Carbon footprint calculators and using an environmental footprint calculator have become wildly popular actions among environmentally conscious consumers, but many of these tools have an origin that goes overlooked: they were initially developed as part of a marketing campaign for British Petroleum (BP) in 2004, and this campaign popularized and proliferated the BP carbon footprint calculator.
And while the concept is a good one… the intent is misleading.
Like many other businesses and fossil fuel companies, BP has effectively created a form of greenwashing to conceal their own massive carbon emissions by presenting a misleading carbon calculator that places the burden of climate change on you, while simultaneously missing the point.1
BP Emissions Calculator Process
The BP carbon footprint calculator is also misleading because it fails to account for a number of details that contribute to your carbon footprint. However, there are many carbon footprint calculators that do provide their users with accurate estimates of their annual carbon emissions, as well as applicable ways to lower those emissions.
Unfortunately, BP’s carbon footprint calculator process is deceptive because it does not provide an accurate estimate of the user’s annual carbon emissions. Nor is the calculator able to provide that data given the simplicity of the survey questions used to provide the user with their footprint. 2
What is a Carbon Footprint Calculator?
A carbon footprint is a measurement of how much carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions you directly or indirectly generate, either in a time frame (like a year) or by activity (like a single plane flight). In order to calculate it properly, every aspect must be considered.
A carbon footprint is the measurement of the greenhouse gas emissions you produce, but these emissions are represented in units of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2 equivalent) emitted. For example, garbage placed in a landfill generates methane gas, based on the amount, but this is included in a carbon footprint because the methane is converted into an equivalent measurement.
A good calculator should include all facets of life including annual energy usage, transportation type and distance traveled, waste disposal methods, amount and price of clothing purchased and spending habits, and so much more.
For reference, the average U.S. citizen produces about 16 tons of CO2 equivalent every year. The world average is four tons.
Why BP Invented the Carbon Footprint Calculator
It almost seems like British Petroleum made a mistake in creating and propagating the carbon footprint calculator. After all, a good footprint calculator will show you just how damaging petroleum and other fossil fuels can be for the environment.
But it’s actually a genius marketing strategy. To understand why, you need to know the history of the BP carbon footprint calculator.3
History of BP Carbon Footprint Calculator
British Petroleum first promoted and popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the early 2000’s. The company unveiled the first carbon footprint calculator in 2004.
This calculator allowed the average consumer to calculate their direct and indirect carbon emissions, ostensibly so that they would better understand how everyday routines can have an impact on the environment.
If you take the marketing at face value, this calculator seems like a really good idea. It helps average people better understand their role in the oncoming climate crisis and encourages individuals to act in ways that are more environmentally friendly and sustainable.
That’s a good thing.
But this was a marketing stunt, bought and paid for by a big and powerful oil and gas company, not environmental activists, or scientists, to shift the blame of climate change away from the fossil fuel industry. 3
BP’s Greenwashing Campaign
There is a term for what BP was doing, and that term originated in the mid-1980s when Chevron attempted to convince U.S. citizens that their business was environmentally friendly. That term is “greenwashing,” and it’s exactly what BP was doing in the early 2000s.
Greenwashing is the corporate practice of making sustainability claims that conceal a questionable, if not outright destructive, environmental history and operation.
Although the concept of identifying your carbon footprint is good if it leads to reduction in greenhouse gasses, that wasn’t the intent of the first carbon calculator. The calculator itself helped shift the desire for accountability and change from big oil and gas companies. In that way, BP’s campaign has been incredibly successful. 4
And for BP, that begins with their calculator.
Breaking Down the BP Emissions Calculator
To best demonstrate its lack of features and inaccurate readings, you need to analyze each section of BP’s carbon footprint calculator. You will quickly see just how imprecise this “carbon calculator” is. 5
The BP carbon footprint calculator asks that you select your country of residence.
It also tells you that your answer to this question matters because any future calculations will be dependent on this answer.
