Who Invented the ‘Carbon Footprint’? The Shocking Origins

What do you do to decrease your carbon footprint? Believe it or not, that’s just the question the fossil fuel industry wants you to ask yourself.

The term ‘carbon footprint’ has become central to discussions about climate change, with online calculators enabling individuals to measure their CO2 expenditure cropping up left and right. While such footprint calculations are typically used as an argument for climate protection by environmentalists, the fact that the carbon footprint was originally a brilliantly deceptive fabrication of the fossil fuel industry remains unknown. This article exposes the shocking origins of the concept and discusses it’s implications for the debate around environmental protection.

The Carbon Footprint and the Oil Industry

Since the Industrial Revolution, human activity on Earth has increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by over 48%. The energy sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, producing 73% of global emissions (1). Burning fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, contributes significantly to this statistic.

Here’s the irony: a marketing campaign for BP (British Petroleum), one of the largest oil companies in the world, first coined and then popularized the term ‘carbon footprint’ in 2004.

You may be familiar with BP already. In 2010, the company dominated the news headlines with the largest oil disaster in modern history. The explosion of the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon resulted in an oil spill that contaminated large parts of the Gulf of Mexico, killing thousands of marine animals and permanently damaging the surrounding ecosystem.

A Misleading Marketing Scheme

In the early 2000s, as an integral part of BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” re-branding campaign, the oil company introduced the very first ‘carbon footprint calculator’. It turned out to be an instant success. Consumers could now assess the impact they have on the environment, shifting the public narrative about climate protection away from the fossil fuel industry and highlighting the responsibilities of the individual instead.

With slogans such as “It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet”, the campaign suggested that the consumer preferences of individuals were responsible for climate change, not large fossil fuel corporations. Not only does this deflect the responsibility companies such as BP hold towards the environment, it also undermines and defers collective public action against the fossil fuel sector.

Despite BP’s marketing efforts to attain a greener image, its actions show no serious concern for sustainability. In 2019, BP bought new property with promising gas and oil reserves in Texas (2). Currently, the company continues to produce over 3 million barrels of oil a day and only spends 2.3% of its budget on renewable energy (3).

Implications for the Climate Debate

While industry moguls such as BP are among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the individual still plays an important role in the climate debate. Private consumer choices alone, as BP’s ‘carbon footprint’ scheme suggests, will not save the planet. They do, however, have the power to foster a collective mindset and awareness for the priority of environmental protection.

Truth is, even if 10% of the global population committed to reducing its carbon footprint to a minimum, the impact individuals can have on reversing global warming is nominal. We as consumers do hold power to the extent that we can influence the supply and demand mechanisms of the market, but this process is gradual and lacks the immediate coming-into-affect that strict policy measures can implement.

Therefore, as citizens of democracy, it is our duty to not only put environmentalism on the political agenda, but also to convey to elected representatives that tolerating extensive lobbying on behalf of the fossil fuel industry is not an option. Companies like BP will continue to exploit the planet as long as legislation doesn’t force the fossil fuel industry to change its destructive ways…


(1) https://ourworldindata.org/emissions-by-sector

(2) https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/1800/1799/Pasted%20Image.jpg

(3) https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/what-we-do/bp-at-a-glance.html

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  1. Excellent article providing information that has been kept hidden.
    Please do share this on Medium, where I found your article that linked to this one!
    Thank you.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article!
      The origin story behind the omnipresent concept of the carbon footprint should definitely be highlighted more often…

      Angelina x

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