The oil industry has hijacked the climate debate. Here’s how. 

By Jakob Lessenich 

In 2004, a flashy new marketing campaign took the climate debate by storm. At its core, a website with a revolutionary concept: a personal carbon footprint calculator. With a few simple steps, everyone could now assert just how much damage their household does to the environment. This might not seem strange now, the personal carbon footprint has after all become a staple of our climate debate. The surprising thing, however, is that it was not popularized by a group of concerned climate activists, but by Beyond Petroleum (formerly British Petroleum), one of the largest oil companies in the world. At this point, a touch of scepticism is in order. Indeed, the strategy behind BP’s sudden concern for carbon emissions is not casual or well-intentioned. It’s an age-old marketing strategy, used extensively by massive corporations to shift the blame in the climate debate. So, let’s take a step back and look at how broken the discussion really is. 

Let us start with the very basics. Fossil fuel companies are directly responsible for major amounts of emissions, to an incredible extent. According to the 2017 Carbon Majors Report, over half of emissions since the official recognition of human induced climate change in 1988 are directly traceable to just 25 corporate and state-owned companies. In the report, which tracks emissions resulting from both the extraction and eventual consumption of fossil fuels, BP ranks as the entity with the 11th largest traceable impact. The numbers are staggering. In 2020, BP was responsible for a total of 374 metric tonnes of CO2, a figure which is still generous as it is self-reported and calculated according to quite forgiving metrics. This is consistent with the rest of the industry, with Dutch Shell reporting even higher numbers. The companies themselves are well aware of these numbers, and they have created a sort of collective existential crisis. What is the place of the fossil fuel industry in an increasingly climate-conscious world? How does one protect their profit from public scrutiny? And what can one do to shield their image from the public pressure that such emissions instil? 

It is according to these issues that the industry has undertaken a huge rebranding effort, carefully shaping their brand image and the very nature of the climate debate, which brings us back to our starting point: the personal carbon footprint. The personal carbon footprint is defined as a measure of the amount of emissions we generate in our day-to-day lives. By adding the emissions from our commute, the emissions cost from our food, clothes and our energy needs, we achieve a calculation of the amount of CO2 we are responsible for. It derives from the ecological footprint, a concept developed by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel. The concept, which was revolutionary at the time, intended to measure the sustainability of our lifestyle relative to what nature can renew. BP saw an opportunity, and in 2004, they launched their new campaign: “It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet” it read, and together with a cocktail of vaguely written company slogans, it provided something truly new: the personal carbon footprint calculator. The climate debate would never be the same.  

What made the strategy so effective was that it painted BP in the light of a saviour of sorts, a concerned group desperately pushing against the climate catastrophe, whilst at the same time putting the pressure of change on the public. The discussion now revolved around the citizen. The world entered a sort of footprint frenzy, as everyone was suddenly overcome by an oppressive guilt, a need to reduce their own impact, while the true culprits were free to continue their practices unscrutinised. The carbon footprint is now universal, a widely used term that acts as a symptom of our fundamentally broken climate discussion. This strategy continues to this day and spans several similar corporate entities. Shell and BP have accumulated an impressive social media presence, which they use to interact directly with their audience. But while the medium has changed, the message remains the same. By asking the public what they are prepared to do to stop climate change, the industry is giving the impression that everyone is equally responsible. As we have showed, this is a lie. 

Another way of deflecting the blame is by giving the impression that the company itself is already fighting the catastrophe. BP, for example, is now poising itself as an aggressively green company, with an ambitious, if not implausible, goal of going net zero by the year 2050 and leaving several high-profile lobbying groups.  Furthermore, they argue that the impressive emissions attributed to them mostly derive from the consumption of their product and not the extraction, meaning that the fault lies with the person using gas in their car and not the one who supplied that gas. There are a few problems with those points. Firstly, the pledge to go net zero clashes with the plan, to which BP still adheres, of increasing oil production over 20% in the next ten years, as reported by The Guardian. That commitment, as it turns out, sounds a lot less plausible when confronted with the overall business strategy. And while the decision of leaving a few lobbying groups has been highly publicised, there seems to be a lot less talk about those that they are still in. These groups campaign against the policies which would create the necessary shift to allow us to move away from fossil fuels. As found by an investigation by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s journalism project, BP have supported campaigns against an emissions tax in Oregon and to undermine Australia’s commitment to the Paris climate accords, amongst others. We have used BP as a recurring example, but these practices are commonplace. So, while the industry is not directly responsible for the use that we make of their oil, it truly is doing everything in their power to ensure that we remain dependent on it, even if they claim the opposite. 

If we wish to effectively face climate change, we must start going after the real root causes. Individual commitments to reducing emissions are admirable, but we cannot fool ourselves: climate change will continue ravaging the world, unless we decide to face the culprits, no matter how hard they try to fight change. 


Credit: Australian news corp. 

Carbon-Majors-Report-2017.pdf ( 

BP reports 10% drop in overall emissions in 2020 | Reuters 

„Unser ökologischer Fußabdruck” von Mathis Wackernagel, William Rees – 

(article written by Rees & Wackernagel) 

BP’s statement on reaching net zero by 2050 – what it says and what it means | Environment | The Guardian 

Revealed: BP and Shell back anti-climate lobby groups despite pledges – Unearthed (