Demystifying the concept of personal carbon footprint

Some climate activists dismiss the focus on personal carbon footprints as a distraction, while scientists see individual lifestyle changes as an important step toward transforming the system. Who’s right?
personal carbon footprint_ BP_Unsplash_Felipe_Labate
Written by Team Oncarbon
Carbon management platform for air travel, API-first
April 1, 2022

The concept of a personal carbon footprint has received some criticism in recent years. Based on the scientific concept of an ecological footprint, “carbon footprint” gained popularity in 2005 partly due to an advertising campaign by British Petroleum (BP). In large newspaper ads, on billboards and posters at airports, and in TV commercials around the world, BP asked viewers, “what size is your carbon footprint?” BP tried to place the responsibility to the public’s shoulders, while itself it kept extracting millions of barrels of oil per day from the Earth’s crust. The commercial claimed that climate change is not the oil giants’ fault – it’s ours.

Sometime later, BP unveiled its personal carbon footprint calculator, which allowed people to assess how their daily food, transportation and clothing choices affect the climate. BP's carbon footprint calcualtor again sparked a stormy discussion and harsh criticism from many sides. People responded, “Do not tell us to reduce our emissions – it’s your fault we all have a carbon footprint!” and accused BP of greenwashing.

The climate policies of BP certainly deserve careful analysis – but the question remains: Is the concept of a personal carbon footprint, as presented by BP, completely useless? Are not our personal choices in daily life important when we think about the environment? Who is right in this discussion? In this article we will try to answer these questions.

Personal carbon footprint – what is it?

Almost everything we do – using computers, riding the bus, buying groceries – releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is largely because global production of goods and services still relies heavily on fossil fuels. We call the total greenhouse gas emissions resulting from this production and consumption a “carbon footprint” – a value expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

Browsing the web, you’ve probably come across many personal footprint calculators. In a series of questions, you’re asked about your daily activities: diet choices, driving a car, flying, buying clothes and electronic devices, recycling waste, energy and water use. Based on your answers, your individual carbon footprint is calculated and you can compare your result with that of others.

If you know your carbon footprint, you will also know how to reduce it: Fly less often, ride a bike instead of driving a car, eat a more plant–based diet, or install solar panels on your roof.

Sounds like a sensible way to live, right? So why is the concept of a personal carbon footprint sometimes considered “useless”?

Criticism of the individual carbon footprint

Critics of the concept of personal carbon footprint often argue that the fight against global warming requires much more than individual action. In their view, systemic change, collective action, and cooperation at the international level are critical. To limit greenhouse gas emissions, we need laws that transform the most carbon-intensive industries into more sustainable ones and force them to be more transparent about emissions.

“If you turn the lights off when you leave the room, will that make a difference?” many ask. Well, not a big difference, in the short term. What would help more is a change from fossil fuels to low-emission energy sources in electricity production. The same goes for transportation: does it make a difference if you rent a small electric car for your holiday trip instead of a big SUV? It won’t turn the world on its head immediately – the solution is more likely to lie in raising fuel efficiency standards, imposing an additional tax on high-polluting vehicles, or subsidizing hybrid and electric cars.

The fact is, according to the International Energy Agency, 40% of the emissions reductions needed to decarbonize the global economy by 2050 will come from changes in public policies and legislation1. Only 4% is expected to be achieved through purely personal actions such as flying less or walking to work. But the remaining 55% will come from changes that require a mix of government action and active consumer choices – and this is where your decisions matter most.

Personal choices do matter!

Imagine you take the flight from Paris to Berlin and one third of the seats are empty. The moment you get on the plane, the “waste” has already happened – the plane has been produced, the fuel has been extracted and refined, and will soon be combusted in the engine of the aircraft. The empty seats were “produced” – but no one bought them and nor paid any money for them. They cannot be accounted for in someone’s “personal carbon account”, although they definitely have a carbon footprint.

Let’s assume that half of these seats were empty because passengers chose to take the train – they chose to pay for a product other than an airline ticket. If such behavior occurs regularly and seats remain empty on every flight, the airline could suffer a financial loss. Perhaps the airline will then reduce the frequency of flights or use a smaller aircraft that burns less fuel. In the meantime, more people will choose to take the train – so there will be more frequent, perhaps faster and more comfortable trains on that route which can encourage more people to choose the less carbon-heavy option.

The fact that you did not buy a plane ticket today will not change much, immediately. But when large numbers of people switch from planes to trains (or from beef to peas), things will change over time. In both cases, the crucial thing is that you know the environmental costs of your choices – because only then can you make an informed decision.

Where your and other peoples’ money goes to has a massive impact on what types of products get produced in the future and which companies thrive and which don’t.

The benefits of reducing your carbon footprint

Voting with your wallet – and opting for greener travel solutions or other products over less environmentally friendly ones – is one of the most powerful market mechanisms for putting pressure on big business. A study published in November in the journal Nature found that any action taken to reduce emissions has a positive impact on society. Vegan burgers used to be a rarity – now, with the rise of veganism, they are abundant as people consume less meat and choose plant-based products more often.

Reducing your personal carbon footprint can also give you the benefit of a healthier lifestyle. Eating more vegetables or riding a bike instead of driving a car will lead to better nutrition and more physical activity. People who think about the environmental costs of their daily choices often inspire and influence others to do the same.

You may have heard that the concept of a personal carbon footprint only applies to wealthy societies where people have the luxury of choosing more sustainable options. While that's not true, because everyone creates a footprint, it's definitely the Western world that travels extensively, buys electronic devices and consumes meat. That, in turn, creates a kind of obligation. We should be more mindful of our daily choices because we can. Being privileged is a duty, and that duty should include taking care of others - including the environment.

Guilt is not the point

The point of being aware of the carbon footprint of your personal actions and consumption choices is not to make you feel guilty. The point is to spur action and to help you make informed decisions.

Voting with your wallet is a powerful tool for putting pressure on collective enterprises like power companies, industrial manufacturers, and transportation systems. Knowing the emissions caused by your daily choices can help you make more conscious choices – whether it’s your next pair of shoes, a plane ticket, or a package tour.

That’s what we are trying to do at Oncarbon: we help you make more conscious travel choices.

A drop in the ocean does count

According to research, 80% of European passengers want to receive environmental information about the flights they take. Three out of four passengers would welcome an environmental label on their flight. If demand and consumer pressure are strong enough, travel agencies and airlines will begin to report their carbon emissions and label more sustainable options.

And it is you who have the power to change things around. If you think that “you are a drop in the ocean,” remember that without the drops there would be no ocean. It's not that the system needs to be changed – we need to change it. We need to advocate for more transparency in communicating emissions and more choice in sustainable travel options.

If you know of a travel agency that should communicate its carbon footprint, or if you’d like to learn more about the model used to calculate emissions, check out our demo

Original cover photo: Felipe Labate/Unsplash.

Team Oncarbon
We’re on the mission to show you that we need – and we can – travel more consciously. We bring closer to you the topics of carbon footprint, sustainable travel and aviation, and transparency in emissions reporting.