The sordid history of the carbon calculator

The first online carbon footprint calculator’ appeared in 2004. It was a subtle Big Oil disinformation ruse to shift the focus from corporate fossil fuel producers to individual consumer guilt. Supercharged by social media flight-shaming’, and polarised public debates about plastic bags, coffee stirrers and cotton buds, leaving Big Oil to carry on business as usual. They knew it would work, as the same PR playbook had already worked for Big Tobacco (it’s not our cigarettes, but your choice).

Any glance at social media will demonstrate this switcheroo is still working well. Re-framing a science-based existential crisis as an Establishment assault on your Freedom is a powerful formula, especially when reinforced by billionaire-owned media platforms who profit from the status quo, and captured governments dependent on lobbyist funding.

But when BP hired PR shills Ogilvy & Mather in 2004 they were right about one thing — the need to measure carbon footprints. What’s true for individuals is also true for companies big and small, institutions and countries.

If you can’t measure something, how can you know if you’re making any difference?

How to measure carbon footprints

It’s both really simple, and really complicated. Simple because you simply apply the same long-established principles of financial accounting to carbon consumption. Complicated because we’re billions of carbon-based life-forms living complex lives in a carbon-based ecosystem. (Note that carbon’ throughout is shorthand for greenhouses gases, of which CO2 is the biggest).

Imagine an old-fashioned ledger, a sheet of paper with a line drawn down the middle. The left side is headed Liabilities’, the right Assets’. This is how we measure a company, individual or country’s net worth.

It’s also how we take a snapshot of their carbon footprint.

Carbon Liabilities

The total carbon emissions resulting from you doing what you do. These are subdivided into three categories:

  • Scope 1

    Direct emissions under your own control. This is what we usually understand to be our carbon footprint’: your heating, your transport, your food etc.

  • Scope 2

    Indirect emissions from the energy used by your supply chain. You may claim to run a carbon neutral flower business, but only if you don’t count all your stock that’s flown in by helicopter.

  • Scope 3

    Everything else. All the carbon that wouldn’t have been emitted had you not done the thing you do. For nightclubs, football clubs or rock bands, the emissions from your audience attending your event is typically 80% of your total footprint.

Carbon Assets

All the things you’re doing to remove carbon from the air and put it back in the ground.

The list of activities that do this is familiar — trees, algae, carbon capture technology. Less well known, though increasingly being exposed is the fact that nearly all the activities we’re currently chalking up as carbon assets are fantasy, and don’t reflect the real world.

Carbon Offsetting’ has become a familiar term for the Assets side of the ledger. It appears as a surcharge on our airline tickets, and makes us all feel better about flying. Carbon offsetting schemes are trumpeted on greenwashing company websites and commercials, usually showing vast forests of mature trees.

Unfortunately, in practice, carbon offsetting is a bust, so compromised that’s it’s best not counted at all.

If you think this is an exaggeration, read this Pennsylvania University paper called Are carbon offsets unscalable, unjust, and unfixable – and a threat to the Paris Climate Agreement?” and try picking holes in it.

If you find yourself instinctively defending carbon offsets, for reasons you can’t quite articulate, you’re demonstrating the power of wishful thinking combined with corporate greenwash.

Strict, science-based carbon auditors might possibly permit certain carbon insetting’ schemes on the Assets side of the ledger, but there’s a reason why this term is less familiar — it’s really hard. It means that instead of paying someone else to outsource your carbon reduction, you have to take direct responsibility for it now and forever.

Given that dedicated offsetting companies have amply demonstrated how hard this is, why should amateurs be any better at it?

Simple, no?

The mathematics of carbon auditing are really very simple. You add up all your carbon Liabilities, subtract any real carbon Assets, and the result is your carbon footprint:

  • If your Liabilities exceed your Assets, you’re part of the problem.
  • If your Liabilities equal your Assets, you’re not making things any worse.
  • If your Assets exceed your Liabilities, you’re part of the solution.

So far, carbon auditing 1.0 has produced an incoherent mess, completely inadequate for the purpose, and irredeemably compromised. For more on the Problem, read about what’s wrong with the current system. For why See Through Carbon is the Solution, read what carbon audition 2.0 needs to look like.

The Complicated Bit

The science behind accurately measuring total Liabilities and real-world Assets can be complicated, but we’ve come up with a pretty efficient system when it comes to counting money.

We just have to apply the same rigour, enforcement and verification to counting carbon.

The truth is we’ve so far been carelessly negligent about counting our Liabilities, and irrationally optimistic about counting our Assets.

The answer to reducing our carbon footprint, with current technology, is to measurably reduce our Liabilities, not to artificially inflate our Assets. Not the answer we’d like, maybe, but atmospheric physics doesn’t care what we’d like.

  1. The quickest way to reduce the Liabilities side of the ledger is to use less energy.
  2. Next quickest is to replace it with renewable energy.
  3. There is no third option.

Of course, counting this accurately involves a certain amount of estimates, averages, and blanket conversion factors. But so does financial accounting.

Complexity doesn’t stop us trying to count everything when money is involved, so why should it be an excuse to give up when we count carbon?

After all, money is an abstract concept recently invented by one species. Carbon has been the building block for life on earth for billions of years.

Which should we take more seriously?

Now we have the basics of carbon auditing covered, the next question is what’s the problem?…

_​_​_​Next…The Problem