Representative image of carbon emissions. Photo: Ariful Haque/Pexels
If you care about the environment, you’ve heard about carbon calculators, the digital tools that allow people to calculate their carbon footprint – a measurement of how much carbon dioxide – equivalent emissions we generate with our lifestyle choices. These calculators have been in the public consciousness for about two decades. Nowadays the messaging is ubiquitous: To shrink your footprint, buy this jacket, drink this milk. Go solar. Drive this car – or better yet, walk to work. Carbon calculators indicate these are all better choices for the planet.
It may be true, but you might be surprised that Big Oil is largely responsible for the fact that you know this. In the early aughts, British Petroleum (today BP) created an advertising campaign that encouraged average people to use a personal carbon calculator. The campaign told consumers that it was time to go on a low-carbon diet – a guilt-laden message that intentionally suggested individuals might halt climate change if only they had the will.
BP was correct that carbon calculators can be useful. And individual responsibility has a place. But BP hijacked legitimate scientific research and weaponised it to serve the company’s purposes by blaming us instead of itself. While this sounds pretty bad, there is some good news: You can take the science back and use it for the change it was intended to make.
Birth of the calculator
To be clear, BP didn’t invent the concept of the calculator. We owe that to academics William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, who created the Ecological Footprint in the early 1990s at the University of British Columbia. Their footprint is a metric that weighs the resource demands of individuals, cities, businesses, countries, and human activity in general against the planet’s capacity for biological regeneration.
“There were a lot of sustainability conversations starting at this time, but no metrics,” explains Wackernagel, now president of the Oakland- and Geneva-based research institute Global Footprint Network. “The whole idea was to say, ‘Okay, we should be able to compare how much we use to what we can provide.’ So we looked at all competing demands on nature.”
Carbon was always seen by Wackernagel and his colleagues as just one part of the equation. But after the 1997 adoption of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations, committing countries to limit greenhouse gases, the focus on carbon grew. Still, few beyond scientists and academics were aware of any calculator, let alone a carbon calculator for individuals. Wackernagel recalls that when he brought up the topic at social functions, “people’s eyes would sort of glaze over. Nobody knew about or wanted to hear about this stuff back then.”
Enter BP. In July 2000, then-CEO John Browne launched a $200 million public relations ad campaign to rebrand BP as an environmentally friendly company that was moving “beyond petroleum” by investing in renewable energy sources. (This didn’t go far. Browne left in 2007 and BP never ditched oil; in fact, the company produced the equivalent of 1,297,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 475 million barrels a year in 2022. BP is also now recognised as being responsible for one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, 2010’s Deepwater Horizon marine oil spill.)
In response to Browne’s dictate at the time, a team of creative directors at the ad firm Ogilvy & Mather (now simply Ogilvy) conceived of and pitched the individual carbon calculator campaign to their client. The idea was to change the narrative about BP. “It was about the conversation,” says a former account executive on the campaign. “They wanted people to talk about how BP was confronting climate change. No other oil company was doing this, and at the time it felt exciting and revolutionary.” After Ogilvy creatives sold BP on the individual carbon calculator concept, the information to populate the actual calculator came from BP’s Health, Safety, Security and Environment department.
Before BP’s ads, Google searches for “carbon footprint” and “carbon footprint calculator” barely registered, often receiving a zero from Google Trends. With the campaign in force, the terms gained popularity, and by 2008 both terms sometimes scored near the top of the Google Trends scale. In 2007 Ogilvy won a gold Effie, the Oscar of advertising, for the campaign.
Micro truth, macro lie
Benjamin Franta, a senior research fellow and founding head of the Climate Litigation Lab at the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme, views the campaign and the consumer focus that followed as a “micro truth in a macro lie.” The micro truth is that individuals have a carbon footprint and reducing it is a good idea. But – and this is crucial – just a handful of giant companies are responsible for most of the world’s pollution. According to the “Carbon Majors” report from the Climate Accountability Institute, 108 fossil fuel and cement entities release nearly 70% of all global carbon emissions, with BP in third place among US-tied fossil fuel polluters, just behind Chevron and ExxonMobil. (Worldwide, Chevron ranks third, ExxonMobile fourth, and BP sixth; this is, after all, a global issue.) The reality is that they – the fossil fuel industry – must drastically change if the world is going to reckon with the climate crisis.
Franta says BP’s strategy promoting the individual carbon calculator follows a recognisable playbook. “This is a classic product-defence strategy called ‘blame the consumer.’ The tobacco industry did it, the paint industry did it with regard to lead poisoning, the opioid industry has done it most recently with blaming the people addicted.” Shifting the blame to the individual consumer takes the negative attention away from the industry itself, freeing it to continue to profit by pushing harmful products.
