Bag the Carbon Calculators. You Didn’t Cause This.

October 8, 2020

“But what can I do to fight climate change?” is a frequently asked question for anyone that does communication on this topic – and I used to have a ready list of everyday things one can do around the house, changing light bulbs and appliances, efficient appliances and transportation, yada yada – but a few years in, I realized that was a lot of nibbling around the edges.

In the current pandemic, we can each do something by wearing a DAMN MASK to avoid getting infected or infecting others, but the larger solutions require massive scale action on the part of governments, industry, and society.
Similar with climate.
Industry, of course, figured this out long ago, and has worked to keep you thinking that we’re in this fix because of something you alone did, or that somehow if you lived in a tree stump eating pine nuts and beetles, that would solve things.


In a dark TV ad aired in 1971, a jerk tosses a bag of trash from a moving car. The garbage spills onto the moccasins of a buckskin-clad Native American, played by Italian American actor Espera Oscar de Corti. He sheds a tear on camera, because his world has been defiled, uglied, and corrupted by trash. The poignant ad, which won awards for excellence in advertising, promotes the catchline “People Start Pollution. People can stop it.” What’s lesser known is the nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful, funded by the very beverage and packaging juggernauts pumping out billions of plastic bottles each year (the likes of The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch Companies), created the PSA.

The real message, underlying the staged tear and feather headdress, is that pollution is your problem, not the fault of the industry mass-producing cheap bottles.

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.

Of course, no one should be shamed for declaring an intention to “reduce their carbon footprint.” That’s because BP’s advertising campaign proved brilliant. The oil giant infused the term into our normal, everyday lexicon. (And the sentiment is not totally wrong — some personal efforts to strive for a cleaner world do matter.) But there’s now powerful, plain evidence that the term “carbon footprint” was always a sham, and should be considered in a new light — not the way a giant oil conglomerate, who just a decade ago leaked hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, wants to frame your climate impact. 

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.

So when BP tweets an ad encouraging you to “Find out your #carbonfootprint” with their “new calculator,” it’s time to rethink the use of the term. While superficially innocuous, “carbon footprint” is intended to manipulate your thinking about one of the greatest environmental threats of our time. (The threat of nuclear warfare with the potential for both the harrowing spread of radioactive material and the development of a nuclear winter are in the running, too.)


7 Responses to “Bag the Carbon Calculators. You Didn’t Cause This.”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    The thing of it is, why should Common Man support government action to take massive transformation of energy and emissions when these will, inevitably impact them, and they are not willing to make easier changes in their lives?

    The question is rhetorical. Government needs to do this, but it should be recognized this action is a non-democratic response to an emergency, not something people can or should vote on. If they do, how is that different from saying it is their responsibility like BP does?

  2. Keith McClary Says:

    Another successful blame-the-end-user campaign:

    Industry has known for decades that most plastic just can’t be recycled

    There has been a decades-long push to get the public to recycle plastic, even though the people behind the idea knew most plastic is too costly and difficult to recycle, says one investigative journalist.

    “They have known since the 1970s how difficult and almost impossible it is to recycle the vast majority of plastic,” said Laura Sullivan, a three-time Peabody Award-winning investigative correspondent for NPR News.

    Sullivan conducted an in-depth investigation into the recycling industry, and said the problem starts with trying to separate the recyclable material from the non-recyclable, which adds to the overall high cost of the process.

    “Then, most importantly, the plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it,” she told The Current’s Matt Galloway, adding that this means some recycled items cannot be recycled again.

    “In one speech, a former industry insider said that it was unlikely that the vast majority of plastic would ever be economically viable to recycle.”

    • ecoquant Says:

      This needs some correcting. Why isn’t plastic recycled?

      (1) Most people don’t know how to recycle, and they find trashing things easier than recycling. Biggest offender is water bottles.

      (2) Too many packaging products consist of mixed plastic types. It is not economically feasible to separate them. There are two many different kinds of plastics. Some cannot be recycled at all. There is no incentive for packagers or manufacturers to make their products more recyclable, or disincentive for them not to do so.