Now, this question would be perfectly suitable if it then asked what state or province where you live. But it doesn’t. Instead, it continues directly into the next set of questions concerning travel.
But why does this matter?
It’s mostly important for residents of countries like the United States where each state has its own method(s) of producing energy, especially electricity. The source of your energy, whether that is for your vehicle, household, or other appliances, has a significant impact on your overall carbon emissions.For example, if electricity is generated by coal burning power plants (like the majority around the world), the eco-cost of that energy is higher than if the electricity was generated by a hydroelectric dam.
A person who receives most or all of their energy from renewables, such as solar and wind power, will have a much lower rate of emissions than a person who is dependent on fossil fuels.
Being able to select your specific state ensures that your carbon footprint is derived from information about your specific location (and how it generates electricity) and provides you with a far more accurate depiction of your carbon footprint.
Types of CO2 Emitters
The next page of the BP carbon footprint calculator asks that you decide whether to calculate the carbon emissions of your annual road or air travel, or that you enter your carbon emissions in tonnes if you already know your footprint.
It implies that your carbon footprint is limited to the emissions of your transportation method.
This utterly fails to recognize that your carbon footprint is a holistic analysis of your lifestyle. It is not limited to transportation.
In fact, other calculators tend to break up your carbon footprint into several categories. These are often:
- Transportation: This category tends to include all forms of transportation that you use throughout the year, which includes personal vehicles, public transportation, aircraft, etc. All of these disparate forms of transportation produce some amount of greenhouse gas emissions, but they vary widely depending on use. For example, the same trip taken on a bus 30 miles, will have a lower ‘personal’ carbon footprint than if taken in a car by one person.
- Household: This category can include a lot of different things, including the type and amount of clothing you buy, the furniture and appliances you purchase, and the sorts of brands you choose. However, the most important part of this category is about your energy usage. Most carbon calculators will ask about where you source your energy from and how much you use each month. It may also ask about your eating habits, are you vegetarian, vegan, or neither.
- Waste: This last category includes questions about how you dispose of waste (landfill, recycle, etc.), approximately how much food you throw away, and whether you compost organic waste.
- Spending: Personal spending is directly related to your carbon footprint. The more you spend, the higher the emissions generated by producing those goods.
- Online Activities: Texts and emails have a footprint too, and the more spam sitting in your inbox, the higher it is.
- Recreational: Boats, ATV’s, motor homes and even lawnmowers generate emissions, so an an accurate calculator will include them.
Examining the details of your lifestyle ensures that an individual’s carbon footprint is a summation of all the major components of their life, and not just limited to how far they drive or fly.
BP’s Carbon Footprint Calculator Lacks Detail
It’s easy to critique the limits of the BP carbon footprint calculator. It simply cannot accurately depict the actual carbon emissions of an individual’s lifestyle.
And that is because the BP calculator lacks detail.
As an example, let’s look at the section on personal vehicle usage. For a resident of the U.S., it begins by asking what sort of vehicle you drive:
- Passenger Car
- Light Duty Truck
- Heavy Duty Truck
- Medium and Heavy Duty Truck
For this example, you may decide to select a passenger vehicle.
It then asks what sort of fuel type it takes. The options are limited to:
This is already emblematic of other problems you will notice with this section. While these two options are prevalent (the majority of Americans do drive gasoline-fueled cars), they are not the only choices.
In fact, this calculator is wholly missing any mention of renewable energy, and with electric vehicles becoming more common in the U.S., this seems like an obvious omission. Unless BP doesn’t want to draw attention to the differences in the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline?
In this example, the user selects “Petrol.” They are then asked to enter their annual distance traveled and their vehicle’s fuel efficiency if they know it.
That’s it. The calculator doesn’t ask about the make or model, or even whether it receives annual maintenance, which can have a big impact on how much fuel is burned every mile.
