The Truth About Carbon Footprints

Stepping into environmentalism.

The “carbon footprint” represents the conceptual foundation of modern climate understanding. The logic behind it goes as follows: If only each individual could reduce their personal impact on the environment, the cumulative effect would place us on a fast track to an ultra-efficient, egalitarian society and a clean planet. Well-meaning organizations from the Nature Conservancy to the EPA provide free “carbon footprint calculators” so concerned citizens can measure the exact injury they inflict on the Earth. But this guilt-inducing calculus has its roots in an unlikely source: oil supermajor British Petroleum.

BP is the second-largest non-state-owned petroleum company in the world. Its recent claims to fame include the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill (in which 130 million gallons of oil were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico) and a series of explosions and toxic waste leaks at a Texas refinery. The oil multinational has a reputation for wanton environmental destruction and Indigenous exploitation. So why is it drawing attention to an ecological ethos that stands in direct opposition to its own business model?

It all began in the early 2000s when BP hired legendary PR agency Ogilvy & Mather to overhaul its public image. In a stroke of marketing genius, Ogilvy & Mather launched the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign. It released the world’s first carbon footprint calculator in 2004, which was used more than 278,000 times in the first year alone.

The campaign struck a perfect balance between performative activism and blame reassignment. In playing on the fears of climate change that met with a feeling of helplessness, BP co-opted a genuine desire to pioneer carbon-free energy and used this political goodwill to maintain its extractive practices. The initiative simultaneously placed the onus of responsibility on consumers while shifting attention from and providing cover for corporate behemoths who supplied fossil fuels.

Though renewables have been at the core of BP’s ad operation for more than 20 years, it spends more on these campaigns than on actual renewable power investment. In 2019, BP made its biggest investment in oil acquisition in 20 years while simultaneously spending more than $50 million annually to lobby against any meaningful climate change legislation. Leaked internal documents from BP corporate prove that the company acknowledged that climate change was human-caused and exacerbated by fossil fuels as far back as 1979. In the following decades, BP waged an aggressive war on climate science, a war that continues to this day.

As many environmentalists adopted the carbon footprint framework, the public began to focus on its own routines that, under the logic of the carbon footprint, took on a moral dimension so that deviation from a good score could be seen as a personal shortcoming. It’s important to note that this renewed spotlight on commonplace activities like flying and eating meat was in many ways justified. The choice to go vegan, replace air travel, or install solar panels corresponded to measurable reductions in greenhouse gases. But this schema shielded many of the most culpable corporate entities from taking the same responsibility and self-conscience attitude that was expected of the consumer.

The underlying issue is the large percentage of our “carbon footprints” that is put in place without our consent. A 2008 MIT study concluded that American citizens owed a sizable portion of their CO2 output to government services like police, the court system, and the military—public utilities that are non-optionally funded through taxes. Compounding this issue is that most people can’t control where their electricity comes from. Some homeowners with spare capital can invest in solar panels, but most renters or apartment dwellers are at the mercy of their local power grid, which in the U.S. is almost always supplied with dirty electricity from coal or natural gas. The MIT study determined that unhoused Americans, who slept in shelters and ate at soup kitchens, had the lowest overall carbon footprint at 8.5 tons annually. This is still more than double the global average of four tons. For reference, the average Canadian produces 16.9 tons of CO2 annually, the Chinese citizen produces 7.7 tons per capita, and the Somalian 0.1 tons.

In simpler terms, even if citizens from rich countries eschewed their cars, homes, and most worldly possessions, their carbon footprints would still be dangerously high. This realization pokes a hole in the core tenet of BP’s messaging and makes one question whether individual action alone can reverse—or have meaningful impact on—climate change.

The climate crisis requires collective tenacity and a complete overhaul of global systems from agriculture to transportation and construction. This monumental change necessitates more than paper straws and fabric tote bags. The moment demands decisive action and reduced consumption from individuals, governments, and businesses alike.

A healthy dose of skepticism may be suitable as the public puzzles over BP’s intention to reach net zero emissions by 2050. British Petroleum single-handedly contributed 1.5 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from 1988–2015. If history is any indication, BP (and all major extractive companies, many of whom haven’t bothered to even feign environmentalism) won’t abandon fossil fuels without a tangible financial incentive. And this corporate motive, unlike the carbon footprint framework that BP cleverly foisted on its consumers, actually begins with the autonomy of individual people.