The Bezos Earth fund has pumped billions into climate and nature projects. So why are experts uneasy?

<span>Conservation International chief executive officer Dr M Sanjayan, left, presents Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sánchez with the global visionary award.</span><span>Photograph: Yvonne Tnt/BFA.com</span>
Conservation International chief executive officer Dr M Sanjayan, left, presents Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sánchez with the global visionary award.Photograph: Yvonne Tnt/BFA.com

Late last month, the coronation of Jeff Bezos and his partner Lauren Sánchez as environmental royalty was complete. At Conservation International’s glitzy annual gala in New York, with Harrison Ford, Jacinda Ardern and Shailene Woodley looking on, the couple were given the global visionary award for the financial contribution of the Bezos Earth Fund to the natural world.

“Jeff and Lauren are making history, not just with the sum of their investment in nature but also the speed of it,” said the Conservation International CEO, Dr M Sanjayan, whose organisation received a $20m grant from Bezos in 2021 for its work in the tropical Andes.

Launched with a skeleton team in February 2020, the Bezos Earth Fund aims to give away $10bn (£7.9bn) of the Amazon founder’s $200bn personal fortune to combat the climate crisis and biodiversity loss by the end of the decade. So far, it has issued more than 230 grants worth $2bn, funding initiatives from AI environmental solutions to clean energy for disadvantaged communities.

In the process, the Bezos Earth Fund has become one of the most influential voices in the climate and biodiversity sector, with its fellows, advisers and directors a high-profile presence at international negotiations. Its ranks include the former UK environment minister Zac Goldsmith, the leading African environmentalist Wanjira Mathai, and the former Barack Obama adviser Paul Bodnar. Multimillion-dollar grants from the fund support dozens of leading NGOs and initiatives.

But privately in the climate and biodiversity sector, the mood around the Bezos Earth Fund has turned to one of growing unease. Researchers, climate policy advisers and NGO staff voiced concerns about the level of influence the organisation holds over critical environmental institutions for halting climate change and biodiversity loss, many of which now count Bezos Earth Fund among their biggest funders. Some did not want to be named due to concerns about the consequences for their own funding.

The projects of the Bezos fund do not address the key issues of the climate crisis – they are nice but unfortunately cosmetic

Dr Stephan Singer, global energy policy adviser

“We have seen millions of dollars paid to conservation and climate organisations. So many have taken money from the Bezos Earth Fund and I find it really worrying. There is obviously a risk of a conflict of interest,” says Holger Hoffmann-Riem from the Swiss NGO Go for Impact. “The credibility of the system relies on independence.”

One climate policy expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says: “In the few years since it started distributing enormous amounts of money for climate change and conservation, Bezos Earth Fund has established influence over many major initiatives and their board members.

“At this point, Bezos Earth Fund’s enormous presence in the climate and conservation space starts to look less philanthropical, and more like an attempt to take over the corporate governance system for its own interests and agenda.”

Dr Stephan Singer, a senior global energy policy adviser with Climate Action Network International, says: “Philanthropic organisations like the Bezos Earth Fund are fundamentally important for civil society across the globe to fund interventions on key environmental and climate issues. But there are large problems on the political implications.

“The projects of the Bezos fund do not address the key issues of the fundamental climate crisis we are facing – they are nice but unfortunately cosmetic.”

A spokesperson for the Bezos Earth Fund said there was no conflict of interest and that its grants further the public interest exclusively. They said it took the accusations seriously as the comments seek to undermine the reputation of the Bezos Earth Fund and its staff.

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Many in the conservation and climate world say their concerns crystallised this year, when a bitter internal row erupted at the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), one of the world’s most important climate certification organisations. The SBTi, which received an $18m grant from Bezos in 2021, is the organisation responsible for assessing whether some of the world’s leading companies are decarbonising in line with the Paris agreement.

In April, the SBTi board unexpectedly announced plans to allow companies to meet their climate targets with carbon offsets from the unregulated voluntary carbon market for indirect emissions. The move provoked internal fury. Staff and technical advisers said they were not consulted about the announcement and warned it could open the door to greenwashing.

Related: Climate target organisation faces staff revolt over carbon-offsetting plan

They expressed fears that the science-based process was being sidelined in favour of more company-friendly policies with weaker standards, with large polluters allowed to buy offsets instead of cutting emissions. Dozens of SBTi staff called for the resignation of the CEO, Luiz Fernando do Amaral, and board members, including the Bezos fellow Iván Duque, in an internal letter.

