BP’s Targetneutral fails to attract interest

Only 5,000 motorists offset their emissions through BP’s much-publicised Targetneutral scheme in its first year. The scheme’s advisory board is “actively considering” making it free to join.

It appears that fewer than 5,000 people signed up for Targetneutral – BP’s non-profit carbon offsetting scheme for motorists – in its first year.

According to BP, over 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide were offset in the scheme’s first 12 months. But “just over half of the emissions purchased” were for BP’s own logistic fleet. Based on an average motorist’s emissions of four tonnes of CO2 a year, fewer than 5,000 people paid some £20 to offset their emissions.

BP admits the level of take-up has been “lower than anticipated”, but said over 200,000 people had visited Targetneutral’s website during the same period “learning how to ‘reduce and replace’ CO2 emissions”. Kerryn Schrank, BP’s future fuels business adviser, said this was “extremely encouraging” as the scheme’s main purpose has always been to educate.

Targetneutral was launched by BP last August (ENDS Report 380, p 10 ). It has been advertised in newspapers, on the internet, in leaflets in BP service stations and on the back of receipts. This advertising far exceeds that of other offsetting schemes.

In spite of the low sign-up, the general perception both within and outside BP is that the scheme has performed as well as could be expected given the public’s distrust of offsets – especially so given it is an environmental initiative run by an oil company.

“Asking whether it’s performed well is a bit like asking how long’s a piece of string,” said Charles Secrett, a member of Targetneutral’s advisory board and environmental advisor to the Mayor of London, “as no company has done this before. I think in its current form it has performed well, but it could be changed to improve take-up significantly.”

Brian Samuel of the Energy Saving Trust agreed: “There is a great deal of confusion about offsetting among the public, so very few individuals are confident enough to choose a scheme. There’s also a lot of mistrust about them and when they’re being offered by a multinational, the mistrust is higher. So the fact they’ve got 5,000 is good.”

The government is developing a carbon offsetting code to bring credibility to the market, for launch by the end of the year (ENDS Report 384, p 5 ).

Targetneutral will be altered “shortly” to improve its performance, according to Mr Secrett. Several measures are “under active consideration” by the advisory board. These include simple measures such as making the website easier to use and systematic training of staff in BP forecourts about the scheme. However, it is also discussing making Targetneutral free.

“I think that’s what is needed,” said Mr Secrett. “BP’s extremely profitable, and charging people to join the scheme is a big disincentive.” Making the programme free will “build up the confidence people require in offsetting” and make it an everyday practice, he said. “BP should take a hit on it for the second and third years and then – once people have seen it works – say it’s time for them to contribute.”

The number of people signing up for free could be capped if necessary, say at 500,000, he said.

It is also “critical” that at least 50% of BP’s offset projects are based in the UK, Mr Secrett said. These should be “renewable energy schemes, preferably solar panels on schools”. This is the simplest way for customers to see the benefits offsetting can bring, he added.

Targetneutral’s offsets currently come from a wind turbine and three biomass energy plants in India, and two anaerobic digestion plants attached to pig farms in Mexico.

Mr Secrett revealed not all of the advisory board agreed with the proposed changes, but would not say whom. The board is chaired by Jonathon Porritt of Forum for the Future and includes, among others, BP’s chief scientist Steve Koonin and head of UK affairs Peter Mather.

BP ruled out selling offsets directly to customers at service stations – as a compulsory choice – when it launched the scheme. Its market research indicated people were not in willing to pay for an offset then. It still holds this view, according to Ms Schrank.

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