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Mainstreaming the carbon footprint
Jon Lebkowsky, 13 Nov 05
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While working with "Meet the Press" on in the background this morning, as a commercial came on I heard the question "Do you know your carbon footprint?" and my ears stood up. The commercial was a staged set of "man on the street" snippets where the unseen interviewer would ask t hat question, and the interviewee would act completely clueless... what the heck is a carbon footprint?

It was a new BP ad that directed viewers to a page with the header "It's time to start a low-carbon diet." The page has a link to a nifty carbon footprint calculator. (My footprint was less than the national average, but I could still stand to lose a few tons). Needless to say, it's cool to see this mainstreaming of the ecological footprint concept, and I'm not surprised to see that the origin was BP

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I tried it out and was pleased to learn that my footprint was 18 tonnes a year, just below the U.S. average of 19 tonnes. But as I went back and double-checked, I realized that I has inadvertently omitted the section on air travel. With that data added, my footprint zoomed to an unfortunate 29 tonnes!


Posted by: Joel Makower on 13 Nov 05

The ad - well aimed, at Sunday morning talk show audiences - caught my attention too. The interviewees, though, didn't seem "competely clueless" to me; they seemed partly clueful, and - most importantly - engaged, which I thought was great modelling, even if obviously not "random sample."

My household came in at 19.05 tonnes, spot on the US household average (unclear if adjusted for # of denizens?) with 23% of that (4.5 tonnes) in air travel (mostly business, probably underestimated).


Posted by: Gil Friend on 13 Nov 05

Like all of these things I've seen, this one has some serious flaws. For example, the heating choice offers "Electricity", which includes both electric baseboards and heat-pumps -- a 3:1 energy-use ratio! Luckily, our 100% "green power" reduced our household energy to 0 tonnes, regardless of how efficiently we heated. Seems like baseboard heat is a poor way to waste wind and geothermal power to me!

Also, no credit was given for alternate transportation fuels -- so being petroleum-free by using 100% biodiesel counted for naught. There were big gaps in miles driven, too -- the lowest level was 5,000 miles, but we only drive about half that in one of our vehicles! (Check out our waste vegoil powered RV/warehouse at my URL link.)

We ended up with 6 tonnes, but other such surveys we're taken that gave us credit for biofuel put us well under one tonne. (5.9 of our total was under "car travel", which should have been zero!)

So it's nice that BP is thinking along these lines, but the mainstream-oriented questions leave little for the average consumer to hope for, and hint at "greenwashing".


Posted by: Jan Steinman on 13 Nov 05

My household is about 10 tones per year tho its hard to tell exactly as my household isnt normal in any respect so I had to eyeball some options.


Posted by: wintermane on 13 Nov 05

What bugs me a little about the ad (and these footprint calculators generally) is the implication that reducing the CO2 output of our society is primarily a matter of individual initiative -- as though our main goal should be to increase the virtuous behavior of average citizens.

With some fairly small tweaks to its business model, BP could instantly negate the carbon footprints of tens of thousands of people. The question we should be asking on the street is "what's BP's carbon footprint?"

The same goes for the federal government's new "Energy Hog" campaign. Hey, fellas, reduce agricultural subsidies by 10% and you've undone the damage of about a million of those hogs!

I don't mean to be a killjoy -- it's great to raise general awareness of CO2 output, which most people have probably never thought about for 2 seconds. But ultimately what's needed are some fundamental shifts in corporate and government policy. I'd like to see some commercials about that.


Posted by: David Roberts on 13 Nov 05

...A second round of ads, showing world leaders being asked the same question?


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 13 Nov 05

Flight included, we were 8.6 tonnes. Wood or other biomass was not a heating fuel option - too bad.

I understand David Roberts' point, but at least in the United States at this time, leadership will begin with individuals - corporate and government action will follow.


Posted by: David Foley on 13 Nov 05

Not owning a car at all seems to help a lot but, it doesn't really give you chance to measure train travel as option. They've added options for solar and other green energy of which I have none. So this really only gets me down to about 5 or 6 tonnes.

Also I agree that more can be done by companies and governments to reduce wasteful subsidies and business practices.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 13 Nov 05

Wood was one of the options.


Posted by: wintermane on 14 Nov 05

This is definitely a step in the right direction, don't you think? What does the ad-buy time say about the audiences BP is trying to reach? It will be interesteing to see where else this campaign shows up (Monday Night Football?)
Jan, can recommend a calculator that does better.
Also, are there similar calculators that address water use or living wage impacts of purchases? In short, who's thinking about extending the footprint calculator approach to other sustainability dynamics?


Posted by: Will Duggan on 14 Nov 05

If you write or teach about world changing & sustainable topics but you're living at or above your national GHG average, travel and reproduction included, then you should promptly self-flagellate with a frozen bunch of organic celery.

I'm sure WCers that fly/travel a lot do participate in carbon offsetting programmes & I sympathasise with the desire to travel and spread the WC message. However if world changing types can't reduce their emissions to below average, can we expect anyone else to?

Our household is between 4 & 8 tonnes (variation for different answers to the questions that are ambiguous for our situation). There are flaws & omissions in this quiz, as pointed out above, but still good if it gets the average mainstream household thinking (even better if it gets them acting!!).

I agree that companies and govts should shoulder more responsibility, but in modern times they're proving slow at keeping pace with social and environmental changes, so action and voting - both in elections and in markets with your dollars/pounds/euros - by individuals is important to encourage business & govt to change.


Posted by: Sun Flower on 15 Nov 05



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