What Is a Carbon Footprint and Who Is Responsible for It?
Inspire Clean Energy
Aug 12, 2021
6 min read
category: Sustainable Living
Carbon footprint definition
Let’s rewind back to 2006 when British Petroleum (BP) launched a climate-focused campaign with the catchy slogan, "It's time to go on a low carbon diet," spreading the word about the effects of our individual choices1 when it comes to the environment. The brand, the same one behind the ill-famed and overwhelming Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, wanted to remind consumers to do their part – so to speak – insinuating that individuals need to bear the burden of mitigating the effects of climate change.
Though the phrase "average carbon footprint" isn't exactly new, focusing on an individual's carbon output is a more recent development. We've seen a rise in consumer-focused movements, like Plastic Free July, that remind us our small, individual choices can make an impact.
But when it comes to reducing harm, do our sustainable habits like using bamboo utensils and reusable water bottles and bags truly make a difference when compared to large-scale fossil fuel extraction by massive corporations? Let's dive a bit deeper.
What is a carbon footprint?
First, what is a carbon footprint? The phrase itself evokes images of dinosaur tracks or sandy walks on the beach.
Carbon itself is not inherently bad. In fact, it's found in everything from soil and limestone to our biosphere and living organisms. But when combined with oxygen (found in our atmosphere), it becomes carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas. The creation process of this toxic gas primarily begins with burning fossil fuels2 such as coal and petroleum.
Absorbing heat from the sun, greenhouse gases cause the earth's temperature to rise3. This leads to signs of climate change (think: wildfires, mudslides and floods), rising sea levels due to ice caps melting, and changes in habitats for crucial flora and fauna. Chances are you've noticed these changes happening already.
However, industrial processes and industries like waste, energy, and agriculture also contribute to carbon emissions4. All of these emissions get bundled loosely together, coining the phrase "carbon footprint."
So who is responsible for carbon footprints?
There are countless carbon calculators5 (including one created by BP), typically found online or via a mobile app, that we can use to tell us how much harm our actions are causing to the planet. These typically evaluate your meat consumption, whether you drive a gas-powered or electric-powered vehicle, and even what sort of energy you use (renewable vs. nonrenewable) to power your home.
No matter how mindfully we walk through our lives, we all have a carbon footprint. General human activity over the past 50 years has caused temperatures to rise6 to an alarming degree. But still, the discussion around global warming so often centers on "human" activity without distinguishing between individual and industrial actions.
Protecting our environment doesn't (and shouldn't) rest entirely on each person's shoulders. Focusing on the task at hand — fighting climate change — becomes complicated when large corporations invest big bucks in carbon footprint advertising campaigns that center the conversation on the individual's actions.
To even begin tackling the climate crisis, we first need to reimagine the entire system. But it wasn’t until recently that the conversation adopted the correct language (and hopefully transparent behaviors) around sustainability and carbon footprints.
In a global economy that centers on production and consumption, the most significant changes and actions must come from those with the most resources — the industrial spaces. However, the largest and loudest advocacy should come from the consumers and our actions, activism, and spending.
What is a good carbon footprint score?
While we should consider our average carbon footprints and what we can do to lessen them as consumers, we must also continue applying pressure to top polluters to demand systemic change. This can look like direct outreach or paying attention to existing legislation around production and distribution practices when it comes time to vote. And if/where possible, we can ensure that we're powering our homes by a clean, renewable energy company, as 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from our homes.
Why is this important? Well, when consumers vocalize their values (and where they want to spend their money), companies listen. BP, for example, has now finally come out with newer, more specific goals to achieve "net-zero" by 2050, thanks to market demand for clean energy.
Through collective advocacy, we can amplify pressure on large corporations to shorten their net-zero timelines, create tangible milestones and move beyond profit motive for the sake of the planet.
But please don't sit around and wait for corporations to suddenly change their business models — because if we're still buying it, they're still making it.
Why is a low carbon footprint important?
Individual reductions can be used as a compass to point us where we should scale up our energy. For example, if you opt for public transportation, advocate for all-electric buses or taxis and expanded access to trains and metros in your city. Or, if your compost pile is pretty much a member of your family at this point, give your local officials and waste management organizations a ring and ask them to consider setting up compost drop-off sites in your area.
Other areas to start advocating for in your personal life or within your community can be plant-based eating, green jobs, gardening, upcycling and repairing, zero-waste, or going plastic-free.
There's still hope for individual action, too! Yes, your diligent efforts to properly recycle, drive less and go vegan can make an impact, especially if/when these topics are used as conversation starters with friends and family to help amplify the movement.
Ultimately, the entities with the most resources, not the individual people with the least, should be making the biggest (and quickest) sacrifices. But when amplified at scale, our actions and demands will eventually find us shaping our climate's future.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to get started with making an impact, sign up for a 100% clean energy supply plan for your home. Not sure if renewable energy is right for you? Read some of our Inspire Clean Energy reviews to see how we've helped customers make the switch.
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