Tesco offers climate carrot on low-benzene petrol

Tesco is offering its customers a chance to offset carbon dioxide emissions from their cars by including "carbon credits" with sales of its low-benzene petrol. The company is the first petrol retailer to offer carbon offsets in a move which it believes will improve urban air quality as well as neutralise the fuel's contribution to global warming.

Tesco's low-benzene petrol is designed to reduce emissions of benzene and nitrogen oxides. The company has sold the fuel since 1995 at 29 filling stations in the London area. It costs 3p per litre more than ordinary unleaded. But for the next three months Tesco will contribute 1.5p per litre sold to a scheme designed to lock up carbon in new forest projects.

Tesco and other supermarket chains largely abandoned their ranges of "green" products some years ago (ENDS Report 259, pp 25-26 ). However, Tesco says it has not ceased to believe in the environmentally conscious consumer. According to a spokesman, customers have moved on from "products with tree labels all over them" and now expect "whole businesses to be environmentally aware".

The carbon offsets will be provided by the Carbon Storage Trust, a non-profit body with a steering group which includes the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Forum for the Future and former UN Ambassador Sir Crispin Tickell. The Trust will invite competitive tenders for carbon storage schemes from forestry bodies. It will then look after the forests in perpetuity through endowment funds.

The Trust's founding director Mike Mason sees "a large unsatisfied consumer demand for doing something about global warming....People are concerned about global warming but even more about deforestation. We hope to get two buttons with one push."

The Trust has not yet established any forests, but it is investigating schemes in areas as different as Uganda and Scotland. It claims to be working to tough ground rules: "In our view many carbon sequestration projects are nothing of the sort - they fail on a raft of criteria," Mr Mason said. The Trust will establish conservation forests only on marginal land not used for agriculture or on land where a decision to establish forests has already been taken. The forests will not be used for timber because, the Trust argues, this would simply replace existing plantations.

The Trust regards the Tesco scheme as a modest beginning which will lock up only "four-figure tonnes" of CO2, said Mr Mason. But it is talking to some major energy companies. It charges $3 per tonne of CO2 at present, ten times what some US organisations are charging and three times the price paid by the Formula One racing organisers, who offset the sport's emissions by buying carbon credits from a Mexican forest project (ENDS Report 269, pp 29-30 ).

In the long term, the Trust will need to demonstrate its financial, management and environmental credibility. And despite backing from prominent figures in the environmental movement it remains controversial. Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Juniper commented: "We don't want consumers to be given the idea that it's OK to drive their cars. It's not a sensible thing to promote in the absence of overall targets for reducing CO2 emissions."

However, Mr Mason is unrepentant: "The greatest failure of the environmental movement is that it hasn't seen itself as a marketing problem. You can sell anything! Instead of selling cars with metallic paint and alloy wheels, [environmentalists] can sell the rain forest and a warm feeling inside."

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