Staff Stance: Hypocrisy of the Carbon Footprint: Comparing Individual and Corporate Climate Responsibility

Beck Williams and LiLi Xiong

Turn off your lights when you’re not using them. Remember to reduce, reuse, recycle. Try to purchase products without excessive packaging. Sentiments surrounding the individual consumer such as these have circulated in every form of media that tries to inform the public on climate change. These individual-centered proposals have long served as our generic default solutions for the climate crisis. However, flooding of coastal areas, the tragic loss of biodiversity, and increasingly extreme weather conditions such as the Texas snow storm in 2020 are not consequences that should be taken lightly. Thus, it’s important to consider if individual-centered proposals are really the most effective ways of tackling climate change. While individuals taking responsibility for their personal carbon footprints certainly couldn’t hurt, there’s still only so much we as individuals can do when, according to The Guardian, 100 companies alone are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions.

The term “carbon footprint” was ironically first coined by British Petroleum (BP), the world’s second-largest non-state-owned oil company in the world. According to The Guardian, BP used a public relations scheme to promote the narrative of individual climate responsibility, and thus scapegoat consumers as opposed to oil giants for the impacts of climate change. In 2004, BP even created a carbon footprint calculator for individuals to assess their personal day-to-day emissions. Since then, the idea of reducing individual carbon footprints has been popularized globally. Yet BP clearly has no intention to reduce theirs, seeing as they still produce 3.8 million barrels of oil every day and have invested negligible amounts of their budget in renewable energy sources. The production of oil is a major source of toxic air pollutants and risks oil spills which could be caused by pipeline, storage, or transport oil leakages. In fact, in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused by the explosion of a BP oil rig is considered to be the largest marine oil spill in history. The oil spill killed thousands of marine creatures by contaminating their habitats, and continues to cause Gulf of Mexico residents to suffer various health disorders to this day.

This hypocritical tone isn’t unique to BP. Similarly, Coca-Cola advertises themselves as eco-friendly, claiming to be mitigating water wastage while simultaneously operating bottling factories in vulnerable areas of India, exacerbating groundwater issues and droughts. Not only does this strategy allow corporations to deflect blame away from themselves, but it guilt-trips their consumers, many of whom do not have the means to significantly reduce their carbon footprints. While some consumers do have the privilege and resources to purchase eco-friendly, expensive products or electric cars, for the vast majority of the global population, there’s only so much they can commit. On the other hand, wealthy corporations do have the resources and funds to significantly reduce global emissions. For example, they have the means to invest in renewable energy and cleaner ways to produce products, as well as to avoid further destroying areas already vulnerable to climate change.

Ultimately, the people experiencing the firsthand effects of the climate crisis are not the CEOs of multi-million corporations, but normal people: people in developing countries in vulnerable areas with less infrastructure or government stability to deal with the ramifications of climate change. This means there is hardly any incentive for corporations to make substantial differences in their practices, as they aren’t experiencing the immediate consequences of their actions. Companies can make emission-cutting climate pledges all they want, but unless enforced by laws or government agencies, corporate climate pledges are just that: pledges and empty promises. 

One plausible way to limit corporate emissions is pushing for government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to have more influence on coporation’s climate-related practices. West Virginia v. EPA is, at the time of this writing, a currently pending Supreme Court case which will resolve whether the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the ability to delegate the EPA broad regulatory powers in regard to corporate greenhouse gas emissions. The result of this case could significantly set the tone of how much say the EPA has in corporate practices. Setting quotas on corporate emissions—as well as fighting for legal repercussions or taxes on corporations that don’t meet these quotas—would be a truly effective way of combating the climate crisis. On an individual level, this means voting for truly climate-conscious representatives and continuously pressuring and lobbying for corporations and governments to do better. Individuals, if in the position to do so, can put pressure on corporations to adopt environmentally-conscious policies by choosing to support companies that have been proven to be more eco-friendly, not just advertised to appear that way. When more people purchase products produced by truly ethical companies, and boycott high-emitting companies, this can incentivize more companies to adopt more of these policies. 

Ultimately, this isn’t to say that individual actions don’t matter, and that the idea of the carbon footprint is obsolete. If individuals are in the position to do so, it’s still important to make environmentally-conscious decisions. However, if they can’t afford to go vegan or bike to school due to any number of factors, then their hands are obviously tied. Instead of blaming these consumers, understand why it’s so difficult to be climate-conscious within the system that we live in. We should look towards strategies that will better enable individuals to make eco-friendly choices, such as making public transportation and sustainable food options more accessible to working-class people. Ultimately, confronting the climate crisis does involve individualism: individual activism, individual voters, and individual change-makers, but for this individualism to pay off, it must acknowledge that we live in a system that contains disparities between the magnitude of change a multi-million corporation can make and the change a working-class individual can make.