An October 2021 House Oversight Committee memorandum chronicles a lengthy history of BP and others in Big Oil playing similar deflection games. For example, the committee’s staff concluded that despite BP promoting an image of being environmentally progressive, a mere 2.3% of BP’s total capital expenditures were in low-carbon investments between 2010 and 2018. By 2013 BP had quietly rid itself of all solar and wind power assets. The memo also details BP’s long and costly history of lobbying for its own oil drilling and tax interests, meanwhile doing almost no lobbying for the Paris Agreement, an environmental effort the company claimed it supported. In short, it was all talk.
When asked for a comment for this story, BP US media relations manager Josh Hicks responded with this written statement: “The world has long depended on fossil fuels and needs to transition to a low-carbon future. BP is committed to being part of that transition. That’s why we launched a new ambition in February 2020 to become a net zero company by 2050 or sooner, and to help the world get there. In line with that ambition, we’ve set targets for significantly reducing our emissions and increasing our low-carbon investments, and we’re actively advocating for policies that support net zero.”
In a phone conversation, Hicks said that the company doesn’t have documentation or people who can shed light on why BP created the individual carbon calculator campaign more than two decades ago. But Franta of the Climate Litigation Lab believes that a full public reckoning is needed to clear away this obfuscation.
“The temptation is for us is to dismiss these corporate strategies as ‘cute tricks’,” he says. “But to the extent that those misleading campaigns delayed effective action to control fossil fuels and limit global warming, there’s actual damage.”
Widening the lens
Wackernagel was stunned to see BP use his research to target the consumer instead of business and government. He was “shocked about how they (craftily) slightly twisted our work and shifted the narrative to manoeuvre themselves out of the target zone.” And he was “struck by how they used a weakness of common environmental rhetoric, individualist moralism, to benefit themselves.”
Yet in the end, moving beyond blame may be the only way to address our climate problems. It’s fine if legal minds want to focus on holding corporations accountable, but the rest of us must widen our lens. “Science has failed to engage the public,” and this has turned a fact-based issue into a moral debate, he says. When he reads sentences like Agriculture is responsible for 11& of CO2 emissions, he cringes. “Why is the word responsible in there? You could just say, ‘Agriculture emits 11% of CO2 emissions.’ That’s the situation.”
Wackernagel acknowledges the ethical component but feels that while we fight, we may lose the chance to right our course. He likens the current climate situation to being in a leaky boat with a looming storm and debating, “Who is responsible for fixing the boat?” rather than figuring out how to take shelter and repair it.
“The future is predictable,” says Wackernagel. “We’ll be in a future of climate and resource constraints. If you’re not ready, you’re going down. So, any city or country or company that doesn’t prepare itself is just absurd.” That’s the message he hopes everyone hears.
Calculators have a place
This is why, at the end of the day, carbon footprint calculators have a place in individuals’ lives. They may have been promoted by Big Oil in an act of misdirection, but used knowingly, they can guide us toward the top-to-bottom collective action needed to address climate change.
Sarah West, director and senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, says that individuals account for about 30% of the world’s carbon emissions. There are legitimate calculators that not only estimate your individual footprint but are engaging learning tools that encourage impactful change. Besides, there can be personal rewards for leading a more environmentally sane life. “Foot-printing tools can . . . support people to make positive actions that help themselves directly. For example, active travel rather than car driving is exercise, and it saves money,” says West.
The even bigger point: The tools can motivate us to take actions that put pressure on large corporate emitters to change. “For example, we’ve seen huge growth in demand for meat alternatives in the U.K. over recent years,” West says. “Switching to renewable energy suppliers would be another example.” Carbon calculators can also highlight the importance of actions that have to go beyond the personal level. For instance, you may not be able to reduce the amount of driving or flying you do for your job, but if regulations required cars and airplanes to be more efficient, your carbon footprint could be much smaller.
Use a carbon calculator (see “Tools for Readers”) for a general estimate of how you stack up against others and might improve. Then use this knowledge to create an action plan that supports a lower-carbon lifestyle and promotes companies, programs, and laws that are environmentally progressive. If you’re using a tool or app that tracks your carbon footprint on the basis of what you eat and do daily, however, that could be overkill, says Sean Anderson, professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands. “I hope you spend at least twice the amount of time you’re using on the calculator to support policies and lawmakers who prioritize climate.”
Why? Because we have proof this really works. Years of activism fueled largely by grassroots efforts pushed the Biden administration toward a more aggressive environmental stance, which led to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Signed into law in August 2022, it is the largest single step that Congress has ever taken to address energy and climate change, and it emphasizes many systemic reforms that Wackernagel and others advocate. The IRA includes nearly $370 billion in investments in marginalized communities, zero-carbon electricity sources, the repurposing of retired fossil fuel infrastructure, and the creation of clean energy jobs. The World Resource Institute says the IRA is setting the United States on a course toward a clean energy transition. Finally.
Yes, Big Oil’s hijacking and weaponising of the individual carbon calculator obscured matters, but the planet-saving equation is now crystal clear: It’s always been you plus systemic change.