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The Friday Digest: Offsetting row boils over

First up in this week’s round-up is the war of words over the controversial decision by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) to permit the use of “environmental attribute certificates for abatement purposes on scope 3 emissions” – carbon credits or offsets in layman’s terms – within its corporate net-zero standard.

The decision, taken as part of a forthcoming revision to the standard, was revealed in a statement published on April 9th by the SBTi Board of Trustees which stated that: “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.”

This came as a shock to many stakeholders given that the use of carbon credits is currently not allowed to count towards emissions reduction under SBTi rules. Within 48 hours, SBTi staff had published a not-too-subtle rebuttal of the board’s decision in an open letter in which staff stated how they were “deeply concerned about the content of the statement and the process by which it was developed and released” and made clear their commitment to developing “quality, science-based standards through rigorous research, clear governance and procedures, and public consultation”.

Subsequently, one of SBTi’s founders, WWF, waded into the debate by publishing a punchy statement in which it argued that “offsets cannot be a substitute for reducing emissions from company operations, products and value chains” and should be limited in their application to residual emissions. The SBTi Board of Trustees has yet to respond and there are fears that the confusion created could derail business commitments to decarbonisation.

Whatever the next chapter in this particular saga, the debate around offsetting has plenty of mileage left in it. Indeed, the use of offsets to support business claims around their net-zero ambitions and achievements is increasingly coming under scrutiny from regulators. This week, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority [ASA] published new research on people’s understanding of environmental claims in food and drink adverts. It found that ads using ‘green’ imagery, such as fresh produce or the colour green, and terms like ‘natural’ and ‘plant-based’, generate a ‘halo effect’ for businesses, making people think that businesses or products are eco-friendly even when no environmental claims are made.

The report also found that people tend to take broad green claims at face value, with only a minority, consisting largely of the more environmentally engaged, business sceptics and vegans and vegetarians, questioning them amid a widespread assumption that such advertising was already subject to regulation. This was particularly the case if ads included statistics, facts or used more technical terms. The research also identified a feeling that the claims and counterclaims of the environmental impact between plant-based products versus animal products effectively ‘cancelled each other out’. The ASA plans to use the findings to further explore some of the key issues with businesses, including increasing use of the term ‘regenerative farming’ in ads.

References to regenerative agriculture have added another layer of complexity to the question of what constitutes ‘better’ meat – a term often used by campaigners who advocate for consumption of ‘less and better’ meat to help achieve environmental goals. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has just published new analysis which poses the question: ‘Is there such a thing as better meat?’ The answer, it concludes, is: ‘It’s complicated.’ The analysis found that there is no single way to produce meat and dairy that’s “better” for all environmental, social, ethical and economic considerations. For example, options such as organic and grass-fed meat — which may improve animal welfare and reduce antibiotic usage, among other benefits — often come with higher greenhouse gas emissionsand environmental impacts than conventionally produced meat.

While WRI stresses that the best strategy for overcoming competing trade-offs is by shifting to more plant-based foods, the report also recommends steps that companies can take to design a sourcing strategy that will allow them to achieve climate and nature goals while also sourcing better meat, to maximise co-benefits and minimise trade-offs. These include defining their meat sourcing priorities, engaging with suppliers to improve practices and track progress, and shifting to source “even less meat” where a better meat sourcing strategy increases environmental impacts.

“Companies that shift to sourcing ‘better meat’ from systems with higher environmental impacts will need to shift from sourcing ‘less meat’ to sourcing ‘even less meat’ if they want to also meet their sustainability goals,” said Clara Cho, data analyst at WRI.

Also covered in week’s Footprint news is WWF’s new palm oil scorecard which calls for faster progress on sustainable sourcing; a survey showing that snacks, and fruit and vegetable packaging are fuelling household plastic waste; and a call for regulators to set sustainability standards for ready-made meals.