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The global body that verifies corporate net-zero plans was forced to backtrack on Friday after fuelling anger among its staff and activists by proposing that companies be allowed to use carbon offsets to deal with some of their emissions.

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) issued a proposed policy shift this week that was swiftly criticized for recommending offsets – buying credits unrelated to companies’ own operations – can be used rather than just making cuts.

SBTi provides companies and financial institutions with the tools for reducing emissions in line with climate science, and validates greenhouse-gas targets. Offsets involve investing in carbon-reduction projects in other regions in instances where corporate emissions are too difficult to abate.

The SBTi statement, issued by the board of trustees, sparked an internal revolt. Some staff say there were not consulted and a noted member of its technical advisory group has said he has resigned in protest.

On Friday, the board issued a “clarification statement” saying no change had been made to current standards, and that any shift in policy would go through a series of steps including public consultation and technical review.

Supporters say allowing offsets to deal with emissions from a company’s value chain – known as Scope 3 – adds an option for greenhouse gases outside its control. Opponents warn that voluntary carbon markets have been plagued by poor-quality offsets, as shown by incidents in which they failed to produce long-term emissions reductions. They said the move amounts to a loophole.

The board’s initial statement this week said that using offsets to help reduce Scope 3 could offer an additional tool, when supported by policies and procedures backed by scientific evidence. “Consequently, SBTi has decided to extend their use for the purpose of abatement of Scope 3 related emissions beyond the current limits.”

A number of staff members from various SBTi departments said in a letter obtained by The Globe and Mail that the move risked turning the body into a “greenwashing platform,” with decisions influenced by lobbyists. They called for the resignations of trustees that supported the announcement and the chief executive officer.

“Regrettably, the actions of the CEO and the board have resulted in significant harm to our organization’s reputation and viability,” the letter said.

SBTi operates as a charity, and its partners include CDP, the UN Global Compact, the We Mean Business Coalition, the World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature. By the end of last year, more than 4,000 companies and financial institutions – including several Canadian ones – had set targets and had them validated by the body.

Dr. Stephan Singer, senior global specialist, climate science and energy, for the Climate Action Network, said he had resigned his role on the SBTi technical advisory group. In a separate letter, he called the trustees’ original statement “a fundamental breach of trust” and “surprise attack on an agreed SBTi standard” that would serve to provide cover for the fossil-fuel industry.

Michael Berends, CEO and co-founder of Toronto-based ClearBlue Markets, which advises companies on carbon pricing and procurement, said the use of offsets for Scope 3 emissions would help achieve net-zero goals at a time when all options are needed.

Mr. Berends pointed out that one company’s Scope 3 emissions are another’s Scope 1 – those that stem from its own operations – and the goal is global reductions.

“The most important challenge we have here is fighting climate change, and the best way to fight climate change is to reduce emissions,” he said. “Yes, it’s important to always reduce your own emissions first, but that’s not always feasible and it takes time.”

However, Julie Segal, senior manager, climate finance, for Environmental Defence, said the statement was consistent with other private-sector bodies recently loosening requirements when it comes to climate, and showed a need for government regulation.

“The unilateral decision-making from the private sector has consistently weakened the threshold for real climate action,” Ms. Segal said.

With a report from Wendy Stueck

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