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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C

FactFind: How can petrol and diesel be called 'carbon neutral'?

Applegreen sells a ‘carbon neutral’ driving option at pumps – how does that work?

FOSSIL FUEL COMPANIES have been selling petrol and diesel they claim is a more environmentally friendly choice than regular fuel – but is it possible for a highly-emitting fossil fuel to accurately be described like this? 

Applegreen and Maxol – two of Ireland’s largest fuel station companies – both sell a slightly more expensive fuel option than the other choices available.

The companies claim the greenhouse gas emissions from this fuel is fully offset and Applegreen says this fuel provides “carbon neutral driving”. 

But they are still petrol and diesel – so is this an accurate descriptor? 


A number of fuel companies – including Applegreen and Maxol – have diesel and petrol options that are marketed as a more sustainable choice for consumers.

However, some campaigners and experts are sceptical of using the term ‘carbon neutral’ anywhere near fossil fuels like petrol and diesel, arguing that it is inherently problematic.

The burning of fossil fuels is one of the main drivers of climate change.

Companies can offset greenhouse gas emissions by investing in a project that reduces emissions elsewhere, thereby balancing them out. 

This can involve planting trees or funding projects in other countries that prevent emissions from the burning of trees, for example. Schemes like this have been around for decades. 

Dr Hannah Daly, a lecturer in sustainable energy at University College Cork, said there should be a “very, very high burden of evidence” when putting the term ‘carbon neutral’ anywhere near fossil fuels. 

“To be genuinely carbon neutral, you have to take an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it or sequester it so it’s never released again,” she told The Journal

“The traditional view of the way of doing that is planting trees, so basically using your patch of land to grow biomass which is sequestering that carbon from the atmosphere.

“On the face of it it seems like a good idea, except there’s many shortcomings with that approach.”

Aside from the key issue that fossil fuels are harmful for the environment, Dr Daly said that emissions being described as ’100% offset’ don’t immediately balance out.

One example is that it can take a number of decades for trees to store a significant amount of carbon, depending on the type of tree.

Another element which Dr Daly and other experts see as a problem with relying on offsetting is the risk of trees being destroyed in extreme weather events such as forest fires.

There are examples of this happening already in the US. The burned trees then release their stored carbon into the atmosphere, adding to further emissions. 

“So if that forest is there forever, maybe that’s valid but increasingly we’re seeing climate change causing forest fires, causing diseases which destroy forests… so that stability is not there,” Dr Daly said. 

She said that trees “definitely” need to be planted to absorb carbon dioxide, but this must be done “in addition to reducing fossil fuel emissions”.

Maxol and Applegreen have both planted thousands of trees alongside their carbon offsetting programmes for fuel. 

Dr Daly believes the term ‘carbon neutral’ being associated with petrol and diesel “betrays the goodwill of people who want to believe that they’re doing something for the climate”.

“I think it gives people the feeling that no systemic fundamental changes are needed.

It just gives us this false sense of security. It persuades us that we don’t need to change the way we live and I think that’s the biggest harm that it creates.

Laurence Tubiana, who helped pull together the 2015 Paris climate treaty as France’s chief negotiator, also warned against offsetting.

“Many companies, especially in oil and gas, include a lot of offsetting in their carbon neutrality plan,” she said.

“But research shows offsets today don’t substantially reduce emissions.”

What the companies say  

On the other side, companies like Applegreen and Maxol say offsetting is an important aspect of the industry heading towards a so-called ‘sustainable future’.

Applegreen says that by buying its ‘carbon neutral driving’ PowerPlus fuel option, “all your car’s emissions” are offset “there and then”. 

Clare Killeen, sustainability manager at Applegreen, said the company acknowledges that this fuel “isn’t a solution to the climate crisis” but that it is “part of the journey” to lower emissions. 

“The terminology we are using around this carbon neutral driving offering is all externally verified and certified,” Killeen told The Journal

“We are conscious that fossil fuels are a massive part of the problem in terms of the climate crisis and there’s going to be a massive shift in how we use and approach fossil fuels in the future.

“What we’re really trying to do with this PowerPlus campaign is just to provide a transition product but it’s not going to be the ultimate goal.”

Natural Capital Partners, a climate consultation company, worked with Applegreen to buy carbon offset credits from an Irish NGO Vita.

Vita works with farmers and communities in parts of Africa. €1.5 million will be spent by Applegreen on offsetting projects by the end of next year. 