Since the announcement, Amaral expressed regret for the confusion around the comments and said no rules had yet been changed. But the turmoil has placed lobbying efforts from the Bezos Earth Fund and other pro-carbon market organisations under increased scrutiny.

A spokesperson for the SBTi said the organisation regretted the announcement had been “open to misinterpretation” and that any changes would follow a standard consultation process.

A month before the SBTi announcement, the Bezos Earth Fund had organised a two-day meeting in London, and on the agenda was the role of offsets in corporate claims. Leading figures from the offsetting industry were invited, many of whom have pushed for the SBTi to allow offsets to boost demand in the struggling sector. One projection estimates that if the SBTi change is allowed to go through, it would be worth at least $19bn to the voluntary carbon market. A number of sources interviewed by the Guardian raised concerns that the meeting had influenced the board’s decision.

“It is hard not to see a link between the London meeting and the decision of the SBTi board meeting a few weeks later,” says Juliette de Grandpré, an SBTi technical advisory group member and climate policy expert with the NewClimate Institute.

“It is fairly easy to reconstruct that the Bezos foundation funds many pro-carbon markets initiatives in the US.”

The Bezos Earth Fund strongly disputes the claims, saying that it was not involved in the announcement by the SBTi board and the London workshop had nothing to do with the SBTi offsetting statement. It added that support for carbon markets from SBTi board members predates the statement.

Dr Andrew Steer, the president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, says the environmental standard-setting institutions it funded had impressive leadership and made up their own minds: “They are strong and committed to transparency, high-integrity standards and analytical rigour. Any suggestion that they don’t make their own decisions is clearly wide of the mark.”

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Bezos has given at least $45m (£36m) to carbon markets initiatives so far, according to the fund’s website, including an effort from the former US climate envoy John Kerry to pay developing countries to decommission coal funded by carbon credits.

With many leading companies struggling to make good on ambitious net zero targets, supporters of carbon markets argue that allowing firms to buy offsets in the short term could help funnel billions of dollars to initiatives to protect rainforest, renewable energy and other decarbonisation schemes while benefiting biodiversity and local communities.

Despite their claimed potential, there is widespread scientific evidence that offsetting schemes often do little to mitigate global heating and have increasingly become the focus of greenwashing crackdowns by regulators in the EU and the UK. A confidential draft of preliminary SBTi analysis seen by the Guardianfound that offsets are largely ineffective in their current form. The SBTi said that no analysis had yet been completed, including interim findings.

There is a real risk that excessively pro-market funding leads to drowning out more critical voices

Sam Van den plas, Carbon Market Watch

Many climate policy experts say that companies should be focused on the deep emission cuts needed to meet the Paris agreement, worrying that offsets are a distraction.

“In only a couple of years since it launched, the Bezos Earth Fund has become one of the most influential funders in the carbon market space, and has played a significant role in providing pro-market organisations with resources to promote the role of carbon markets. There is a real risk that excessively pro-market funding leads to drowning out more critical voices which provide the necessary counterbalance to the debate,” says Sam Van den plas, a policy director at the NGO Carbon Market Watch.

A spokesperson for the Bezos Earth Fund says the organisation acknowledged quality issues in the carbon market and its grants were aimed at improving standards that provide clear benefits to Indigenous peoples and communities. Bezos Earth Fund disputes that its funding is unbalanced.

SBTi has been known for its fierce independence, continually updating its assessments of corporate claims: easyJet, Microsoft and Walmart are among the dozens of companies that have had their net zero commitments delisted by the SBTi in recent months for not providing longer-term targets.

Kaya Axelsson, a research fellow at Oxford Net Zero, who is among 32 academics who signed a letter in Nature arguing against the SBTi announcement, says that the organisation’s independence is vital for highlighting where real environmental action is taking place.

“SBTi fills a critical role advising corporate climate action,” she says. “Without it, or something like it, companies can set targets that look good but get us nowhere near our temperature goals for a safe and liveable climate. Ultimately this should be a role for governments because voluntary initiatives like this are vulnerable to special interest capture and companies can choose to reject them if they find targets difficult to meet.”

A spokesperson for the SBTi says the organisation had a conflicts of interest policy displayed on its website and has multiple and diverse stakeholders with a range of views.

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