This report was first published in Platform’s Carbon Web newsletter, issue 8.

A climate change delivery system

Imagine a 747 departing from Heathrow. Don’t look at the body of the plane, but at the fuel tanks. In the first 600 seconds after take-off the engines consume 200 gallons of Jet A high-octane fuel. The Jet A began as rocks from deep beneath the earth; in the engines of the 747 it is burned, producing carbon dioxide gas and other waste products.

Now see the line between those rocks and that gas. There are many routes from oil field to jet engine. Often oil passes between many companies on its way, but let’s imagine it stays mostly within one, BP.

1) BP’s oil platforms off Baku extract crude oil from 3 km beneath the Caspian seabed.

2) The crude passes along BP’s Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean coast.

3) Tankers, operated or contracted by BP Shipping, carry the crude to Britain.

4) The refinery at Coryton in Essex (owned by BP until 2006) receives the crude and refines it into petrol, bitumen, jet fuel and other products.

5) Jet A fuel leaves Coryton via the Thameside Pipeline which runs to Buncefield near Hemel Hempstead (a depot jointly run BP, ChevronTexaco & Total), then via the West London Pipeline (30% owned by BP) to Heathrow.

6) At Heathrow, the fuel is loaded onto waiting 747s on the runways, via fuel hydrants and fuel trucks (a supply system of which Air BP is one of the main operators).

As you read this, approximately twenty 747s are being filled with 1500 gallons of fuel every minute. The fuel is constantly travelling from rocks beneath the Caspian, across the mountains, deserts and fields of Georgia and Azerbaijan, on tankers from the south of Turkey, through Coryton and Buncefield, to Heathrow. Transferring carbon, from deep geology to the sky over our heads, a giant climate change delivery system.

Power and change

There is now a growing scientific consensus that if global temperatures are pushed to more than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, we will tip into run-away climate change, with disastrous impacts on human society and other species.

In early 2007 the International Panel on Climate Change advised that to prevent going above 2 degrees, we need to stabilise the rate at which CO2 is being emitted into the atmosphere by 2015, in 8 years time, and from then on progressively reduce global emissions.

Faced with the problem of over-fishing in the North Sea, the European Commission doesn’t ban or constrain the eating of cod by households, rather it limits the numbers of fishing boats working in the harbours. It regulates the handful of producers rather than millions of consumers. That is simply the most practical way of tackling the challenge.

Take a contrasting example. By the end of the Twentieth Century it was widely accepted that smoking caused horrendous health problems, and this was placing a huge strain on the health systems of the state. In this case, the UK government now uses the law, advertising and health information programmes to constrain UK citizens from smoking. But it does little to regulate tobacco companies.

What the smoking example shows is the significance of power. Whereas the politically weak fishing industry carries all the burden of change, with smoking it is the individual consumers, for the tobacco industry is politically too powerful for the government to force it to carry the majority of the burden.

In tackling the need to reduce CO2 emissions, the Kyoto Protocol places the emphasis on the energy consumer. It does not try to tackle the fossil fuel industry – and nor does the British government.

Shortly before becoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was asked who in Britain was more powerful than him. He gave the names of four men, all businessmen, and top of the list was Lord Browne, CEO of BP. By the time Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, John Browne had fallen from office, but one of the new Prime Minister’s first acts was to establish a new ‘Business Council’, among whom was Tony Hayward, the new CEO of BP. BP’s CO2 emissions, from both its processes (direct emissions from drilling rigs and refineries etc) and its products (emissions from what it sells: petrol, jet fuel, etc) are equivalent to 5% of global CO2 emissions – twice that of all 62 million UK citizens.

BP frequently highlights the fact that it is trying to reduce the emissions of its processes. But that’s like British American Tobacco saying: ‘There are health issues around smoking and we’re tackling them…we’ve instituted a no smoking policy in our factories and offices’. This would be laughable because it is widely understood that the tobacco industry is responsible for the impacts of its products on consumers – lawsuits in the US have been unfolding in an attempt to try to enforce this understanding, to show the culpability of producers.

Who fuels whom?

BP directly supplies about 30% of all fuel consumed at Heathrow. But does Heathrow also fuel BP?

Andy Chubb is head of Air BP for the UK & Ireland. His job is to sell as much aviation fuel as he can. Receiving a promotion, a pay rise or a bonus, and ultimately retaining his job, depends on his making more money from selling aviation fuel this year than he did last year – if income from sales remains steady or declines, his position will come under scrutiny.

Andy Chubb is under pressure. Under pressure to perform from his immediate superiors, such as Peter Mather, BP UK head-of-country. Mather can assist Chubb in the process of fuel sales, for example by lobbying the UK Treasury not to levy tax on aviation fuel. Mather is also under pressure.

Pressure to perform from his superiors, one of whom is Iain Conn, head of BP Refining & Marketing globally. Conn is responsible for four of the six stages of the shifting fuel from oil rigs to Heathrow, from BP Shipping to Air BP. Conn answers to the BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, and the Board of BP, chaired by Peter Sutherland.

66 million passengers passed through Heathrow last year, and are nominally held responsible for their CO2 emissions. But these five men – Sutherland, Hayward, Conn, Mather, and Chubb – and a few more, are responsible for supplying about 30% of the fuel consumed at Heathrow. The fuel consumed by perhaps 20 million people. Surely it would be easier to regulate these five?

The trouble is that these men, three of them millionaires, are far more powerful than the fishermen of Peterhead. And they use their power to ensure that they don’t have to carry the burden of change.

The challenge

We need to stabilise global emissions in the next 8 years, if we are to avoid going beyond 2 degrees of global warming. These ideas and principles when discussed are generally applied to nation states. But what happens if we apply them to companies? BP is a multinational, operating in over 100 countries in the world, and is responsible for twice the emissions of the UK. How does that fit within the frame of national reduction targets?

Let’s go back to Andy Chubb – within the next 8 years, he (or is successor) needs to be proudly showing at the end of each year that he has actually reduced the amount of oil that he’s sold in comparison to the previous year. And this needs to go on happening until the amount of jet fuel he is selling is a mere fraction of what he’s currently selling. And he needs to stay in his job – so he needs the support of Mather, Conn, Hayward and Sutherland.

The UK government has been proud of the fact that in the late 1990s it led the industrial world in the level at which it cut its CO2 emissions, largely due the switch of power stations from coal to gas. A change in our CO2 emissions came about, and the communities in the coalfields in Wales, the Midlands, Kent, Yorkshire and Scotland bore the burden of that change. Now we need to reduce our CO2 emissions radically further, and a key part of this will again be changing the structures of production and supply, not just the structures of consumption.

How do we pressurise a company such as BP to undergo that radical shift, to accept more of the burden of change?

This article is adapted from a presentation given by James Marriott of PLATFORM at the Camp for Climate Action, Heathrow. August