August 3, 2006 3:44 PM PDT

Future of the environment is in the smart cards

It looks like we could be carrying more cards in the future.

A technological advancement in smart cards--which resemble credit cards, but contain an embedded microprocessor--could someday let people keep track of their ecological behavior.

U.K. product innovation consultants Design Stream has teamed up with identity specialist Sven Vogel to develop the Emissary card concept. It would combine the smart card with advances in flexible screen technology and next-generation card chip design.

The Emissary card would look and act like a regular credit card--but with greater implications, the company said. Instead of monitoring a person's finances, it would track the rate at which he or she pollutes. Each person would be allocated a certain amount of energy to use each month--a sort of environmental allowance.

The energy would be broken down into measurable units called "carbon credits." They would be spent according to environmental impact. For instance, people who drive or fly frequently would burn through their credits faster than bikers or those who vacation locally.

"As far as I understand, those people who have a high impact on the environment would use their credits quickly and suffer penalties for any further impact by paying more for goods and services that impact the environment," said Chaz Nandra, co-founding director at Design Stream.

The envisioned result is a credit card that displays information about its user's consumption of goods and services. At the point of purchase, messages would appear as moving pictures and would serve to remind consumers of their effect on the environment.

"The main thrust of this is to download media onto the card when transactions are being carried out in a store," Nandra said. "Hence, any positive or negative behavior can be highlighted at the point of purchase through messages that play on the card itself."

The idea is to highlight so-called ethical consumption by telling people they could buy certain products that are better for the environment than the ones they are actually purchasing.

In a speech last month at the Audit Commission, U.K. Environment Secretary David Milliband posited a similar idea as an alternative to the greenhouse emissions tax.

"Imagine a country where carbon becomes a new currency," he said. "When we buy electricity, gas and fuel, we use our carbon points, as well as pounds. To help reduce carbon emissions, the government would set limits on the amount of carbon that could be used."

Miliband said each person would receive the same number of carbon points. He or she would have the option to sell any unused carbon points back to the bank.

Feedback on Milliband's blog has been mixed. While some support the card idea, others question its effectiveness, fairness and how it will ultimately be carried out. Blogger Robert Metcalfe opposed the idea on the basis that it places the energy burden squarely on the consumer.

"Now while I agree on a system where individuals should be given incentives to make the correct decisions," he said, "it seems that this system places the environmental problem onto the consumer, while the firms are being somewhat ignored."

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