the former. Morgan Stanley, it was argued, makes a big deal of its commitment to climate change while offering financial backing to some of the biggest polluters. Starks says that despite the cynicism, good corporate intentions tend to outweigh the bad. "Morgan Stanley is measuring its staff and staff are measuring their family's footprints. The company then contributes to offsetting the families, not just the staff," he says.
David Boomer, consultant to the Institute of Directors on climate change, agrees that corporate will is growing. But for smaller companies, although in theory the will is there, in practice there are often more urgent considerations. "In this economic environment, small businesses are focusing less on the environment and more on their own economic survival," he says.
The European Union has supported a cap and trade policy for its biggest polluters since the inception of its Greenhouse Gas Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) in 2005. The government is a strong advocate of the scheme and begins its own Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) for all companies with an annual electricity bill above £500,000 in 2010. Around 5,000 companies, the government hopes, will be shamed into action by the publication of a table that shows the biggest electricity consumers.
Boomer adds that smaller companies not qualifying for the CRC scheme are still obliged to report their emissions under the Companies Act 2006. "The act doesn't say how it should be done," explains Boomer, "but there are guidelines coming out fairly soon from the Environment Agency and the Institute of Chartered Accountants. This new accounting standard will be for all companies."
The government is keen on selling the cost-cutting benefits of its climate change policy. Jonathan Farr, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, says the CRC is about "picking up ten pound notes from the floor". Candlin at Future Perfect, agrees—"being energy-efficient is good for the bottom line"—up to a point. The energy savings, she says, won't always exceed the cost of all that extra admin. And she's not just talking about a cash sum. "How do you cost for the extra time and effort that goes into accounting and reporting all this new data?"
With or without the consent of the UK business community, cap and trade remains the most likely solution. And for the initiative to be effective, the reported values must be fair and accurate. That's where AMEE comes in. "Carbon calculation will become part of the accounting process. If you have quantifiable, robust, auditable emissions data, they become tradable," says Starks. "That's a huge market to unpack. The more transparency, the more accuracy we can bring to that process, the greater the market."
How accurate can AMEE be? Let's go back to those flat-screen TVs. Candlin believes it's entirely possible for any organisation to accurately account for its own energy and carbon consumption, but it's a much harder task to measure how much carbon goes into a particular product because global supply chains are so complex. "The further back you go the more it's a guess," she says. "Do you want to go and talk to the miners in South Africa and tell them to account accurately, because that's what you're talking about."
Funnily enough, that's exactly what Starks is talking about. He calls it a "bottom-up" approach to carbon accounting, or in other words allowing the edges of a company's supply chain access to AMEE's engine so that suppliers can calculate their own impact. "A lot of this analysis is top down," he says. "Companies go through their supply chain all the way to the bottom, but there's a whole bunch of edges that you don't deal with because you can't. Our view is that if every company is measured then you can data-mine that. But you can only data-mine if the data is accessible."
AMEE, he says, makes that data accessible. But how far down do you go? Is it enough to track a soft drinks firm's impact back to the bottling factory, or do we go sideways and measure the impact of that company's agency network—the smaller suppliers, for example, that market the drink around the world on behalf of the business? We measure it all, says Starks. "It might sound crazy, three years ago it sounded completely ludicrous, but we have partners right now in Brazil, India... we're starting to see a network effect."
One of AMEE's most influential investors is O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, in which Tim O'Reilly, a California-based internet industry savant, plays a key role. Well known for his ability to not so much call a trend as legitimise it, O'Reilly is widely credited with coining the term Web 2.0. Carbon calculation, he believes, is just one of many potential applications for AMEE's software. The USP, he says, is co-ordinating vast sets of complex data. "Sensors driving computer applications is the wave of the future. In that sense, AMEE is just one node in a much bigger story," he says.
O'Reilly believes there is value in any software that can make sense of "vast masses of decentralised data that are being generated by devices". For example, using cameras as sensors to build online maps, or linking databases with speech-recognition software. Employing in-built sensors to track "a car driving down the road," says O'Reilly, "we could use AMEE to do a carbon calculation. Say we wanted to have a carbon tax on driving, AMEE is an infrastructure that could support that." It's the co-ordination of different chunks of data that sets this software apart, he says. Starks also sees the potential. "That's where AMEE's architecture comes into its own," he says. "You can measure and glue different parts of your life together."
But that's the future. What would he change now? "I would introduce [carbon] rationing. You would need to do it internationally, immediately." There are various estimations of a sustainable level of carbon emissions for six billion people. Starks wants a limit of between one and two tonnes per person, per year. The current UK usage is about 10 tonnes per person; 20 tonnes in the US. Rationing would be a huge lifestyle shock. "It has to happen at every level of society. Bottom up. Board level and staff level."
Starks will be tracking our progress, measuring every single step. "I like challenges," he says.