The Complicated History of the Carbon Footprint

Marley Flueger
November 3, 2022

Carbon footprints can be a helpful way to quantify the invisible forces behind the climate crisis. But they’re also the brainchild of the world’s worst polluters. 

Are we being duped by fossil-fueled propaganda – or are carbon footprints actually an important tool to fight climate change? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is a carbon footprint?

Carbon footprints are a simple way to express the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by a person, group, or activity. While carbon footprints account for numerous different gasses -  including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide - they’re typically expressed in simplified units of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). 

From powering our homes to topping off our gas tanks, our day-to-day habits all leave their mark on the environment. Carbon footprints calculate the emissions associated with these choices throughout their entire lifecycle – from production to final use. 

Our personal carbon footprints include emissions we have “direct” control over (like our home energy use) and “indirect” emissions linked to the products and services we consume. The larger our carbon footprint, the greater our planetary impact. 

Carbon footprints can empower us to make changes - both personal and systemic - that reduce humanity’s demand on the planet. Unfortunately, their origin story is less than flattering.

The troublesome history of the carbon footprint

The carbon footprint evolved from the “ecological footprint,” which was developed in the early 1990s by Dr. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia. The ecological footprint calculates the demands of a group or activity on an ecosystem to help businesses, governments, and institutions monitor resource use and advance sustainable development. 

In the early 2000s, British Petroleum launched a high-profile campaign to rebrand itself as an environmentally-friendly company. This greenwashing campaign included the “Beyond Petroleum” slogan, the tagline “it’s time to go on a carbon diet”, and the world’s first carbon footprint calculator.

It was an immediate success. In 2004 alone, over a quarter million people calculated their carbon footprints on BP’s website. In the years that followed, consumer carbon footprint calculators began popping up everywhere, from the US EPA, to the European Union, to the world’s largest conservation groups.

For its part, BP has continued to brazenly produce over 80 millions barrels of oil per day and develop new fossil fuel projects – increasing their old production up to a peak of 95 millions barrels per day in 2019, and driving climate change and environmental disasters like Deepwater Horizon, the largest marine oil spill in history. In 2019, the company revealed its real priorities with its largest acquisition in 20 years, new oil and gas reserves in West Texas.

If something feels a little off here, that’s because it is. At the turn of the 21st century, when sowing doubt and denial about climate change stopped working, the fossil fuel industry turned to sowing guilt instead. In many ways, things are going exactly to plan. 

At their worst, carbon footprints confuse consumers and undermine progress

A key critique of carbon footprints is that they assign responsibility to the individual, rather than the companies that produce the vast majority of global emissions. 

Consider this: the average American emits around 16 tons of CO2e each year. That’s over triple the global average, and far higher than the Paris Accord target of 2 tonnes per capita per year. It’s true, many of us could use a carbon diet – but let’s not forget who is really responsible for the climate crisis. 

According to the Carbon Disclosure Project, the fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for over 90% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Today, global fossil fuel emissions shake out to around 34 billion tonnes each year. 

Despite flashy advertisements for solar power and biofuels, most fossil fuel companies invest only a small percentage of their budgets in renewable energies. According to the Guardian, BP spent around $3.2 billion on clear energy from 2016 to 2022 – and a whopping $84 billion on oil and gas exploration and development.

Consumers do hold power over the systems we’re a part of, but minimizing our individual carbon footprints is only a small part of the puzzle. Our real power lies in demanding systemic shifts across all industries to make it easier for everyone to live without destroying the planet.

At their best, carbon footprints are fossil fuel’s worst nightmare

The fossil fuel industry created carbon footprints to confuse us. But we can use them to drive change in our own lives and within the systems we’re a part of, and help shift society towards a regenerative model that can support all life on Earth.

1. Carbon footprints can help us take control of our own emissions 

Consumers directly influence 60-70% of global emissions, which means we still need to take ownership of our personal emissions. It’s not our fault, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the solution.

Carbon footprints help us understand how our habits affect the planet. We can also use them to set concrete targets and visualize the impact of different actions.

Should you eat more plants or switch to local meat? Skip a flight each year, or bike to work instead of driving? Joro calculates your carbon footprint  so you can pinpoint the best ways to cut back using specific, measurable goals. 

Your individual emissions may be a drop in the bucket, but positive choices have a contagious effect. They can ripple out, inspire others to take action, and create meaningful and lasting  collective change in the world around us.  

2. Carbon footprints can help us change the systems we’re a part of

Anyone with time, money, power, platform or privilege can use their resources to push for systemic change. But if we don’t understand the anatomy of the climate crisis, it’s harder to make the best use of our energy. 

Carbon footprints unveil the hidden climate cost of the world around us. We can use them to understand the emissions from individual companies and institutions, entire industries, and collective systems. This helps demystify what - and who - is really driving the climate crisis. 

With this knowledge, we can identify the best ways to scale our impact (and actually make a difference). This might look like campaigning for green infrastructure, donating to environmental initiatives, or simply volunteering at a community garden to make healthy, low-carbon food more accessible in your neighborhood.

We’re powerful when we act together

Fossil fuel companies want to put the burden of the climate crisis on our shoulders, but we can use their own tools against them.

Carbon footprints can help us make meaningful changes in our own lives – and uncover where we have the greatest opportunity to use our unique resources to push for systemic change. 

To reveal your biggest carbon footprint drivers and system you can change – download Joro today. 

A climate action practice is the daily exercise of bringing awareness and intention to reduce the carbon emissions within your control.

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