Carbon footprints

Did you know the idea of a carbon footprint goes back to the 1990s? More than 30 years of calculating how much a person contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

You are undoubtedly familiar with the term carbon footprint, the total greenhouse gases generated by human actions.

You may even have gone online to a carbon footprint calculator to see what impact driving the kids to soccer, running the air conditioner and eating to stay alive does to your personal emissions profile.

You learnt that the average person is an emitter of greenhouse gases. 

Globally the average is around 4 tCO2e each year, although for those in the United States, it is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. 

The challenge is that it is hard to get that number down if you live in the US or any of the mature economies. These complex societies run on energy to make, deliver, and consume stuff that relies on fossil fuels. Until the transition to alternative energy is complete, the average citizen can do little other than demand some action from politicians to speed up the process.

We are left to hold the guilt over our outsized carbon feet.

The concept of a carbon footprint goes back to the 1990s idea of an ecological footprint developed by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel to assess the number of “earths” required if everyone on the planet consumed resources at the same level as the person calculating their ecological footprint. 

The carbon footprint is a more specific subset of this idea expressed in emissions of greenhouse gases as tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2e) rather than ‘earths’.

The conservation movement is fond of the footprint — Conservation International has a carbon one, WWF has an ecological footprint calculator — perhaps because there is a good fit here with personal responsibility and personal actions as the route to saving the planet.

So here is a twist.

Who made the carbon footprint popular?

It turns out that an extensive advertising campaign by British Petroleum, a multinational oil company with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide, popularised the carbon footprint idea. 

BP hired the public relations firm, Ogilvy & Mather, to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant but that of individuals. The campaign instructed people to calculate their footprints and provide ways to “go on a low-carbon diet”. 

The message from BP was to use the “carbon footprint calculator” to show that regular daily life is mainly responsible for heating the globe.

It’s all your fault.

This ‘shifting blame’ strategy borrowed heavily from previous campaigns by the tobacco industry and plastics industry to make the adverse outcomes of underage smoking, cigarette butt pollution, and plastic pollution the consequence of individual choices.

Classic deception leadership.

Look at yourself. All that eating, drinking and homebuilding is polluting the planet. 

There are two significant problems with this.

welegant young woman carrying bags from designer shops
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Annual per capita spending on clothing and footwear is estimated at $270 in 2021 and expected to rise to $330 by 2025

Who has the biggest footprint?

The obvious problem is that the structure of the economy and the opportunity for profit from providing dirty energy makes the heaviest polluters the oil, coal and gas companies. 

They have by far the most extensive footprints.

Naturally, they argue they are just providing a service that both consumers and society wants and asks them to provide. And once in the system, they say that fossil fuel energy is indispensable while winking at their shareholders. 

They have a point given the current energy mix and the human tendency to consume, but it is perverse given the known future. 

For example, unless Norway diversifies rapidly away from fossil fuel, its GDP is expected to fall by 9%. The US could also face an overall hit of $3.5tn and Canada $920bn over the next 15 years just through the global decline in demand for petroleum products once markets such as the EU and China shift towards net zero.

Look out for all the clever ways that fossil fuel industries and those that benefit from them will shift blame to stall the inevitable.

The second problem is more subtle.

Who will admit to a fault?

Humans are great at denial. 

One form of rejection is what the philosopher Quassim Cassam calls “behavioural or practical denialism”, the mindset that accepts the evidence — my carbon feet are enormous — but still does not change its behaviour. 

Practical denialism appears in the press conferences of politicians and the online rants of extremists. It lives in individuals, too, in the fatalism that says one person can do nothing to halt a planetary emergency, so you might as well shrug and move on. 

Such resignation prevents the individual from changing behaviour. 

Goodness, 4 tCO2e is already a pittance; how can I even go on a diet? Am I supposed to be a monk on a hilltop? Somebody has to pay the mortgage.

Denial means that no low-carbon diet is required.

large number of shoppers in a modern shopping mall
Photo by Heamosoo Kim on Unsplash

The global sneakers market revenue in 2021 was valued at US$70 billion and is expected to be US$102 billion by 2025.

What sustainably FED suggests

…a little honesty, perhaps.

Carbon footprints are small for each individual; this is true. But the collective effect of our vast numbers is a stomp. 

Simplifying fossil fuel use into a personal footprint is unhelpful because it fails to focus on the real problem of the aggregate effect. 

Burning fossil fuels allowed humanity to alter the surface of the planet and its atmosphere enough to register in the stratigraphy of rocks and send the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. 

Everyone alive has to accept responsibility for this reality.

But don’t be fooled into the guilt trip that the fossil fuel companies would lay on us. Be smart and have adult conversations to look past the spin.

Even as some corporations look to ride on the transition and morph themselves along with the rest of us, they still have the shareholder value mantra tattooed onto their foreheads. They will do what it takes to maintain profits for as long as possible. 

Shifting blame is just one of the tactics.

Equally, avoid the denial and make an effort to change behaviour. 

There is a lot we can do.

Hero image modified from photo by Finding Dan | Dan Grinwis on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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