Environmental Report: The day BP tackled CO2

How would journalists treat BP's carbon initiative? Peter Crush was at the launch and followed the response.

First there was the teaser - a phone call in August to journalists from Launch PR, announcing that BP was about to make one of the biggest environmental statements of the year. The details were kept secret, although hacks were told not to worry - the wait would be worth their while.

A few days later, and the official invite was still ambiguous. A ‘major initiative' giving motorists the ‘opportunity to reduce their environmental impact' was promised. Intriguingly, top brass, including Peter Mather, head of BP UK, and Steve Koonin - BP's chief scientist - would be there. So too would Jonathon Porritt, founding director of think-tank Forum for the Future. By the time the UK's leading ­environmental journalists gathered at the Tate Modern in London on 23 August, none knew what to expect.

Then they were told by a jubilant Mather: ‘Today is a special day for BP and all motorists. It is more than likely that carbon emission ­rises will affect us all, and it is with this in mind that we launch Targetneutral.'

Over the next few minutes, Mather explained that Targetneutral was a voluntary scheme whereby drivers could use an online ‘carbon calculator' to find out how many tonnes of CO2 they are producing. Drivers could then choose to pay an annual cost (about £20) ‘to offset the emissions'.

Furthermore, BP pledged to invest 20p in CO2 reduction programmes, every time a driver filled up at one of its petrol forecourts.

The response
It did not take long for reporters to grill the BP contingent: ‘Aren't people entitled to be entirely sceptical of this?' said a BBC reporter, having pressed Mather into admitting that the ‘per tank contribution' did not apply to all BP customers, but only those signed up to Targetneutral - and even then only if the customer mentioned the scheme while paying.

The Times environment correspon­dent Ben Webster found another flaw - that some of the money paid by Targetneutral customers would be used to fund biomass projects in South America. ‘Why not fund UK projects?' asked The Independent environment editor Michael ­McCarthy.

Two facts grated in particular- BP did not know how many it wanted to sign up to Targetneutral, and would not reveal how it intended to promote it. ‘This has not been thought through,' rapped one Reuters journalist. ‘£20 seems too cheap. It encourages guilt-free motoring, and buying from BP.'

The coverage
The Daily Telegraph's article on the scheme described it as a ‘grandiose PR stunt' and ‘a potentially dangerous way to involve people in offsetting'. It mentioned the lack of UK-supported projects and that it gave drivers a ‘clear conscience to still pump out emissions'.

But other coverage was more positive, with the involvement of Porritt's Forum for the Future seeming to rescue the reputation of the initiative. Reuters said: ‘The advisory panel includes such environmental luminaries as Porritt, so the project certainly seems to be more than PR spin.'

Channel 4 News, which began by telling viewers ‘BP declares war on global warming', added: ‘To help counter cynicism about the scheme, it is being monitored by a green-friendly panel.'

The Sun kindly headlined its story ‘BP battling CO2', also highlighting Porritt's involvement.

But Financial Times business writer Fiona Harvey complained that carbon offsetting had been available ‘for years', and quoted a Greenpeace spokesperson criticising the scheme.

AFTER THE MEDIA GRILLING...

Johnny Pitt, founder of Launch PR:
‘Of course there will be cynics, saying this was just a PR stunt, but I think the majority understood BP's point about making an important first step on a global issue. Not many PR-led stories make the BBC's One O'Clock News, but this did. Porritt was key, but his involvement goes a lot deeper than "just being an NGO on board". He was not a PR puppet.'

Peter Mather, head of BP UK:
‘We were asked penetrating questions. It was a brave step for us and the press probed us in all the areas I'd expected. I had no idea what was going to be written, I just hoped the PR got the message across that this is not about us, but about getting people to do things for themselves to help the environment.'

Jonathon Porritt , founder of Forum for the Future:
‘You can't blame the media for being cynical. BP is in the dock and it was clearly expecting some scepticism. But it's risky for BP, and risky for Forum for the Future. Our reputation is at stake, but as an NGO we realise that on our own we can't reach the press. BP can, and we made a judgement that BP was serious about this.'

Hear Johnny Pitt discuss the BP event, on this weeks's PRWeek/CTN podcast

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