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Environment

The Truth About Carbon Footprints

By Sarah Fay

Illustration by Sarah Fay

I suffer from eco-anxiety. There are often moments that I feel totally and completely overwhelmed, when reading through news articles on environmental refugees or trying to choose the most local/sustainable/plastic-free/ethical but still affordable food at the supermarket. My heart palpitates and I feel plagued with guilt about all of my choices and whether they were the right ones. 

It is not surprising then that I have calculated my carbon footprint, one of the beginner techniques to create eco-anxiety. The 2.3 tonnes of emissions that I have created weighs heavily on my shoulders. 

Yet, as I delve further into the small print of my footprint, I realise it’s relatively lower than the UK average. I also notice that the bulk of it comes from things like infrastructure, government and the military, their impact shared and added to each individual’s total. My lifestyle choices seem to have limited overall influence on my footprint, and I start to question how much control I have over it at all? And should I let it feed my eco-anxiety?

To answer these questions, it is first important to fully understand what a carbon footprint is and how it came about. 

The Who, What and Why of Carbon Footprints

In the simplest terms a carbon footprint is the measure of how much greenhouse emissions that an individual or an organisation causes. It is made up of lifestyle choices that you have a fair amount of influence over such as your energy supplier, your diet and the clothes you buy. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, everyone is given a share of societal services and infrastructures. 

Carbon footprints are actually only one aspect of a broader ecological footprint, a concept created by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in the early 1990s. The ecological footprint tracks how much biocapacity we have with how much we are using. We are currently running on a global biocapacity deficit with the Earth Overshoot Day landing on the 29th July this year. 

However, the reason we have heard of the term carbon footprint more often than ecological footprint comes down to its marketing from an unlikely source – BP. In 2003 the multinational oil and gas company, launched a marketing and advertising campaign that introduced the concept to the public. The marketing strategy was not some laudable attempt by BP to show their contribution to climate change, but rather to highlight your impact. The language BP uses is focused on the consumer, asking “what size is your carbon footprint?” and giving advice on how to “drive down your carbon footprint.” Afterwards you are given the opportunity to use their calculator so you can put a number to your impact and BP can help you by offsetting it. The campaign cleverly shifts the blame and emphasis away from BP and onto the consumer themselves. This way BP remains as an oil giant and we all get eco-anxiety. 

The Good and the Bad

Carbon footprints, like any other scientific measure, are neither inherently good nor bad. If an individual looks up their carbon footprint and has such a response to it that they start to examine their impact and change their habits to more sustainable and eco ways then that can be a good thing. But, if an organisation is using carbon footprints as a way to distract and distribute blame towards the individual, hiding their own impact behind a greenwashed facade, then it becomes a lot more problematic. 

It is important for individuals to care and do what they can for the world we are all living in and carbon footprints can help with that. However, the bigger picture needs to be looked at and we need to be able to hold industries, companies and governments accountable for their own carbon emissions and impact on climate change. 

The means to be sustainable and environmentally conscious can vary considerably for each individual. One of the major factors in this is income. It is hard to convince someone that they should be buying organic local produce instead of cheaper options when over four million children in Britain are growing up in poverty. The lowest income people are also the ones most likely to suffer from climate change related problems, whilst the rich and powerful can fly away. The responsibility of our world cannot rest solely on the individual’s shoulders, we have to act collectively. 

Final Thoughts

I don’t think my eco-anxiety is going anywhere any time soon, but the consideration of carbon footprints has allowed me to think of it in a different perspective. Eco-anxiety at its trembling centre is the fear of climate change and your responsibility as an individual. The narrative written by oil companies like BP around carbon footprints are only ever going to perpetuate the anxiety. The anxiety is not useful though, it is a distraction from the wider problems at hand, it does not allow you to protest against institutions that are damaging the world and we really need them to change. We need to be able to influence every part of our carbon footprint.