The Carbon Footprint Paradox

Growing up in Scotland during the noughties, climate change and environmental awareness were a part of the curriculum at both primary and secondary school. I would say that it is safe to assume that including such topics in school has an overall positive affect on the way that children think about the world that surrounds them. Promoting recycling, green energy and water conservation all in the name of saving the planet likely taught us some valuable lessons and worked to build an attitude of shared responsibility regarding the environment. The heightened public consciousness of climate change seemed to really kick in during the nineties, at the same time as a new metric of environmental impact was created; the carbon footprint.

This new phrase was designed by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel as an offshoot of the more general concept of the ecological footprint. The carbon footprint, however, aimed to specifically measure the greenhouse gas emissions that could be attributed to one person or organisation. On paper this would give us an indication of which groups of people or nations produce the most carbon dioxide so that we can work towards reducing the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. When a carbon footprint is presented alongside a person or group’s water and land footprints then we can gather an overall analysis of their environmental impact. Now, however, you hear almost exclusively about carbon footprints and very little of water or land usage, by comparison, in environmental discourse and a large reason for this lies with BP.

In the late nineties BP were one of the worst producers of greenhouse gases and began taking steps to rectify this stain on their public image. The oil and gas conglomerate left a climate change denial lobbyist group in 1997 and soon after became one of the first major fossil fuel companies to seriously address the risk of climate change. It all looked like BP were going to embark on a journey to lead their industry into a new age of clean energy and environmental recovery on a scale never seen before.

This, of course, did not materialise and in 2005 BP hijacked the term ‘carbon footprint’ for a new marketing and PR campaign. Alongside advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, BP aimed to divert attention from their lack of environmental progress. The decision was made that the best use of a quarter of a billion pounds would not be to actually work on reducing their own detrimental effect on the planet, but instead they would create an advertising campaign that absolves them of all blame. To do this BP needed a scapegoat, and who better than to pick to carry this burden than the average person?

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on

The carbon footprint concept was popularised by BP through advertisements that encouraged the public to calculate their individual impact on the environment. Aside from the glaring hypocrisy of one of the largest oil and gas companies pointing the finger at the everyone else for releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere, the campaign also ignored the fact that many of the factors that make up the carbon footprint score are out of the hand of the average consumer. This includes things such as where you live, your country’s military size and any infrastructure that you use on a daily basis. These are things that we should be made aware of, but for such abstract things to be included in the weight of environmental responsibility of an individual seems rich, particularly coming from BP.

So now that we know that the blame has been placed on us by the fossil fuel industry, the readiness that the carbon footprint guilt was taken as gospel seems quite alarming. Whilst there are good lessons to take from analysing our carbon output it will always be insignificant when looking at the bigger picture. BP continued to drill for oil and gas and made little effort to reduce greenhouse gas emission in the fifteen years following their 2005 carbon footprint campaign. Since then BP produced one of the worst oil spills that mankind has ever seen and remains the sixth biggest producer of CO2 emissions in the world. The point is that yes, we should recycle and continue to try live lifestyles that produce less carbon emissions, but any idea that we as individuals are to blame for this mess is ridiculous.

This is not to say that we, as consumers, are blame-free. After all, the demands of the modern world and all of our comforts is the driving force behind the fossil fuel industry. That being said, consumers are not given a realistic choice between clean energy and greenhouse gases in our day-to-day purchases. Often the ‘green’ option costs more and is not always a viable option. So it is all very well that we try to play our part but the truth is that the decision to continue using fossil fuels on such a mass scale when we know that this would accelerate global warming lies mainly with energy companies.

Photo by Markus Spiske on

Climate change is not a personal issue, nor is it something that can be solved through individual action. Many energy companies seem reluctant to change their ways in order to prevent climate change, which is at direct odds with public opinion as is shown in The People’s Climate Vote (the biggest global climate survey) which revealed that 59% of people are demanding urgent action on the climate emergency. Oil and gas companies such as BP are well aware that climate change has reached catastrophic levels but refuse to take drastic action. Out of greed these mega-corporations say that they will support change then lobby in private against environmental laws, new green technologies and any suggestion of reform.

So the myth of the carbon footprint that was pushed on us by BP back in 2005 is pretty much just a stunt by clever ad men. That is, of course, not to say that you should stop recycling and buy a Land Rover, but it is important to know the origins of this metric that has become a part of our vocabulary. As if the horrible environmental track record of BP wasn’t enough, they felt the need to spread misinformation about the climate crisis just to alleviate some of the blame. It is time that BP and other fossil fuel companies are forced to put some real resources into changing the way that we get our energy. They have the capacity to make some real changes, and could do it far quicker than they currently are. If the industry continues to allocate as little as 1% of their budgets on green energy then climate change will only continue to get worse.

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