The dangerous myth of the individual carbon footprint

Individual action won’t solve the climate emergency — and we can’t trust the companies that try to persuade us otherwise

Tabitha Whiting
6 min readApr 17, 2021

Is there any major societal issue other than the climate emergency that we expect individuals to solve? I can’t think of one.

We’ve relied on governments and global health organisations to enforce mass rules to reduce the spreading of Covid-19 (to varying effect). If we’d left it up to individuals to choose to make the right decision, we know there would have been a mixed response.

We expect those holding the power — political leaders, institutions, large businesses — to lead change on important issues.

But when it comes to the climate emergency so much emphasis is placed on individual behaviour change. If we only switched off our lights when we left the house and bought an electric vehicle, the climate emergency would go away. Or so the fossil fuel propaganda would have us believe.

The role of the fossil fuel industry in promoting individual carbon footprints

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

So what makes climate change different? Where does the emphasis on individual action come from?

Unsurprisingly, much of the focus on individual responsibility is driven by the oil and gas industry. The very term ‘carbon footprint’ was invented by British Petroleum (BP) when they created the first carbon footprint calculator as part of a marketing campaign in 2004. This carbon footprint calculator allowed individuals to calculate the impact that their normal life was having on the environment and encouraging them to make changes.

BP created the first carbon footprint calculator as part of a marketing campaign asking individuals to make lifestyle changes to reduce global carbon emissions.

They haven’t stopped since. In 2019 BP unveiled their new carbon footprint calculator, working with creative agency Six to create the calculator as a tool to engage with young people at the One Young World event. They also ran an online campaign asking their audience to use the calculator to make a pledge to change something in their life to mitigate climate change.

BP, what about you make a pledge to stop finding new sites to extract fossil fuels from? Or how about you create a carbon footprint calculator for businesses like yours that are actively contributing to climate change?

The ultimate irony comes in the form of one of the carbon footprint calculator’s questions being: ‘How much of your home’s electricity comes from renewable sources’. A bit rich from a company that makes its profit from producing electricity from non-renewable fossil fuels. Our energy system is unsustainable because it relies on fossil fuels, and one person switching to a renewable tariff won’t do anything to change that. BP are well aware of that.

Photo is a screenshot from BP’s Target Neutral website.

There’s a vast amount of money involved in extracting fossil fuels and burning them to make energy and other by-products. So vast that entire countries rely on fossil fuels to keep their economy running — especially the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. Aside from countries, the fossil fuel industry has made a lot of individual people very wealthy. It’s no coincidence that many of the vocal climate deniers out there are individuals who have derived huge amounts of wealth from their involvement in climate change. And of course, many of those who have profited from burning fossil fuels are also those who are in leadership positions in our governments and businesses.

Creating this false narrative that individuals are responsible for climate change lets fossil fuel giants like BP off the hook for a bit longer, making us feel immensely guilty that our lifestyles are the problem.

Relying on individual action is dangerous

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The reality is that there is no ‘ten simple ways to solve climate change’. If there was, we’d have done it already. We need real structural change from those in power to lower emissions to a safe and sustainable place.

Placing the focus on individual changes is dangerous because it delays this real change. It gives politicians and big business an excuse not to act, because we collectively believe that solving climate change is just about individuals making minor changes in their day-to-day lives.

Focusing on individual responsibility to respond to climate change is dangerous, resulting only in real structural change being decelerated.

That isn’t to say that we don’t need to make changes in the way that we live. We absolutely do. But it must be all of us, not just those willing to make sacrifices. And to completely change the way that we live is not easy. To make it happen we need enforcement and incentives from those in power.

Take air travel, for instance. It’s easy to say that individuals need to stop flying so much, reducing holidays abroad or opting for nearer-to-home places with shorter travel times. This is true. But those who fly multiple times a year are already in the top top bracket of wealth and privilege. They’re used to being able to travel for work and for pleasure whenever they want, and they place a lot of value on travel and the freedom it brings— from gap yahs to beach holidays to team bonding trips abroad.

Yes, some of these frequent flyers may decide to reduce their air travel because they are concerned about climate change. But they’re unlikely to stop completely, and some won’t care enough to reduce at all. Airlines aren’t going to do anything either: they want to make more people fly to drive their profits up. The only solution is for policies to be introduced that make air travel less appealing (e.g. taxing air travel) or to make other forms of transport more appealing (e.g. subsidising train tickets) — or both.

This is just one example, and it’s an example in which those involved could choose to cut down or eliminate flying. There’s also the side of individual action which assumes everyone can make changes in their own lives to mitigate climate change. Do we expect the single mother living on the breadline to prioritise switching to a vegan diet for her family, when there are no accessible and affordable alternatives local to her? Didn’t think so.

We do have responsibility as individuals living during the climate crisis. Our main responsibilities are to stay informed and educated, demand action from our politicians, and support those companies and organisations working for a different world — with our voices and our purses.

Beyond this, there are certain individual changes which could have a large impact if adopted ‘en masse’ which you could consider implementing if you are able. This would be: buying less stuff, reducing your meat and dairy consumption, prioritising active travel and public transport, and removing your money from any investments or banks that are using it to support the fossil fuel industry.

Read next: ‘Sustainable Style’: The Truth Behind The Marketing of H&M’s Conscious Collection



Tabitha Whiting

Exploring the good and the bad of climate change communication and sustainability marketing 🌱