Your “carbon footprint” is…(almost) irrelevant

When we talk about our impact on our world, or our individual “carbon footprint”, we might be forgiven for thinking that saving the world was all on our shoulders.

However, whilst individual actions can improve the places where we live, the real damage is inflicted by the structures that have been built around us.

Whose carbon footprint?

There is one line that pops up from time to time in popular culture that says “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”. As we’ve discussed already in our Greenwashing article, most of the pollution that is floating around in our atmosphere can be attributed to just 100 companies –primarily those in the fossil fuel business. The devil in this particular story is the fossil fuel industry –now there’s a surprise.

Wouldn’t you know it, the whole concept of a “carbon footprint” was invented by an advertising firm working with BP. This is the same BP famous for the Deepwater Horizon spill and more recently, for making the ocean catch fire.

But the oil companies would like you to think that’s how it works. It turns out that the concept of the “carbon footprint”, that popular measure of personal impact, was the brainchild of an advertising firm working for BP.

Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. Keep them on the hook | Rebecca Solnit | The Guardian

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is certainly merit in thinking about how we as individuals can improve our local environment. Driving less creates less localised air pollution, noise and makes our cities more pleasant places to be –particularly for the one third of a typical city that has no access to a car. Cars also kill an awful lot of wildlife, not just people.

Yet our individual impact is dwarfed by the structural emissions that are made on our behalf. Let’s take the cruise industry as an example. By taking a handful of cruise ships out of circulation you effectively wipe out the sulphur dioxide emissions of all 260,000,000 cars being driven around Europe. The cruise industry alone makes up 0.2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, primarily from the burning of oil.

Carnival Corporation, which owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Cunard, and more, emitted almost ten times more sulfur oxide throughout Europe than all 260 million European cars in 2017, according to a recent analysis by sustainable transport group Transport & Environment. The report recommended that Europe implement a zero-emission port standard, in addition to extending emission control areas (they are only in the North and Baltic Seas and the English Channel) to the remainder of the European seas.

How Bad Are Cruise Ships for the Environment? | Reader’s Digest

One thing the pandemic has demonstrated is that trapping thousands of tourists on a cruise ship is not just a tremendous way to incubate diseases, they’re also tremendously wasteful and disruptive to the ocean habitats they sail through.

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely devastated the cruise industry. At the beginning of the outbreak, cruise ships were prevented from docking in many ports, creating contagion hotspots that the press dubbed ‘floating petri dishes’ and leaving tens of thousands of passengers and staff stranded. Since then, border closures, social distancing and a lack of foreign travel have compounded the misery of this $150 billion industry. 

Effects of COVID-19 on Global Cruise Industry – Company Debt

Since the cruise industry ran aground, whales in Alaska and no doubt other spawning grounds have been enjoying the ability to communicate with each other through the new-found silence. The cruel irony of whale-watching tours is that an animal that communicates through sound is less able to communicate when a giant gas guzzler full of tourists churns up their home. The same is true of safari tours. Big cats like the Cheetah have found that communicating with their cubs is really difficult with a convoy of tourists in 4x4s gawping at them. Tourists are actively contributing to the decline of the species their tours are intended to showcase.

It’s important to remember at this stage that we are not just facing rising temperatures and rising sea levels, we’re in the middle of a biodiversity crisis as well. Roughly half of the air we breathe comes from microscopic organisms (phytoplankton) living in the oceans, but human activities are negatively affecting the ability of these organisms to deal with human activities.

Why do warmer temperatures have a negative influence on phytoplankton growth? The most likely explanation is that the warmer the surface waters become, the less mixing there is between those waters and deeper, more nutrient-rich water. As nutrients become scarce at the surface, where phytoplankton grow, productivity declines.

Warming Ocean Slows Phytoplankton Growth

Warming oceans means less Phytoplankton; less Phytoplankton means less CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and less oxygen is produced; the oceans get warmer and around we go in a feedback loop. This is why scientists are saying that temperatures will continue to rise even if we stopped emitting CO2 today —tipping points have been triggered and the climate is now in the driving seat. Sadly we’re not even trying to limit our CO2 output.

We could make a big difference to our prospects by ending the cruise industry, but we won’t do that because of the political and economic system we find ourselves in –one that prioritises GDP over all else.

What we can do…

In a market-driven economy the only way we can really change it for the better, if politicians won’t take decisive action, is to not engage with the worst offenders in the hope that they one day become unviable.

Package holidays, cruises and safaris need to end; cars & tabloid newspapers need to go unsold; office work needs to be done from home; food needs to be grown locally; cattle farming and commercial fishing need to end; fossil fuels need to stay in the ground and its producers wound up.

Finally, people need to transition to a form of universal basic income so that we are not compelled to spend our days creating junk from finite resources in the hope that someone will buy it –just so we can have food and shelter. The industries that do survive need to be solely those that focus on the survival of our species and the ecosystems that supports us. This might include growing food; planting trees; water treatment and removing plastic from the oceans and waterways.

In April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released data showing that the number of people displaced by climate change-related disasters since 2010 has risen to 21.5 million, pointing out that “in addition to sudden disasters, climate change is a complex cause of food and water shortages, as well as difficulties in accessing natural resources.”

Climate refugees – the world’s forgotten victims | World Economic Forum

As individuals we all need to be ready to relocate at short notice. Think about what you would grab first if wildfires or floods were bearing down on your home and simplify what you own to just those things –a good sleeping bag; a tent; a good coat and boots; a camping stove; and a (physical –not an ebook) book you can read again and again.

Nobody is saying this will be easy, but fingers crossed it won’t be as bad as annihilation.

3 thoughts on “Your “carbon footprint” is…(almost) irrelevant

Add yours

  1. you’ve got to accept that you can’t reform capitalism though. i agree with you up to a point, but without completely reforming into a non-money system it will all fail. for example UBI will end up failing. it works in small tests or in areas where rent-seeking isn’t a major economy, but in the uk it will result in rents rising greatly; it will result in prices rising, wages lowering, and will only make landlords and dealers wealthier. taxes will increase to cover the costs unless UBI includes a benefit cap, in which case thousands of vulnerable people will find that their benefits no longer cover their already meagre care. if UBI is 10 k a year, that’s less than a month’s support for some mh clients. honestly, its going to be a shitshow. if we’re going to make that big a change to our society then we should do one that will be better. UBI is not the solution. its a solution that seeks to keep capitalism so as to benefit the capitalists, not the people or the environment!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I suspect you are quite right, Terry, but from experience it is often best to hint or allude to the big changes that are needed until a critical mass of people come around to the idea, or be seen as a loon. The current form of “capitalism” we seem to be practicing is already starting to come apart at the seams –with billionaires sending themselves into space whilst their staff go hungry; where the public has to pay for the failures of the financial markets, but the profits stay with the corporations. However, to borrow a phrase from The Matrix, not everyone is ready to be unplugged.

      Liked by 1 person

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