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Who pollutes: Total or the citizen?

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It was while doing my daily two minutes in hell Twitter that I came across a message from Le réveilleur that bounced off a Greenpeace tweet, whose message was quite provocative: ‘Total’s carbon footprint is equal to France’s’.

For personal reasons, I love it when people bash Total, I’m the first to do so. Even though this Greenpeace communication made me uncomfortable once again, it was Le Réveilleur’s remark that made me intervene. Isn’t Total responsible for the use of its products and the resulting CO2 emissions? Would only citizens who consume be so? These are not questions that can be easily answered, as they involve carbon accounting… And ethics.

Foreword on the protagonists

Total needs no introduction: as the largest company in the CAC 40, Total is one of the six supermajors, the virtuous companies where morality is only valid on Sundays at 3.42 pm. Total always has a joke, especially recently when they announced that they would be carbon neutral by 2050. We know the principle: we pollute, we buy 2-3 tons on the markets and we plant 2-3 trees to compensate. Let’s do it this way.

Secondly, Rodolphe Meyer, a Youtuber better known as Le Réveilleur, who popularises scientific knowledge about the environment. I appreciate his work and have already recommended him several times. He has a quality that is rare these days: when he makes mistakes in his videos, he goes back and corrects them.

Finally, Greenpeace. I have been hearing about them since I was born, following their actions for 15 years. I’m trying to take Greenpeace as a whole: I think that despite their clumsy, sometimes misleading communication, they’ve already done far more for the environment than all the Twitter Warriors who spend their time spitting at them will ever do. Greenpeace existed and was already fighting for the environment before you were even born! So, show some respect. On the other hand, it is true that their communication has evolved, and that there is more sensationalism. This is exactly the case with this tweet from Greenpeace, which plays the marketing trick perfectly.

But who is right and who is wrong? Greenpeace bashing Total, or Le Réveilleur bashing Greenpeace?

Who pollutes: Total or the citizen?

The argumentation is divided into three parts. I’ll start by agreeing with Greenpeace. Total, with its carbon neutrality, itself indicates that it accounts for emissions related to product use. Scopes (in this case Scope 3) are indicators that are part of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol for organisations to calculate their GHGs.

Thus, Total is caught at its own game: this scope 3 will cost them a lot of money, if they want to respect it. Greenpeace makes an important point: the government and industry must take responsibility and lead the fight against climate change. Companies must be held accountable for their emissions and governments must put in place the legislation to do so.

Where Le Reveilleur’s intervention is right is when he slams Greenpeace’s somewhat disingenuous communication.The process should be clearly explained, because the majority of the public will not understand this but will believe that Total pollutes so much to produce the fuel and not with its combustion. He is right, not many of us go and read the sources, dig into the subjects: Too many stop at the title and do not go any further, comforting themselves in their confirmation bias.

Playing with figures: child’s play

The problem with figures is that you can make them say whatever you want. A month ago, I innocently asked the head of CSR at BNP on Linkedin, why he was communicating on “BNP, a green example“, when they have lent 84 billion dollars to the fossil fuel industry over the last 4 years.
The person concerned replied: ‘Yes, but in the GREEN thingy ranking, we are first‘. Nice example of greenwashing.

Carbon accounting is relatively complex, enough to be played with and to be more green than green. The aim of this article is not to give a course in carbon accounting, but rather to understand its complexity and limitations.

For example, consider a consumption-based approach that takes account of trade, attributing to each country the emissions from the production of what it consumes, and allocating to it the emissions from the products it exports for consumption elsewhere. This is called the carbon footprint. In France, as we import more products than we export, our carbon footprint is higher than the national inventory:

Source, page 38:

This is how France has been communicating for 30 years, pretending to be a ‘clean’ country, while grumbling about the Chinese who pollute with their coal. Hey, MIRACLE ! China’s carbon footprint is smaller than their national inventory. What do you mean, they also produce consumer goods for Westerners? I can’t blame them anymore? This does not help me at all. But responsibility is not exclusively reserved for companies, or the ‘system’.

There is no such thing as society

There is no such thing as society. “We have reached a time when too many people blame “society”. “And who is the society? It doesn’t exist! There are only individuals, men and women, and families.“Good old Margaret.

I have taken the most well-known (and provocative) example to underline what is worth emphasising: the responsibility of individuals. If we were to assess the weight of responsibility, it is combined, not added together. It is very important to understand this and to remember it. Blaming others leads to climate inaction. If we all think like that, no one is responsible. Yes, climate is a systemic problem. Yes, it’s impossible to change things on your own. But there is no doubt that we have our part to play if we want this to change. Strive for exemplarity, in order to reach the famous tipping points.

Denial, the evil of the century

This is the problem with Greenpeace’s communication: in one poster, without explaining the depth of the problem, the blame is placed 100% on Total. This is not how it works. Even if all Total employees start drinking petrol through a straw for breakfast, I’m not sure they can consume all the oil produced.

If we were to take this logic to its logical conclusion, I could fly three times a week, set the air conditioning to 35° in the apartment with the window open in the middle of winter, leave the water running and accuse Air France, EDF and Véolia successively of all the wrongs? This discourse helps disempower citizens and continues to perpetuate the biggest problem: denial.

We are responsible for our present and our future, and if we want to vote effectively, we will also have to vote with our money. This is what I do every day by boycotting Amazon for example. It is a choice. Not practical, but I do it, out of ethics.

Thus, the responsibility lies with both protagonists: Total and the state have their part to play, we have our part to play. We are simply two sides of the same coin, and both sides must change.

Ethics, law and morality

Beyond the figures, which we tend to dwell on too much, there is a subject that is far too neglected: ethics. This variable which, when creating a product or service, is all too often forgotten, as it is rarely profitable. This was my response on Twitter to The Awakener: a developer creating an algorithm needs to take a step back and understand the impact their work could have, not just think about the bottom line. This is very well explained by Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Maths Destruction.

I can take an example from finance: what is the societal benefit of high frequency trading? What is its impact on the environment? When a structurer at JP Morgan creates water derivatives, does he think for a moment about the consequences that this might have?

The same applies to Total. I don’t believe for a moment that the 100,000 employees of Total have not asked themselves about the environmental impact of the products they sell. Nor do I believe for a moment that these 100,000 employees are complete bastards and do not want to move their company towards a sustainable world. It is the role of all of us (starting with the employees of Total!) to want to change the business model and to accompany their company towards a sustainable world.

PS: Nothing illustrates my point about ethics better than Will Hunting, who explains to NSA recruiters why he wouldn’t come work for them. Magical.

The last word

In recent years, we have seen a clash between individual and collective actions. This constant passing the quid and looking for excuses is counterproductive and only prolongs climate inaction.

It’s up to companies to make an effort! And the State too“. Well, not quite. It is up to everyone to make an effort, according to their means. It is certain that responsibility for emissions is common, but differentiated: some are more responsible than others. But to say “100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions” or “individual actions are only 25% of emissions, the collective 75%!” is a nonsense. Individual and collective actions are inseparable and indispensable: we will need both, and everyone.

La logique est toujours la même. Understand that everything you do has an impact, and have orders of magnitude in mind. Some things are more polluting and emit greenhouse gases than others. This is one of the reasons why everyone should know their annual carbon footprint so that they can reduce their footprint on the living world as much as possible, without delay. In doing so, we quickly see the limits of individual actions and the need for change in our economy.


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Thomas Wagner
Prendra sa retraite quand le réchauffement climatique sera de l’histoire ancienne

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