Project Neutral: confronting climate change by making carbon visible

Project Neutral carbon footprint calculator interface

As we navigate a global pandemic and a just recovery, we want to amplify the stories of those who are working towards a low-carbon future. To build a vibrant low-carbon economy, we’ll need innovative tech that supports our needs while preserving the environment. That’s why Bullfrog Power is sponsoring the Centre for Social Innovation’s Earth Tech, an accelerator for startups and nonprofits working on climate and freshwater solutions.

In Canada, 45% of greenhouse gas emissions come from household-level choices – choices about how we move around, the food we eat, the flights we take, and how we heat and cool our homes. But for such a huge category of emissions, many people aren’t aware of their contributions. Project Neutral is an environmental charity that’s making this carbon visible, and setting people on a path to reducing their emissions in a quantified, data-driven way.

Jake Miller joined Project Neutral with the goal of developing a new, easy-to-use household carbon calculator that would appeal to a large audience. “A world where carbon emissions are made visible to all people Is a world where we can make the right decisions,” Jake told us. “Project Neutral is the first step towards a world where everyone is reversing climate change.”

Project Neutral’s calculator asks simple lifestyle questions, like what kind of transportation you use or how much meat you eat, and gives users an accurate measurement of their carbon footprint in just a few minutes. So far, Project Neutral has measured 90,000 tonnes of CO2—that’s the equivalent of about 22,000 hot air balloons filled with CO2 that they’ve made visible to Canadians. Once users gain a better understanding of their footprint, Project Neutral offers resources to help them meaningfully reduce their day-to-day carbon emissions.

Project Neutral's Jake Miller at EcoFair at the Barns
Jake at EcoFair in Toronto

Striving to be neutral

Jake’s near-term goal is to reach 100,000 Canadians. “The average household likely has 2-5 tonnes of CO2 reductions that are easily targeted,” he said. “So 100,000 households would have 200,000 to 500,000 tonnes of CO2 of potential reductions—the equivalent of about a million barrels of oil.”

Project Neutral leverages community involvement to maximize their impact and help users feel connected to the climate movement. Partners including Reep Green Solutions and Carbon Conversations TO use Project Neutral during in-person (and now virtual) sessions that tie participants’ personal footprints to larger action plans. Project Neutral is currently looking to find new revenue streams and creative ways to reach communities, whether they’re schools, workplaces, or neighbourhoods.

“We’re looking to build partnerships with other environmental organizations and municipalities, offer a school program, and create employee engagement campaigns,” Jake said. “We also know that excellent household carbon footprint calculators are hard to develop, so we want to expand into a national tool so that all Canadians can get an accurate estimate of their own emissions.”

Project Neutral's carbon calculator
Project Neutral’s mobile interface

Project Neutral is also offering a growing number of Action Cards on their website. These cards, developed by volunteer university students in environmental programs, are carefully researched and designed to offer more thorough, impactful actions than the skimpy suggestions we’re so often given.

Jake noted that most of the technology we need to transition to a low-carbon world already exists. What we need is to apply these technologies in ways that don’t simply maintain our standards of living, but improve them for people across the globe. “Shifting to a low-carbon lifestyle doesn’t mean depriving yourself,” Jake said. “Take natural gas-burning furnaces—they’re the biggest carbon emitter in the vast majority of Canadian homes, but they’re an expensive and terribly inefficient way to heat a building. Meanwhile, a heat pump linked up to radiant floor heating is efficient, low-carbon, and luxurious. Have you ever stepped onto a heated bathroom floor?”

Jake points out that many of the decisions we make are out of habit or due to short-term advantages—like buying a gas-powered vehicle when an electric one is cheaper over its lifetime. “But once we consider the carbon output of our choices, once we make emissions a variable in our daily decision-making, we start choosing 21st-century technologies,” Jake maintained.

Navigating the negatives

When Jake came onboard, Project Neutral was expanding in Ontario with funding from the provincial Cap & Trade program. When Cap & Trade was cancelled, everything changed. “The sudden loss of funding was really hard,” Jake admitted. “For a few months we put ourselves on part-time hours to keep the lights on. But our Director, Katie Harper, and I were convinced that we had something special.”

Jake and Katie set out to serve a new audience of people ready to start their low-carbon journeys. After just six months, without major fanfare or promotions, the number of people using their new carbon footprint calculator surpassed the users of their legacy tool. “It was clear there was an appetite for the work we were doing,” Jake said. “That was really exciting.”

In August of 2019, Katie took parental leave and Jake assumed the role of Acting Director. “It’s been quite a year to step into a leadership role and become a one-person organization,” Jake said. “Getting into Earth Tech was a major win for me, as I found a whole community and advisors who could help guide me through some challenging times.”

“In the midst of COVID, when all our plans for the year were in disarray, I joined a video chat with members of the Earth Tech cohort,” Jake continued. “We all shared our pains and our confusion, but also our hopes and visions for how to find opportunities to improve our organizations. It felt like in a time of great uncertainty, I was part of a community that was committed to building a better world. It was incredibly motivating and reassuring to know I had people like that to draw on.”

Jake working on the Project Neutral carbon calculator
Jake at a planning session

To fix a big footprint, no step is too small

Jake believes that discovering your carbon footprint is key to confronting climate change on your own terms, but he acknowledges that it can be scary. “For most of us, it’s going to be a difficult number to learn,” he said. “But it’s also a truly essential action. Sharing your footprint and discussing what you want to change might be the most important action of all! That’s what leads to the larger social and behavioural shifts that are so necessary to tackling climate change.”

“If I woke up every day contemplating the enormity of the climate crisis, I’m not sure I’d get out of bed. Instead, I take heart in the knowledge that all great, world-changing transformations are composed of many small individual actions.”

Jake Miller

“I’m very lucky that in my working life I get to contribute a bunch of these world-changing actions each day,” Jake said. “When your work is in alignment with a necessary improvement to the world, motivation isn’t really necessary—you’re just pulled along by a greater momentum.”

Project Neutral envisages a world where carbon footprints are fully integrated into our actions, purchases, and choices. “We want to live in a world where carbon measurements will be included in all products and services, from renovations and event planning to investments,” Jake added. “In that world, every action we take—no matter how small—can contribute to the fight against climate change.”

Curious about other Earth Tech ventures? Click here to read how Water Rangers empowers people without science training to gather crowdsourced data and become stewards of their waterways.

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