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February 14, 2022

Let’s Chat: Understanding the carbon footprint of your travel choices

Let’s Chat: Understanding the carbon footprint of your travel choices

Interview with Rasa

The climate crisis is a systems challenge, one that requires change across so many levels that it can feel overwhelming to even know where to start. That is why, it can be inspiring to see how your actions help shift mindsets and contribute to more informed conversations and decisions. 

Sounds abstract? Good thing, we had the great pleasure of sitting down with Rasa, a leading conversational AI platform. Applying their deep understanding of customer engagement to the climate crisis, Rasa has built an open-source assistant, called Carbon Bot, which helps people understand and estimate their travel emissions.

What is your take on sustainable travel?

Of course, we’re happy to see travel becoming more sustainable, especially flying.

As a company, we give people tools to build great conversational AI assistants. Now, for example, a great assistant can help people go paperless and travel less, if they can sort out things online easily. On the other hand, an assistant can make it easier for people to plan trips and travel even if they otherwise wouldn’t.

It is with assistants like Carbon Bot that we’d like to inspire others to use the tech for positive change.

Tell us more about Rasa: What’s your vision for the future?

We’d love to see a world where anyone can interact with all kinds of systems easily, by having a natural conversation. At the same time, we want to ensure that anyone, not just big corporations, have the tools needed to build such a natural user experience. 

Visualisation of key quote from the interview

How does your Chatbot play into that?

Carbon Bot is one of our simple open source bots – anyone can go and check it out, talk to it, tweak it, make it their own, improve it… Carbon Bot is also an example of how a computer program can help educate people about important topics, in this case the emissions from flying and how to offset them.

The AI assistant is also very important for our AI research – by exploring how humans talk to it, and how this changes as we change the assistant, we learn how to build even better tools and, ultimately, better conversational AI.

How did you find Climatiq, and what problem are we helping you solve? 

We came across Climatiq back in July of 2021, perhaps because Rasa and Climatiq were both “born” in Berlin. (In a chat, you would now see this: :-)) Our use of the Climatiq API started quite lightly – we programmed Carbon Bot to use the API instead of manual, approximate calculations of the CO2 estimate for flights that the AI assistant used previously and that can end up being quite far from accurate.

Soon, we realised that the growing database of emission factors enabled us to extend Carbon Bot itself. We’re hopeful that, one day, the assistant will help people easily estimate their footprint for different forms of travel and other activities.

What has the feedback been so far? How are people engaging with Carbon bot?

To be honest, you wouldn’t know Carbon Bot uses the Climatiq API unless you looked at the code. This is where we see lots of potential as well – educating people about where the numbers come from and why the data sources for CO2 estimations matter a lot.

In this conversational approach, do you get the sense that the time is ripe to make emissions part of every decision – on a personal as well as on a business level?

Let’s be honest, estimating emissions continues to be, in many cases, challenging, and is not a solved problem. But one thing can bring us much closer to considering emissions in our daily lives, and that is to make estimating emissions easy for anyone.

That’s why we’re excited about Climatiq’s approach which fosters wider participation and helps create insight into emissions beyond annual corporate reports.

You direct people to certified offsetting projects. How do you approach the complexity and the many questions around the validity of offsetting as a mitigation strategy? Are you pursuing other avenues of climate action as well?

This is a great question. In an ideal world, Carbon Bot would educate people so that, next time, they’ll decide not to fly or will at least offset their emissions responsibly. In reality, we need to be more patient. It’s important to give everyone some opportunity to be more responsible, which is why Carbon Bot challenges you to buy certified offsets after it gives you a CO2 estimation for your flight.

Naturally, a future version of Carbon Bot could educate people more about their other options, for example by estimating how much more environment-friendly the same journey would be if one took a train.

What’s next, for you, emissions measurement, and sustainable travel?

At Rasa, we’re hoping to see many more conversational assistants that are a delight to talk to. Now, we are no climate experts, but we also believe that everyone can contribute in this important area – whether by not selling products to mis-aligned or unethical customers, or by optimising tech solutions to require less electricity.

Travel continues to be a challenge for Rasa, though – while we work from home instead of commuting, we are also spread across the globe and even just one company-wide meet-up involves a lot of flying. Even so, it’s important to educate ourselves about our impact and also to put a clear number on our emissions – it’s easier to cut them down when you can measure them!