BASF, the world’s largest chemical firm, is trying to reposition itself as a "climate protection" business by showing the potential of chemicals to save carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
With sales in 2007 of almost €58 billion, BASF supplies thousands of chemical products for sectors as diverse as the agricultural, automotive, packaging and pharmaceutical industries.
The firm told journalists it had carried out the "most comprehensive analysis… ever conducted by a company" in order to calculate the "carbon balance" across the life cycle of its products. It calculated the emissions associated with raw materials and precursors and with the production operations, and transportation. It also added in an estimate of emissions from the disposal of products at the end of their life. BASF set this total against an estimate of the carbon savings that can be attributed to its products while in use.
Speaking at the launch of the results in February, BASF environment director Dr Harald Schwager said the findings of the study - which it has not yet published - were clear: "Our products help our customers save more than 250 million tonnes of CO2 [equivalent] worldwide - three times more than is emitted in the production and disposal of all our products."
"The chemical industry is often falsely seen as part of the problem. Our data show the opposite - without chemicals there is no climate protection," a statement from the company continued. The firm has appointed a new climate protection officer to coordinate the "long-term positioning of BASF in the area of climate protection".
But for the carbon savings estimate, BASF’s assessment focused on just 90 products - just 1% of the company’s entire product range. It picked those products that give the most significant carbon savings. The assessment ignored any in-use emissions or emissions savings for the rest of the product range.
BASF refused to say exactly which products it looked at for reasons of commercial confidentiality, but it did reveal they included insulation, industrial catalysts, fuel additives, performance products and licensed-out chemical processes. It said these were the product types that contributed most to the CO2 savings.
The firm claims that its assessment of the savings are likely to be conservative "as there are bound to be savings from other products". But it assumes that its other products do not result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions from their in-use phase.
Moreover BASF focused only on its chemicals business and excluded the emissions from its subsidiary Wintershall, Germany’s largest oil and gas firm.
Alongside the findings of the carbon balance, BASF announced a new target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of product by 25% by 2020 compared to 2002. By 2007, it had already achieved a 16.6% cut. But BASF has no target to cut its absolute emissions. Indeed, its latest figures show that its greenhouse gas emissions increased by 10% in 2007 from levels in 2006, while investments in environmental protection fell by 11.2%.
BASF also suggested that the carbon savings created by its products should be taken into account when setting caps on emissions under the EU emissions trading scheme. It is lobbying hard for special treatment, arguing that every CO2 allowance bought by the industry is "equivalent to a production tax."
Chemical campaigners are concerned that BASF’s product life cycle assessment fails to take into account impacts other than climate change. "This is all very interesting but what about the toxicological impact of their products from diffuse discharges, direct discharges and leaching from products," said Chem Trust founder Elizabeth Salter-Green.
"We would like to see them take a more holistic overview of emissions from their product portfolio from a persistent, bioaccumlative and toxicological point of view."
In 2004, BASF ran into a similar controversy when it launched its own labelling scheme for eco-efficient products, the key aim being to open up new markets or bolster existing ones for the company’s products (ENDS Report 351, pp 23-26 ).