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The origin of the term 'carbon footprint'


Most of us are familiar with the term ‘carbon footprint’ - even those who may not be aware of the gravity of the climate crisis! It is a word understood by many, and used to describe the amount of greenhouse gas CO2 released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organisation, or community. Ever wondered how this term became so popular? My eco-friends, prepare to be shocked.


A renowned environmental advertising campaign, launched two decades ago in 2000, impressed upon the American public that a different type of pollution, heat-trapping carbon pollution, is 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 (BP), the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide, hired renowned public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals.


This is how BP successfully popularised the term ‘carbon footprint’ in the early beginnings of the mainstream climate movement. In 2004, the company launched a “carbon footprint calculator” so one could understand how their normal daily life routines were largely responsible for heating the globe. 16 years later, this term is everywhere. Capture has a series of articles on ‘What’s the carbon footprint of…” in which we examine the impact of certain products or activities on the environment. It is a word that is collectively used by environmentalists, activists, and environmental start-ups alike.


It’s a word we all collectively understood to be useful in categorising the impact of human activities on the environment - but in-fact, it was popularised as a marketing scheme to convince consumers that the responsibility for climate change was all on them, not major oil companies like BP. The term emphasised individual actions as the cause of the problem, conveniently leaving out of the question HOW those individual actions are being powered and fuelled, implicitly suggesting that fossil fuels are the only way.


Just because it was BP that contributed to the mainstreaming of this word, doesn’t mean that you should feel shame for wanting to reduce your carbon emissions on an individual level. However, it is essential that we understand the history of this word, and how it was created to distract individuals from the underlying problem; the fact that the world has been powered by fossil fuels, resulting in trillions of tons of emissions of greenhouse gases - meaning that we are now experiencing some of the highest levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in 800,000 years. The producers of oil, gas and coal have rooted their services so deeply into society that almost nobody on Earth can claim not to have a carbon footprint.


“Even a homeless person living in a fossil fuel powered society has an unsustainably high carbon footprint,” said Stanford’s Benjamin 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.”


12 years later, BP is still mainly an oil and gas company - even though they just announced plans to reduce oil and gas production by 40% by 2030. Greenpeace commented that ‘this is a necessary and encouraging start’. In 2019, BP reported $278.4 billion U.S. dollars of revenue, which also placed it in the top ten within the whole industry. In that same year, BP purchased new oil and gas reserves in West Texas that gave the oil giant “a strong position in one of the world’s hottest oil patches,” according to the company. However, on July 5th, the company released some specifics for the coming decade, describing “a new strategy that will reshape [BP’s] business as it pivots from being an international oil company focused on producing resources to an integrated energy company...”


At Capture, you’ll sometimes hear us describing ourselves as a ‘Fitbit for your carbon footprint’. We’ve thought long and hard about how best we can support individuals to live a planet-friendly life - and we believe that increasing awareness and understanding of CO2 emissions from our everyday actions is gateway into many other important parts of environmentalism - such at voting, moving your savings to a sustainable bank, switching to renewable energy, the lot! You’ll see us working on these issues further next year, when we will be adding the option to track journeys in Electric Vehicles, delve into home energy usage (/energy sources!) and much more.


Perhaps the most important takeaway from understanding the origin of the word “carbon footprint” is that we have control over the narrative now. We know that a combination of individual, and systemic action will help mitigate the climate crisis. The most important message to remember is that we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels - so switch off the lights if you need to, but don’t forget to switch your energy to a renewable source whilst you’re at it.

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