Science-Based Targets – What they are, Why they work & How to get going

A low-carbon economy, that sure sounds great. But how can you help achieve such an ambitious goal as an organization? Reducing your carbon emissions isn’t an easy job- so how can you tell that you’re on track and actually doing something that is helping our climate recover in the long run? You listen to science.

Science-Based Targets – What they are, Why they work & How to get going6 min read

More and more organizations are embracing reporting on their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and aiming to reduce them. And with that incentive in mind, these organizations often aim to set certain (short-term) goals to achieve.  

But what kind of goals should you really set? How can you make sure your targets truly matter in the long run? 

You make them science-based.

Indeed, in this article we’ll discuss what science-based targets are, why they’re so important and how to get them started.

What are Science-Based Targets? 

So- short summary: Science-based targets are organizational targets that show how much and how quickly organizations need to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change from happening (source: SBTi).  

These targets are created by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and are scientifically confirmed requirements that will set the path for transitioning to a low (preferably zero) carbon economy. 

These targets are very useful- they provide clear goals that can help all types of organizations to reduce their GHG emissions in a manner that is in line with meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

This means these targets are set up to limit global warming to the 2°C threshold- by making the efforts to limit this warming to + 1.5°C (above 2°C will have significant negative consequences for our environment). 

And to achieve this goal, we need to halve our collective greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2030 and drop them to zero-carbon emissions by 2050. 

Science-based targets are organizational targets that show how much and how quickly organizations need to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change from happening.

Why should we pay significant attention to Science-based Targets?

The popularity of SBTi has increased significantly over the years. Right now 1156 companies have committed to science-based targets, including some of the world’s biggest companies, such as Inc., Facebook Inc. And they cut emissions fast (image 1).

Image 1. Emissions cut by organizations that implement SBT’s. Source: Science Based Targets initiative – adapted by Bloomberg Green. 
*Note: this graph only includes scope 1, and 2 emissions.

Indeed, next to the fact that we all want to ensure our planet’s protection by pursuing these targets, they also bring large business opportunities. 

Measuring and implementing sustainable change as an organization is increasingly becoming a more important criterion from various stakeholders and investors. If you’re a larger organization, you will have a large impact on the environment because of your size and global environmental footprint and will be expected to do something about it.

With these targets, your sustainability efforts are validated, placed in the bigger sustainability picture, and aligned with the CPD (Carbon Disclosure Project) and the GHG Protocol

These comparable targets will not only provide many organizations with reputational and competitive advantages through benchmarking, but it will also satisfy investors, put you ahead of regulations and attract talent.

Image 2. Increase in organizations that embrace SBT’s.
Source: Science Based Targets Initiative – Final column was added by Sustainalize and shows the number prediction by the end of 2020.

Questions to ask yourself when starting with Science-based targets

SBTi analyzed 338 of the companies that effectively set science-based targets and concluded that between 2015 and 2019 these companies reduced their Scope 1 & 2 emissions by 25% (even though global emissions rose by 3.4%). This only shows how science-based targets are a great tangible help in guiding organizations to cut their emissions.

So how can you start setting up science-based targets?

SBTi has excellent technical guidance material on its website. However, you do need to consider a few things before starting with Science-Based targets (SBT’s). 

Below you’ll find the most important questions you should ask yourself when you start off with SBT’s:

1. Is there leadership buy-in & strategy alignment? 

The setting, implementation & monitoring of SBT’s is not a small task. Therefore, companies that pursue ambitious climate strategies -including SBT’s- need to address this at the core of their strategies in order to ensure that these plans are realized and the key business functions support them. Indeed, board approval -with a proper tone at the top- is a vital success factor.

2. What is your baseline GHG (greenhouse gas) performance and what improvement strategies do I have? 

Having a robust baseline GHG measurement (scope 1, 2, and 3) is vital to set proper targets. Moreover, the main strategic options for improvement need to be known before you embark on an SBT journey.

You can find more information in our 5-step plan on how to move your organization towards carbon neutrality.  You can download this one-pager via the button below.

3. What main target setting options do I have? 

SBT’s technical guidance provides a great direction to various types of targets that can be applied. However, the types of business you’re in will determine the type of target you should use. For instance, in a high-growth business, the use of an ‘absolute contraction* target’ does not make sense. Moreover, various sectors, such as the power or paper sector, need to use the Sector Decarbonization Approach (SDA). In this approach, companies can determine their targets based on sector-specific business output metrics (e.g. kWh for the power sector). Do I commit to a 1.5- or a 2-degree scenario, etc.?

* Contraction: reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level.

4. Who should be involved? 

Setting a target is not the hard part. Realizing the target is where most of the effort goes into and what requires real stamina. Organizations that embark on this journey should, therefore, really involve the right business functions in order to ensure success

5. Is my monitoring system A-ok? 

Targets cannot be met without a proper measurement system. Companies need to have a robust measurement system in place that provides the proper intelligence to:

(1) Make external disclosures (based on external GHG reporting, e.g. annual reporting or CDP reporting); 

(2) Roll out internal performance management to monitor and drive improvement- including accountability; 

(3) Perform detailed analytics. E.g. you can create what-if scenarios (what happens if I replace this material with a more sustainable one?) to underpin future business cases and opportunities for further improvement.

Don’t know where to start with SBT’s?

Don’t really know where to start with setting up your SBT’s? Or in need of more more information on which measurement system to use? Our Environmental Specialists would be happy to help you get started. Just simply plan a free call with one of them below.

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