Climate-certification organisation Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has met with an angry response from its own staff after announcing a carbon-offsetting plan.

Employees at the organisation, which certifies companies – including food and beverage businesses – on whether they are on track to help limit global heating to under 1.5C, have called for the statement announcing the offsetting plan to be withdrawn. The staff have also pushed for the resignation of CEO Luiz Fernando do Amaral and any board members who supported the initiative.

Their demands came in a letter seen by the UK’s The Guardian newspaper and specialist media outlet GreenBiz, among others.

The row started with the publication of the SBTi’s statement last week, which reversed its previous stance. It plans to permit companies to use environmental attribute certificates to offset emissions from their supply chains known as Scope 3 emissions.

It said: “In January 2024 the SBTi announced that work to revise its flagship corporate net-zero standard was a priority for 2024, and that this revision would include additional guidance on tackling Scope 3 emissions.

“SBTi has carried out a wide consultative effort on this subject in the past six months and reported to the board a summary of the call for evidence survey results.

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“While recognising that there is an ongoing healthy debate on the subject matter, SBTi recognises that, when properly supported by policies, standards and procedures based on scientific evidence, the use of environmental attribute certificates for abatement purposes on Scope 3 emissions could function as an additional tool to tackle climate change.

“Consequently, SBTi has decided to extend their use for the purpose of abatement of Scope 3 related emissions beyond the current limits.”

But, in a highly critical response, SBTi employees said the inclusion of such carbon offsets in a company’s ranking could lead to so-called ‘greenwashing’, or being seen to do the right thing on cutting greenhouse gas emissions rather than actually reducing them.

The letter, sent in the name of “an overwhelming majority of SBTi staff, including representatives of impact, accountability and services, research and technical development, communications and operations” said “SBTi staff are deeply concerned about the content of the statement and the process by which it was developed and released”.

It added: “The SBTi was founded to drive corporate decarbonisation aligned with the ambition set in the Paris Agreement. In the development of SBTi standards and guidance, we have always strived to be transparent, robust, and scientifically rigorous, with the aim of incentivising the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions according to the mitigation hierarchy. SBTi staff remain committed to developing quality, science-based standards through rigorous research, clear governance and procedures, and public consultation.

“The SBTi board of trustees [has] undermined our standard operating procedures and governance processes.”

In its statement, the SBTi said it will consult and strive to reach the necessary cooperation agreements with other relevant initiatives as well as a broader set of stakeholders on the revision of the Scope 3 framework.

But in their letter responding to its announcement, the organisation’s employees, who said they were not informed of the statement before publication, nor consulted on its contents, said: “We regret that this statement has caused concern, confusion, and damaged the trust of critical stakeholders. SBTi staff continue to dedicate significant efforts to improve and strengthen the SBTi’s technical governance.

“We want to reassure our stakeholders and partners that SBTi staff remain committed to our work and upholding the initiative’s mission and governance processes. Our intention is to produce only the most robust standards that ensure companies credibly mitigate their value chain emissions and align business practices with the transformation needed to reach net-zero and limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

SBTI, which revealed a discussion paper with a draft proposal from the organisation about potential changes to Scope 3 will be published in July, said it considers the carbon-offsetting step “a way to accelerate the decarbonisation of value chains with compensation logic while companies make their way to eliminate carbon emissions at the root through innovation and technology improvements”.

More widely, the response to the initiative has been mixed.

The Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative said in a statement: “SBTi’s recognition that carbon credits and other market-based instruments have a role in helping companies address their Scope 3 emissions is welcome.

“Companies are not reducing emissions fast enough and most are struggling to meet their Scope 3 goals. Without the requirement that they fill any gap with high-quality carbon credits once they’ve made every reasonable effort to meet their targets, we risk falling further even behind in our efforts to reach net zero.”

But Jurany Ramirez Gallego, a consultant with Netherlands-based sustainability research organisation Profundo, said: “Carbon offsetting projects based on restoring or protecting forests are failing to help tackle climate change as well as failing to help local communities.

“Research shows that offsetting projects are persistently inefficient and lack the quality to be considered a credible way to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions of corporations.”

And a spokesperson for Changing Markets Foundation, which works with organisations to find sustainability solutions, said: “The move by SBTi to allow carbon offsets is outrageous and is opening a giant loophole in corporate climate plans.

“We have always known that reducing emissions from corporate supply chains will be challenging, but it is an unfortunate reality that this is where around 90% of most companies’ emissions come from. We are in a climate emergency and this move goes against climate science, which SBTi claims to uphold. If SBTi sticks to this decision, it will become just another corporate climate greenwashing exercise.”