The words ‘carbon footprint’ seem to be everywhere these days. At times it can be a useful metric, at others it can be a weaponised term to judge individuals over relatively small lifestyle choices. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the concept of a carbon footprint is relatively new and not completely innocent.
The history of the carbon footprint
In the early 2000s BP hired PR professionals Ogilvy & Mather, collaborating to promote the narrative that climate breakdown is the fault of individuals rather than fossil fuel giants. The company released its ‘carbon footprint calculator’ in 2004, allowing people to see how their choices were responsible for global heating.
“This industry has a proven track record of communicating strategically to confuse the public and undermine action, so we should avoid falling into their rhetorical traps,” said Geoffrey Supran, a science historian at Harvard University who investigates the tactics of fossil fuel interests.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this tactic used. In 1971 the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful released an advert with the catchy phrase People Start Pollution. People can stop it. The message was clear, pollution was caused by individual actions and choices, rather than an industry flooding the market with mass-produced plastic bottles. Keep America Beautiful, however, were funded by the beverage and packaging industry, including the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch Companies, and the advert was deliberately designed to remove accountability from these companies.
The numbers beyond carbon footprints
So let’s look at some facts. While they can be important and should be taken when possible, individual choices aren’t enough to prevent climate breakdown. These actions don’t have large enough impacts when 100 companies are historically responsible for 71% of emissions, and the energy sector is responsible for around 75% of emissions.
We need to exit the age of fossil fuels, reinvent our energy landscape, rethink how we do almost everything. We need collective action at every scale from local to global – and the good people already at work on all those levels need help in getting a city to commit to clean power or a state to stop fracking or a nation to end fossil-fuel subsidies. The revolution won’t happen by people staying home and being good.
What we need is collective action addressing policy, law, and systemic change. There’s nothing wrong with trying to lower our individual impacts, in fact it can be helpful as we think about ways to restructure society, redistribute resources and seek an equitable future. It can give us glimpses of the new world we may build, but it cannot solve this crisis alone.
Even in a pandemic, when quarantines around the world saw major drops in individual carbon footprints, overall CO2 emissions weren’t particularly impacted, with 2020’s overall emissions only slightly less than 2019. The idea of a carbon footprint can be useful, but it’s also severely limited when we understand it was created to manipulate thinking over climate breakdown. BP was producing 4 million barrels of oil and gas per day in 2005, but it still produces 3.8 million barrels today. In 2018, it invested a measly 2.3% of its budget on renewable energy, and it still continues to pursue increasingly risky extraction around the world. Not only are BP on the list of 100 companies responsible for the majority of emissions, they’re also on a list from 2019 that revealed just 20 are responsible for 1/3 of emissions.
It’s clear that BP has done nothing to reduce its own footprint or pursue dramatic shifts in the energy sector. Instead, it funnelled resources into shifting the carbon conversation to something that ‘we’ caused, something that ‘you’ have done wrong through personal choices, something ‘I’ need to feel guilty about.
Given that climate change is a global problem, the temptation to use we makes sense. But there’s a real problem with it: the guilty collective it invokes simply doesn’t exist. The we responsible for climate change is a fictional construct, one that’s distorting and dangerous. By hiding who’s really responsible for our current, terrifying predicament, we provides political cover for the people who are happy to let hundreds of millions of other people die for their own profit and pleasure.
We can also see this in the recent rise of carbon-tracking apps, which help you track your footprint and buy carbon offsets in response. One of the most prominent of these is called VYVE; it’s also backed by BP subsidiary Launchpad, a venture capital-style group that aims to make low-carbon startups expand into billion-dollar firms. Creating more billionaires off the back of carbon footprints designed to shift accountability from the powerful… doesn’t quite suggest climate justice.
So yes, we should all try and minimise our impacts, but we also have to be realistic about who is really at fault.
“Even a homeless person living in a fossil fuel powered society has an unsustainably high carbon footprint,” said Stanford’s Franta. “As long as fossil fuels are the basis for the energy system, you could never have a sustainable carbon footprint. You simply can’t do it.”
All of this isn’t particularly surprising when we also consider what fossil fuel companies knew before information on climate breakdown was publicly available. A 2015 investigation from Inside Climate News revealed that Exxon had known about climate change for decades, and yet did nothing except work with right-wing think tanks and industry to cast doubt on the science, preventing any form of meaningful action. The invention of a carbon footprint fits right into this playbook.
From individual to collective
Along with spending a lot of time figuring out how to make your own life practically green (because, it’s true, how are you going to face your kids if you don’t?), spend at least a little time figuring out how to engage in the symbolic political action that might actually add up to something useful.
The underlying concept we need to consider is how we view ourselves. The carbon footprint often focuses on what we consume, pushing us to buy our way to something better. While there is a place for this, our highest priority needs to be seeing ourselves as citizens rather than consumers. As participants in a political climate, as people with the power to shape our local communities, contexts and systems. This must motivate our tactics, we can’t stop at individual moral choices.
The phrase ‘there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism’ is, in this sense, true, because we live in a fossil fuel economy. However, while this is often used as an excuse to avoid any action, we must use this to see ourselves as more than our individual choices. We must use this as motivation to change the entire system alongside our personal actions.
Our individual choices will still carry a level of influence of course, shifting culture, values and habits (according to multiple studies, when someone installs solar panels, their neighbours are more likely to install them too). But we can’t let this lull us into the false idea that this is enough. We must understand how these things are connected and focus on the fossil fuel industry, on politicians, and all the ways society is set up to fail us. Only by working collectively can we undo these things, replacing them with something better.
Because the phrase is here to stay, climate communication researchers emphasize that the meaning behind “carbon footprint” can be expanded, far beyond what BP wants it to mean. Lowering your carbon footprint should include being an engaged citizen who recognizes how to actually curb the planet’s warming
Beyond this, it’s also important to understand that carbon footprints as a primary measurement can set us up for judgement and infighting. Focus too much on personal purity and we risk losing sight of the real industries causing the problem; we spend too much time judging each other for not always making the most moral choice, despite the realities of living in a nuanced and messy world.
It’s not politically useful. It doesn’t do us any good to aim for individual purity. When we start doing that, we become solipsistic, we become narcissistic, we become very focused on our own personal little thingy and that means that we don’t aim to make systemic, bigger changes.
Individual actions, whatever they may be in our contexts, do matter. It is still worth trying to do all we can in our personal spheres of influence, especially when the richest 10% of consumers produce 50% of global emissions every year, and consume around 20 times more energy than the poorest 10%. . However, if this gets to the point where we spend more time policing each other than we do targeting the fossil fuel industry, then the carbon footprint PR campaign has won. We, as individual actors, did not cause these problems. But we can come together in collective action to solve them.
Because, ironically, by focusing systemically we will actually enable more people to make better individual choices. When we focus on radically changing the systems we live within, outcomes such as readily accessible public transport, renewable energy and sustainable food options become an inevitable byproduct. Moral individual choices can become the norm because we’re not existing within systems that require oppression in order to function, we just need the right tactics to get us there.
Ultimately, don’t give in to the myth of the carbon footprint. Make the best individual choices you can, depending on your context, and get involved in community action. This is how we make change. This is how we win.