The concept of a carbon footprint has become a well-known phrase in the climate change vernacular. The idea is that by being aware of the emissions you cause as an individual, you can work to make changes and reduce your footprint. If everyone takes steps to reduce their footprint, it can create huge reductions in carbon emissions. It all sounds good and well, that’s before you realise who came up with the concept.
BP — an oil company — created the carbon footprint to deflect attention away from oil companies and make individuals feel responsible for the problem. It was a brilliant PR campaign that quickly caught on.
That an oil company created the concept shows that carbon footprints, like so many solutions being offered to solve the climate crisis, are a blatant form of greenwashing, designed to make money, not solve the problem.
The greenwashing gets worse when we think about how individuals are encouraged to reduce their footprint. Carbon offsetting initiatives have become increasingly popular. A carbon offset is “a way to compensate for your emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere.”
In short, a carbon offsetting company asks you various questions about your lifestyle and spending habits. They work out your carbon footprint, and you pay them to offset the emissions through an initiative such as planting trees in a forest.
And the carbon offset market is set to take off, with the market set to be worth an estimated $100 billion by the end of the decade. A lucrative market indeed.
Profit before people
A major weakness of carbon offsetting initiatives is that if I’m paying a company to offset my emissions, what incentive do I have to reduce my footprint? This is, of course, the whole point of a carbon footprint, not just to offset the emissions but make changes to your lifestyle to decrease your footprint.
The fact people pay for their emissions to be offset means they can rest easy, comfortable in the knowledge that their carbon emissions are being offset, and so at least I’m not the problem. The problem is everyone else.
And herein lies the fundamental flaw with the carbon footprint and carbon offsets. BP felt compelled to create a PR weapon to deflect attention away from fossil fuel companies and individuals. But, the stark reality we face is that the climate crisis isn’t BP’s fault; it’s not your fault, it’s not anybody’s ‘fault’.
The climate crisis is an unintended consequence of the desire for social progress. What has allowed humanity to progress so quickly is industrialisation. As soon as we began industrialising, economies grew exponentially, helping to transform society beyond recognition.
The downside to social development is that industrialised countries are ravenous for energy, and the vast majority of global energy demands — 73% in 2018 — are met through fossil fuels. In the next 30 years, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts global energy demands are set to increase by 50%. While the EIA predicts renewables will make up 28% of energy consumption (from 18% today), 68% will still come from fossil fuels.
It would be great to have social progress without destabilising the climate in the process, but one is a direct result of the other.
The reality we were born into is only made possible by converting the energy from utilising fossil fuels into products and services that make our lives easier and more comfortable. We have hot water, constant access to electricity, refrigerated food, heating in the winter, and air conditioning in the summer. None of these services that we now consider basic rights could be possible without huge amounts of energy.
Companies like BP are not to blame for the problem. They are merely facilitating and serving a crucial function in providing the energy we need to sustain civilisation.
It‘s part of the human condition to apportion blame and point fingers when there is a problem. It makes us feel better about the situation we’re dealing with.
That’s why the carbon footprint was such a coup for big oil companies, as it places the blame on the individual. Meanwhile, environmentalists continue to point the finger of blame firmly on oil companies. Others still place the blame on governments not taking decisive action.
The reality is that it is the social construct, the reality all around us and the expectations that reality creates that is the problem.
To imagine life without electricity, cars, central heating is unthinkable. We can’t imagine it because we have always known lives with it. But our lifestyles come at a cost; to maintain them, we have created an energy imbalance that’s destabilising the climate.
The sham of carbon footprints
Here lies the ultimate sham of the carbon footprint. No matter what measures you as an individual take, the fact that our civilisation is energy-hungry means only a radical transformation of our economic and social systems can deal with the problem. You, as an individual, can’t change anything.
That one of the solutions to the climate crisis is a symbol of the problem is no coincidence. People are blind to the problem or simply can’t accept the need for radical transformation because this reality is all we know. And everyone takes comfort, no matter how well the current system rewards you, or not, in the status quo.
And so many have become convinced of the potential of carbon offsetting projects, not willing to even consider the need to radically transform to create a society that works in harmony with nature. But it’s only by doing so that we’ll have a chance of dealing with the challenges we face. Not by paying a company to offset the carbon we emit; that’s nothing more than greenwashing served up to people as the solution to all of our problems.