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OP-ED – Last month, the respected journal Nature published a study in which the authors evaluated one of the largest types of nature-based carbon offsets: human-induced regeneration initiatives under a landmark Australian carbon offset programme. These projects are designed to foster the regeneration of permanent, even-aged native forests through changes in land management practices.

The authors examined 182 such projects and observed minimal signs of regeneration in the areas that received carbon credits. Additionally, the increase in woody vegetation cover in these credited areas closely matched the changes in nearby, non-project areas. This similarity suggests that the visible improvements are primarily due to external factors, rather than the projects themselves, the authors noted.

“Our findings contribute to the expanding body of research that underscores the practical challenges and potential issues with offsets, including the risk of crediting non-existent, non-additional, or impermanent abatement,” the paper said.

We found this study on Google Scholar. There are dozens of similar studies which suggest carbon offsets are in many cases not worth the paper they are written on and will likely lead to businesses claiming they are offsetting their company’s carbon emissions when in reality they are not.

We wrote about this issue a few years ago in an article we have opened up for all readers here.

Bear all of this in mind when considering the recent debate around the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which many of the world’s top fashion brands have signed up to.

On 9 April, the SBTi issued a statement indicating that moving forwards it would allow its members to use carbon offset schemes to mitigate against scope 3 – supply chain – emissions.  

This is what it said: “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.”

This looks pretty unambiguous to us. Many SBTi staff were said to be angered they had not been consulted on this change of tack by SBTi. These staff briefed journalists on and off the record.

There was a huge public backlash which led to the SBTi issuing another statement in which it tried to convince those who read the initial statement they had misread it. This was textbook gaslighting.

In the second statement they said “The Board acknowledges that this is a sensitive area and regrets that the statement was open to misinterpretation. The Board’s commitment to the Standard revision process and consultation with all relevant stakeholders is unwavering.”

To add to the confusion, a new op end was published by Reuters this week.  

This rambling article only contains one piece of meaningful information which is that the SBTi will make a decision on whether or not it will allow the use carbon offsets in July 2024.

The fashion industry has embraced the SBTi in recent years. Large swathes of the industry have signed up and set Science Based Targets. But the SBTi is in danger of becoming code for greenwashing, which is becoming a toxic issue for the industry. Where will fashion brands go from here?

There are suggestions that member companies and funders have pressured the SBTi board to allow the use of carbon offsets. This would be no surprise because we all know how these things work. Money talks and one would have to be naïve in the extreme to think the Bezos Earth Fund, IKEA Foundation, and Laudes Foundation have pledged US$37m to the SBTi for purely altruistic reasons.

We’ve read statements and comments from various SBTi board members online. They say all the right things about environmental and sustainability issues and clearly want to be seen as the good guys. But US$37m is a lot of money right?

So where now? The SBTi is a member organisation. In terms of the criteria it uses for is members, it can do what it wants. If its board wishes to allow carbon offsets in lieu of absolute reductions in scope 3 emissions – or shifts to renewable energy – that is its choice.

But it needs to be up front, honest, and own the decision. None of this testing the water with statements which it then retracts. None of the obfuscation and mixed messaging while it buys itself time. Members need answers now. Why should they have to wait until July when it seems almost certain – to us at least – that this decision has already been made and the SBTi board are just considering how best to make its presentation most palatable.

We suspect that when members really know where they stand, many will want to make alternate arrangements on decarbonisation.

Plenty of fashion brands we know of have put huge amounts of time and resources into setting Science Based Targets. This issue has vexed fashion sustainability teams for years.

But why would they want to remain members of an organisation which is in danger of becoming a byword for greenwashing?

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