Are personal carbon footprints a social liability?

A couple of days ago John Grant pointed out the rather disappointing results of sites that you sign up to and commit to reduce your carbon footprint. He suggested that the reason why ‘carbon diets’ have been less successful than food diets is that no-one can see how fat you are, and suggested some sort of compulsory disclosure and publication of personal carbon footprints. This would embarrass people into doing something.

The more significant difference between carbon and food diets has nothing to do with the perceptions of others. It is that the health and beauty achieved through a food diet accrue mainly to the dieter, while the environmental benefits of a carbon diet are distributed across the whole planet. The reason we are failing to reduce our footprints is not that our friends cannot see them, but because we do not see the personal benefit.

The Carbon Disclosure Project has been successful because the institutional investors that support it view greenhouse gas emissions as a financial liability. They are concerned that governments will tax or otherwise charge companies for their emissions, and therefore consider companies with large footprints to be less valuable.

Similarly, compulsory disclosure for individuals could only be a successful tool if a personal footprint is considered a liability. Are footprints a popularity liability? I don’t think so – people don’t dislike you if you fly a lot and fail to insulate your loft.

Unless an additional tax or charge were attached to the footprint (additional to the costs that are included in some high intensity products, including energy), individuals would be as indifferent to disclosure as investors would be to the CDP without the threat of regulation.


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