On the origin and deception of our ‘carbon footprint’

A Big Fossil sham

3 min readJan 26, 2023
Photo by Vishnu Prasad on Unsplash

The concept of an ‘ecological footprint’ goes back some decades. It was developed in an attempt to compare the natural resources we have against the natural resources we use, in order to highlight humanities ecological impact. It applied at the global level. There were many assumptions.

However, around the year 2000, the multinational fossil fuel giant British Petroleum (BP) saw an opportunity. Leveraging the footprint concept, they came up with the idea of an individual ‘carbon footprint’. The effect was to turn attention away from their corporate responsibility and onto us. Further, as long as fossil fuels remained the basis for the energy system, individuals could not have a sustainable carbon footprint. The blame-shifting was complete.

The public relations agency Ogilvy & Mather was hired to promote the concept. They delivered a highly-successful campaign, welcomed by the fossil fuel sector. Our ‘carbon footprint’ became a ubiquitous metric of individual responsibility towards climate change. There were even online calculators that told us our ‘carbon footprint’ and implied it was meaningful. BP was among the first to provide one of these smokescreens. Never mind climate.

The idea of shifting blame away from the source and onto the consumer is not new. The tobacco industry blames its smokers for smoking and tells them addiction is a choice. The plastics industry pollutes while shifting the environmental blame onto customers for not recycling enough (while pretending recycling works). The sugar industry blames its overweight consumers for not exercising enough.

The more we look, the more examples of blame shifting we find. Take ‘lifestyle’ for example.

It’s a more subtle example of blame shifting — making improving public health a personal responsibility by asserting that one’s health (such as obesity) is simply down to one’s choices. In contrast, it is entirely implausible that the increase in population obesity over the past ~50 years is due to a generational shift in everyone’s personal responsibility. The cause is upstream, which explains why urging people make lifestyle changes has had so little effect and will continue to fail. The lifestyle discourse around personal responsibility needs to be challenged (while of course supporting individuals taking action and in a position to do so). Emphasis needs to be placed on changing the conditions that keep obesity and metabolic dysfunction in place — social, cultural, economic and commercial drivers, and the stealthy involvement of Big Pharma and Big Food in our scientific institutions, medical associations and health systems.

I’m ending on a food and health message, because that is what this channel is about. The climate connection (over these last 3 stories) has arisen from the steady demonisation of beef as a nutritious and sustainable food. We are increasingly admonished to reduce our red meat consumption to save the planet and reduce our ‘carbon footprint’. However, acquiescence means that the fossil industry gets to continue with their business models for as long as possible. We are exhorted to make futile behavioural changes, so that they don’t have to do a thing.

Further reading:

Mark Kaufman carbon footprint

The lazy language of lifestyles




Science of cooking, eating and health. Retired neuroscientist.