      (3) MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities) remain very much 20th century operations. There is some automation of separation, but there is little process measurement done, or even measurement of recovery rates. Accordingly, process optimization is not possible. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

      (4) Single serving items, often small: Little plastic containers cannot be recycled. Generally the rule is that rigid, closed containers are about the only thing that can be recycled. Black plastic cannot be recycled because typical MRFs cannot tell what it is. There is no incentive for packagers or manufacturers to make their products more recyclable, or disincentive for them not to do so.

      (5) Single stream curbside collection of recycling: This is a horrible innovation by Waste Management, the corporation. The idea was that it would be easier for people to recycle because there was only one place to put it and so, they thought, and did not model, returns would go up even if there was some cross-contamination. In practice, the cross-contamination is a big problem and material which typically can be recycled readily, such cardboard, gets content of unclean cans and juice bottles dumped on them, and so they get trashed.

      (6) Mixed message incentive programs. Companies that deal with recycling are often the same companies that deal with non-recyclable solid waste. Their margins on the latter are higher than for recycling. Materials sent to MRFs which are deemed not to be recyclable end up in the waste stream. This disincentivizes companies which have both arms to work hard to reduce cross-contamination, whether by public outreach or other techniques.

      (7) Large entertainment venues distribute materials in cardboard and plastic containers and these all end up in the same place: The trash bin. Sorting these out needs to be done by hand — and possibly robot. Automated “dirty MRFs” which tried to separate out recyclable materials from general waste have never worked or been economical.

      (8) For many years China took practically anything the U.S. could produce, irrespective of the quality of the paper or plastic product. They paid more than U.S. MRFs did. As a result, most MRFs and U.S. recycling companies went out of business. When China realized most of of the material they were getting was of incredibly poor quality, they stopped accepting it. Now there is a weak market for recycling in the United States and the businesses which accept stock from MRFs need to be reestablished. That isn’t easy.

      (9) Public ignorance: People are on a “hate plastic” binge, and tend to go with paper, especially in the case of bags. For purposes of mitigating climate disruption, this is a bad choice. Plastic bags, for example, are many times lighter than paper, and paper is a horrible product to produce — even after the trees are cut — and uses gads of energy when being produced and when being recycled. Plastic bags can in principle be reused. A trailer truck can carry many more single plastic bags than paper bags, and, of course, such trucks emit GHGs during their travel.

      Solution? Extended producer responsibility laws. Require all manufacturers to take back broken or other end-of-life versions of all products they produce, and to pay for setting up the system to collect these, and return them for reuse. There is some success with tires on these, and some electronics. Of course this will initially raise the cost of products. That price will go down, but it won’t ever be as low as when companies are using the natural world as a free sewer, whether in landfills, by roadsides, or in waste-to-energy facilities.

      Of course what you and I can do is: Stop buying so much darn stuff!! The holiday season ought to be turned into a Buy Less Stuff period, trying to reduce it to (the already outrageous) consumables rate of the remainder of the year. That would be a start.

  3. indy222 Says:

    Blame the user has been a very successful strategy. The real reason to reject it, is because it canNOT solve the problem. And anyone who cares, should be seeking to SOLVE the PROBLEM. Industry, of course, thinks their only problem is how to maximize their profits and morality doesn’t enter the equation. Morality and problem solving must be done by FORCE, by government. So, Republicans… GROW UP. DEAL with it. Stop the temper tantrums about your precious freedom. Freedom is not the goal. Freedom is a means to a larger and more meaningful goal – a happy life in a healthy planet shared with people and other life we respect.

    You want Freedom? Go to Mars on your own dime and take the whole planet for yourself. Good luck with that. And good riddance.

    • ecoquant Says:

      This is not helpful. Whether you like it or not to really solve climate disruption you need corporations and venture capital. Governments simply cannot do it on their own. They haven’t the expertise.

      And environmental progressives? They don’t have it either. Combat climate disruption by planting a trillion trees? Get real. That can help, but it cannot solve the problem, especially if we continue emitting ANYTHING.

      • doldrom Says:

        It’s all about INCENTIVES.
        Government can change those, both for industry and for end users.
        Many of these problems are hard to eliminate, but that should not be our first goal. The first goal is to line up incentives with outcomes. We can always take it further in the future …

        • ecoquant Says:

          Actually, we no longer have enough time for incentives to work. That was a thing for the Twenty Oughts.

          We need to drop emissions rapidly, and, alas, this means taking existing investments that emit and forcibly depreciating them faster than the schedules.

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