This could be forgiven in most carbon footprint calculators, as they do not expressly advertise their ability to accurately depict the carbon footprint of your vehicle, but in a calculator that can only calculate the carbon footprint of air or road travel, there’s no excuse.5
Your BP Carbon Footprint
In the concluding section of BP’s carbon footprint calculator, it gives you your calculation and presents your carbon emissions in metric tons of CO2e. In the example above, 200 miles was entered for the annual amount driven.
It then tells you how much you can pay BP to offset your carbon emissions.
This is as blatant as greenwashing gets. For context, BP produces about 374 million metric tonnes (412 million U.S. tons) of CO2e every year.
If you live in the U.S., you might annually produce 16 tons of CO2e, which is the average, per capita emissions.
So, this massive CO2e emitter is asking you to pay them to offset your carbon emissions through emission reduction projects that are funded by gas and oil companies. 6
The rest of the website is similarly focused on how individuals can alter their lifestyles to lessen their carbon emissions.
What Was VYVE? Did it Really Calculate Emissions Correctly?
On the surface, VYVE was an app produced by a subsidiary of BP that supposedly tracked your carbon footprint in real-time and prompted you to buy carbon offsets, specifically helping new offset projects that BP is funding. 7
Unfortunately, it was just another example of corporate greenwashing, and now, no longer exists.
While experts were unsure whether VYVE accurately calculated your emissions, the underlying principle was the same as the original BP carbon footprint calculator. It was designed to focus attention on the individual’s carbon emissions instead of the top 100 companies that are producing about 70 percent of global emissions.
Carbon Footprint of Energy: Why Science Fact is Glossed Over by Big Oil
Big oil and gas companies gloss over scientific evidence surrounding climate change because it is financially beneficial for them to ignore it.
In fact, many of these companies successfully lobby against any actual legislation that might create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly society.
Fossil Fuel Industry Impact on Climate Change
In 2019, fossil fuel combustion accounted for 74 percent of the United States’ total annual greenhouse gas emissions, which includes the burning of coal for electricity generation. And, just two years earlier, in 2017, a report from the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI) stated that just 100 companies were responsible for over 70% of the world’s CO2e emissions since 1988.
At the time, four of the highest emitters were ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron, and they were joined by all other major oil and gas companies. Of course, this list wasn’t limited to oil and gas companies, but it does give you a sense of how destructive the fossil industry is. 10
They are responsible for the majority of global emissions.
Making a Difference
The BP carbon footprint calculator is an element of a larger scale marketing movement to convince the public that the individual is solely responsible for climate change, and while everyone does bear some responsibility, workable energy solutions should be everyone’s goal… including BP’s.
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1Schendler, A. (2021, August 31). Worrying about your carbon footprint is exactly what big oil wants you to do. The New York Times. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/climate-change-carbon-neutral.html>
2Kaufman, M. (2021, July 9). The carbon footprint sham. Mashable. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://mashable.com/feature/carbon-footprint-pr-campaign-sham>
3Watson, B. (2016, August 20). The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing. The Guardian. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/20/greenwashing-environmentalism-lies-companies>
4Solnit, R. (2021, August 23). Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. keep them on the hook | Rebecca Solnit. The Guardian. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/23/big-oil-coined-carbon-footprints-to-blame-us-for-their-greed-keep-them-on-the-hook>
5Calculate and offset your emissions: BP target neutral. Home. (2021). Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://www.bp.com/en_gb/target-neutral/home/calculate-and-offset-your-emissions.html>
6Thomson Reuters. (2021, March 22). BP reports 10% drop in overall emissions in 2020. Reuters. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bp-emissions/bp-reports-10-drop-in-overall-emissions-in-2020-idUSKBN2BE2DN>
7Yoder, K. (2021, September 21). Why do oil companies care so much about your carbon footprint? Grist. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://grist.org/energy/footprint-fantasy/>
8Riley, T. (2017, July 10). Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says. The Guardian. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change>
9Image Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2014, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.