The Vita project helps people gain access to clean drinking water in east Africa. This is said to reduce carbon emissions as it means people won’t have to burn wood in order to boil water and make it safer to drink. 

There are different methods used to calculate emissions from fuels and how companies calculate offsets. 

Vita has a carbon calculator used to work out the cost of carbon credits to offset emissions. Its rate online is €8 for each tonne of carbon. This money then funds their projects to help people access safe drinking water and improved cookstoves.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, burning one gallon of petrol (3.8 litres) creates around 0.0089 tonnes of carbon.  

The emissions from the same amount of diesel is 0.01 tonnes of carbon. The US EPA estimates that an average car emits about 4.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. 

In Ireland, emissions from road transport increased by 102% between 1990 and 2020. Emissions decreased after 2007 in the economic recession, but have increased again in the majority of years between 2013 and 2020.  

Transport emissions decreased by 15.7% in 2020 due largely to pandemic restrictions. 

Carbon neutral 

Two complaints were previously lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland claiming parts of Applegreen’s ‘carbon neutral driving’ ad campaign were misleading and a form of greenwashing.

The complaints, one of which was submitted by Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan, were not upheld by the ASAI. 

Applegreen uses the term carbon neutral around this particular fuel after receiving certification to use it from a service under Natural Capital Partners. This is also used by many companies including Microsoft and Sky to use the term for some or all of their operations. 

The words ‘carbon neutral driving’ are on the fuel pump at Applegreen service stations. Killeen said screens at the pump provide additional information about the fuel.

“We’ve been very consistent in our messaging not just at the pump point, but using the media screens to run the full message so people can see it.

“We would hope that if the consumer is confused that they would reach out to us through one of our social platforms, through email, through just walking into the site or the shop to ask us about it.

“Inevitably, our business is going to move and evolve over the next 10-15 years drastically and we’re ready for that challenge and we’re looking forward to it,” Killeen said. 

Other offset fuels

Maxol offers a similar option of premium fuel that is offset through a variety of schemes including a wind farm project in Inner Mongolia, a tree-planting organisation in the UK and a project giving more fuel-efficient stoves to people in Mali.

The company’s CEO Brian Donaldson said the emissions generated from fuel pumped at the premium rate are “100% offset” through investment in these projects.

“In the past 16 months, we have offset CO2 emissions equivalent to over 3,624 homes’ electricity for one year as a result of this programme,” the CEO said in a statement to The Journal.

He said the premium fuel is “a better fuel option for the environment with fewer pollutants”.

Much like Applegreen, this fuel option costs a bit more money. Maxol said around 10% of customers choose the premium option and it’s available at 40 of the company’s fuel stations in Ireland. 

Applegreen declined to give the percentage of customers who choose their offsetting option, saying this information is “commercially sensitive” but claimed it is a “popular product”.

Donaldson said Maxol is “transparent and serious” about commitments to the environment. 

“It remains to be said that for more than 100 years Maxol has been in the business of selling fossil fuels, and we do not pretend to be something that we are not,” he said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet that will allow the energy market to change overnight so we will continue to sell diesel and petrol for as long as these fuels are needed.”

Circle K, another large service station company, doesn’t offer an offset fuel option. A statement from the company claimed it focuses instead on “investing in initiatives that will have a tangible impact”. 

“In recent years, we have significantly developed our EV capabilities and have the largest network of EV charge points in Ireland,” the company gave as one example of its “environmentally and economically sustainable practices”.

Addressing the gap   

Offseting carbon emissions will become more significant for companies as pressure and requirements build for them to become carbon-neutral in the decades ahead. 

Many airlines including Ryanair and Aer Lingus also currently offer people the option to pay extra to offset the emissions from their flight.

Large fossil fuel giants such as Shell, BP and ENI heavily invest in afforestation schemes to offset some of their emissions.

But environmentalists say carbon offsets aren’t enough on their own, and the main focus should always be on reducing emissions. 

Greenpeace has been critical of relying on offsetting measures.

Indigenous Peoples’ climate groups – the Indigenous Environmental Network and Indigenous Climate Action – previously described offsetting as a “false solution that… gives polluters an excuse to continue polluting”.

Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, has said “heroic reforestation” can help, but can’t be a solution to ongoing fossil fuel use.

So companies, even fossil fuel companies, can say certain aspects of their business are carbon neutral by following industry-recognised steps including funding offsetting projects.

But experts and environmentalists are sceptical about the ‘carbon neutral’ claims stacking up over time and whether the term may be doing more harm than good in its perception among the public. 

Contains reporting by AFP. 

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