Do you remember where you first heard the term “carbon footprint”? Neither do I. For many of us, the term was slipped into our subconscious by an advertising campaign that ran for two years from 2004 and was funded by oil giant BP. “What on earth is a carbon footprint?” read one ad, emblazoned with the company’s green-and-yellow sunflower logo. “Every person in the world has one.”
One might wonder about the purpose of that expensive campaign. Public-spiritedness? A straightforward attempt to nurture a greener image? Neither, according to prominent US climate scientist Michael E Mann, who sees the adverts as part of a deflection effort “aimed at shifting responsibility from corporations to individuals”. In his 2021 book The New Climate War, he accuses corporate messaging of helping to drive “a fixation on voluntary action”, undermining the push for tough new regulations and state policies, from carbon pricing to tighter restrictions on industrial emissions, that could make a real difference.
I was reminded of Mann’s warning during a BBC debate last month between UK prime ministerial contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. The host spurned the opportunity to grill them on their proposals to deal with the climate crisis, instead asking them: “What three things should people change in their lives to help tackle climate change faster?”
Beyond distracting from serious policy debate, the obsession with personal carbon footprints has, Mann argues, been a godsend for opponents of serious climate action. It has created a catch-all charge of “hypocrisy” they can use to dismiss any argument for such action, as long as the person making it travels by air. That logic seems to have been internalised by the environmental movement, too. Witness the criticism by the UK Green party’s Baroness Jones of the “hypocrisy” of Alok Sharma, president of last year’s COP26 climate summit, for his extensive trips by plane to rally international support ahead of the conference.
I should declare an interest in this debate, having been accused of hypocrisy by some readers over my recent book on climate change, the research for which involved a large number of flights. But the preoccupation with personal carbon footprints, I’d argue, is leading the climate conversation in strange and, in some cases, disturbing directions. This is most conspicuous among the young. A study of “climate anxiety” among 10,000 16-25 year-olds in 10 countries, published in The Lancet last December, found that 39 per cent said climate change made them hesitant to have children.
That may reflect fears of bringing a new generation into a world of floods and wildfires. But it also chimes with the growing popularity of an unsettling argument: that those who care about the planet should avoid procreation – that since everyone has a carbon footprint, the best response to the problem is to have less human life. This is a bleak line of thought. Taken to its logical extreme, it could be used to justify eco-suicide, or the madcap scheme of Samuel L Jackson’s villain in the first Kingsman film to kill off most of humanity to halt global warming.
Then there are other youngsters who are giving up on making any meaningful contribution to the climate struggle. Fifty-six per cent of young people in the Lancet study said climate change made them feel “powerless”. Roughly the same proportion agreed with the statement “humanity is doomed”.
No wonder, when we’re training our kids to focus on tackling climate change primarily through changes to personal consumption habits, the impact of which, they know instinctively, will fall massively short of what is needed.
In business, too, we’ve seen a focus on voluntary climate initiatives through industry alliances and the rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. Its proponents point out, with justification, that business is filling a vacuum left by governments and regulators that have been woefully slow to act. But critics claim companies are using these voluntary initiatives to reduce the pressure for ambitious government action that might threaten near-term profits. Among the most vocal critics is Tariq Fancy, who quit last year as head of sustainable investing at asset manager BlackRock. Big financial companies are using ESG as a “decoy”, he told me this summer. “The last thing they want to do is fight against a real argument that’s based in economics, that says the obvious answer is regulation.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with voluntary attempts to reduce emissions. But it would be grim if this agenda distracted from progress towards the serious policy measures that are the real key to tackling this crisis.
Simon Mundy is the editor of the FT’s Moral Money newsletter and author of ‘Race for Tomorrow’
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