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Your Carbon Footprint – A Confuser’s Guide

01/09/2009

One of the joys of a life spent in communications is realising quite how often phrases designed to simplify an idea end up doing exactly the reverse.

Actually one simplification that never fails to confuse me utterly, is that much-used phrase – "carbon footprint".

Recently, the Scottish Herald announced that: "Minister Questions Carbon Footprint of Trams". Call me stupid, but… Since when did trams have feet?

The US Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, who as a Nobel prizewinner is possibly far too intelligent for his own good, provides another shining example.

"The quickest and easiest way to reduce our carbon footprint is through energy efficiency,” he says. He goes onto add, rather less helpfully, “Energy efficiency is not just low-hanging fruit; it is fruit that is lying on the ground."

Do we step on these fruit with our carbon feet? Step round them? Pick them up, orang-utan-style? Or just shrink our footprints so delicately small that we can tippy-toe across them like baby ballerinas?

Professor Chu is unforthcoming, so I turn to Google for clarification.

"How Solid Is Concrete’s Carbon Footprint?" puns one publication, while another reports, in horror movie style, that "'Carbon Footprint'" Fear Slashes Rescue Unit."

When used, as it often is, next door to the phrase “fossil fuels”, the term becomes especially puzzling. It brings to mind those fossilized footprints in the wilds of Texas, where creationists believe humans walked with dinosaurs or Indiana Jones with pickaxe in hand.

So how on earth did we end up using a footprint to quantify gases? (Gases that are, as most of us know, measured not in footprints, or feet, or inches, but in kilograms and tonnes.)

We probably have architects and town planners to blame: the "footprint" of a building is a measure of how much land a building takes up. At some point around 1990, the term “ecological footprint” was coined. This meant, sensibly enough, the amount of land a population takes up.

And so today, although gases do not exactly take up space, we blithely bandy about the term “carbon footprint”. A measurement which is not only infinitely more complicated than determining the footprint of a building, but far, far less precise.

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