It’s been an awkward April for the Science Based Targets initiative.

The SBTi, as it’s known, sets standards for companies working to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. As of the end of 2023, it says “over 4,000 companies and financial institutions were leading the transition to a net-zero economy by setting emissions reduction targets and having them validated by the SBTi.”

The organization has historically shunned offsets, which have a nasty tendency of turning out to be bunk; last year, a Guardian investigation found 90 percent of rainforest carbon offsets from major certifiers were “worthless.”

That’s what made an April 9 statement from the SBTi’s Board of Trustees such a head-turner. It concerns “Scope 3 emissions,” or those generated by a company’s suppliers, as well as customers usings its products, and says “the use of environmental attribute certificates for abatement purposes on Scope 3 emissions could function as an additional tool to tackle climate change.”

As a result, the statement continues, “SBTi has decided to extend their use for the purpose of abatement of Scope 3 related emissions beyond the current limits.”

The Financial Times reports the move comes on the heels of a two-day meeting last month in London, coordinated by the Bezos Earth Fund, “during which the use of offsets in target-setting was discussed, according to attendees and people familiar with the matter. The fund argued in favour of companies using offsets, these people said.” 

Among those praising the announcement was a vice president at Shell.

Dissension in the Ranks

The suggestion offsets were back on the menu triggered an outcry within the organization. At least one person quit as staff members circulated a letter saying the Board hadn’t consulted or informed others at SBTi like the organization’s independent Technical Council, and had “undermined” the usual governance processes. The letter was signed by “an overwhelming majority of SBTi staff.” 

Reuters reports another letter called for “immediate action to mitigate the grave reputational damage caused by the actions of the Board,” including the resignation of the CEO and board members who supported the move.

The Reuters story notes backers of the move argue there’s an appetite for easier ways to align corporate plans with broader climate goals—and that offsetting activities are “seen as a way to help move money to climate-friendly projects.”

Here again, we have to note there’s a risk subpar offsets from bad actors amount to little more than a commodified license to greenwash. A statement from WWF, a founding partner of SBTi, starkly observes, “offsets cannot be a substitute for reducing emissions from company operations, products, and value chains.”

The Upshot

A few days after its initial statement came out, SBTi’s Board of Trustees appended a clarification stating that “no change has been made to SBTi current standards,” and that any change would follow the evidence and the usual procedures, including public consultation and technical review and approval. 

In another statement released Friday, SBTi’s CEO, Luiz Amaral, echoed those points, and said “I acknowledge and deeply regret the concern and distress this situation has caused,” emphasizing the organization’s dedication to “science-based decarbonization.”

While “companies cannot buy their way out of acting,” he also calls to acknowledge the complexity addressing supply chains’ upstream and downstream emissions, saying “I refuse to avoid a difficult discussion if it could potentially improve our standards to deliver a bigger impact. This deliberation is underway and advancing.”

As for what’s next, the Board says a discussion paper with a draft proposal “about potential changes to Scope 3” is expected in July.

Want to Know More?

If you’re interested in how companies can step up their climate action, the science that helps discern what steps are worthwhile, and the critiques of offsets, can help. We’re an online climate school offering a comprehensive overview in the form of our 12-week Learning for Action fellowship, as well as shorter courses on an array of key topics.