The Complicated History of the Carbon Footprint

Carbon footprints can be a helpful way to quantify our impact on the planet, but they have a troubled history. Are we being duped by fossil-fueled propaganda, or are carbon footprints important tools to fight the climate crisis? Here's what you need to know.

What is a carbon footprint?

Carbon footprints are an estimation of all the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by a person, group, or activity. While carbon footprints account for numerous gases (carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and nitrous oxide), they’re typically expressed in units of carbon dioxide equivalence (CO2e). 

From powering our homes to topping off our gas tanks, our daily habits 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 carbon footprints account for direct and indirect emissions. Direct emissions are the ones we have direct control over (like our home energy use). Indirect emissions are linked to the products and services we consume. The larger our carbon footprints, the larger our impact on the planet.

Knowing our carbon footprints can help us quantify our carbon impact, find opportunities to lower our emissions, and track our collective progress. But instead of empowerment, carbon footprints have historically been used for guilt.

The history of the carbon footprint

The carbon footprint evolved from the concept of ecological footprints, 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. 

Then in the early 2000s, British Petroleum co-opted the concept as part of its high-profile campaign to rebrand itself as an environmentally friendly company. This greenwashing campaign included a rebrand as “Beyond Petroleum” and the slogan, “It’s time to go on a carbon diet,” along with 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.

Despite flashy greenwashing advertisements, 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 clean energy from 2016 to 2022 and a whopping $84 billion on oil and gas exploration and development.

Fossil fuels are the driving force behind the climate crisis. While BP is in the business of producing fossil fuels, they used carbon footprints to divert responsibility and pass guilt onto individuals.

Meanwhile, BP has continued to brazenly produce over 80 million barrels of oil per day and develop new fossil fuel projects, with peak production hitting 95 million barrels per day in 2019 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.

At their worst, carbon footprints distract from systemic issues

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. 

As consumers, we have agency over the companies we support and influence over the systems we're a part of. Our daily spending influences 65% of global emissions. It’s time to reclaim our carbon footprints and use them the way they were first intended — as a metric to help us understand our biggest opportunities for impact.

Consider this: The average American emits around 16 tons of CO2e each year. That’s more than triple the global average, and far higher than the Paris Accord target of 2 tonnes per capita per year. It’s true that many of us could use a carbon diet, but we can't 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. 

At their best, carbon footprints are the fossil fuel industry's worst nightmare

The fossil fuel industry created carbon footprints to shirk responsibility and distract from their tremendous negative impact on the planet. But we can use our carbon footprints to drive change in our own lives, and within the systems we’re a part of to help shift society towards a regenerative model that can support all life on Earth.

1. Carbon footprints are tools to help us take control of our own emissions 

Individuals directly influence 60-70% of global emissions. Carbon footprints help us understand how those choices affect the planet.

Does skipping meat matter? How much of an impact does a car have versus public transit?  Commons calculates your carbon footprint so you can pinpoint the best ways to cut back using specific, measurable goals. 

Use your carbon footprint to set concrete targets and visualize the impact of different actions.

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

Your individual emissions may be a drop in the global bucket, but together, our choices influence the communities and systems we're a part of. Plus, your climate action can have a contagious effect, encouraging collective change.  

But if we can't quantify our carbon influence, it’s harder to make the best use of our time and money. Carbon footprints unveil the hidden carbon climate cost of our daily habits and purchases. We can use them to understand the emissions from companies and institutions, industries, and systems.

With this information, we can identify the best ways to scale our impact and make a difference on our own footprints and our overall collective impact.

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. 

Download Commons to discover your carbon influence 
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