Was The Term "Carbon Footprint" Used to Deflect Blame for Climate Change?
How oil giant BP shifted the blame for global warming to the everyday citizen.
We’ve all heard the term “carbon footprint” as it refers to an individual’s emission of carbon to the environment due to the consumption of fossil fuels. Well, did you know that in 2005, the second-largest non-state-owned oil company in the world, British Petroleum Company (BP), ran a $100 Million campaign outlining the importance of citizens reducing their carbon footprint?
Another heralded environmental advertising campaign, launched three decades later in 2000, also won a laudatory advertising award, a “Gold Effie.” The campaign impressed upon the American public that a different type of pollution, heat-trapping carbon pollution, is also your problem, not the problem of companies drilling deep into the Earth for, and then selling, carbonaceous fuels refined from ancient, decomposed creatures. British Petroleum, the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide, hired the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals.
It’s here that British Petroleum, or BP, first promoted and soon successfully popularized the term “carbon footprint" in the early aughts. The company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 so one could assess how their normal daily life — going to work, buying food, and (gasp) traveling — is largely responsible for heating the globe. A decade and a half later, “carbon footprint” is everywhere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a carbon calculator. The New York Times has a guide on “How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Mashable published a story in 2019 entitled “How to shrink your carbon footprint when you travel.” Outdoorsy brands love the term.
“This is one of the most successful, deceptive PR campaigns maybe ever,” said Benjamin Franta, who researches law and history of science as a J.D.-Ph.D. student at Stanford Law School.
Being conscious of your energy consumption is still a noble deed, and everyone collectively coming together to reduce pollution can have an impact on our Co2 levels, but it is very clear that the biggest problem lies with the very companies telling us to reduce our carbon footprint.
BP vowed that it was time to go on a “low carbon diet” and reduce their own carbon footprint as well. This was all a part of their ad campaign “Beyond Petroleum.” So, just how much has BP stuck to its promises?
In 2005 BP was producing around 4 million barrels of oil a day. Today that number sits at a still staggering 3.8 Million. In 2019, BP purchased a massive accusation of new oil and gas reserves in West Texas. This purchase gave BP “a strong position in one of the world’s hottest oil patches,” according to the company.
This next-to-nothing drop in production and their continuation to expand their oil and gas reserves show us it was never their intention to do anything to reduce their own carbon footprint. The media campaign was simply a way to convince everyday citizens that we are to blame for climate change, not big corporations.
If you look on their website, you can see the company proudly talks of its renewable energy projects and cites more developments in the future. This seems like good intentions at first glance, until you realize that in 2018 BP invest just 2.3% of its budget on renewable energy. It’s even more pathetic when you realize that is a high number for most oil giants.
The true outlier that shows us how little impact everyday citizens have on our carbon emissions came in the form of a pandemic that shut the world down. In 2020 people were confined to their homes, not driving to work, not traveling to any events. In this year of quarantine you would think our carbon emission would be massively reduced…right? Well that simply was not the case.
The evidence, unfortunately, comes in the form of the worst pandemic to hit humanity in a century. We were confined. We were quarantined, and in many places still are. Forced by an insidious parasite, many of us dramatically slashed our individual carbon footprints by not driving to work and flying on planes. Yet, critically, the true number global warming cares about — the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide saturating the atmosphere — won’t be impacted much by an unprecedented drop in carbon emissions in 2020 (a drop the International Energy Agency estimates at nearly eight percent compared to 2019). This means bounties of carbon from civilization’s cars, power plants, and industries will still be added (like a bank deposit) to a swelling atmospheric bank account of carbon dioxide. But 2020’s deposit will just be slightly less than last year’s. In fact, the levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere peaked at an all-time high in May — because we’re still making big carbon deposits.
This is a clear indicator that our biggest emissions of Co2 into the atmosphere are not directly correlated to the individual consumer. As long as these corporations continue in their strive for profits and turn a blind eye to renewable energy, we will continue to pour in unsustainable levels of Co2 into the atmosphere.
Shortly after BP began its “carbon footprint” campaign, researchers at MIT did a study to calculate the carbon emissions of “a homeless person who ate in soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters.” The results showed that an individual under this pretext will emit 8.5 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
“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.”
The only way we truly reduce humanity’s carbon footprint at a scale that has any effect on preventing climate change is if big corporations change their initiatives, and politicians enact policies to regulate our fossil fuel consumption and move into renewable energy. We need to vote for politicians who support renewable energy. More specifically we need to vote for politicians that have our best interest in mind and aren’t just looking to stuff their pockets (if they exist). Sadly, this is just another example of corrupt corporations attempting to pass the blame for their own atrocities.