Edie explains: Science-based targets

What are science-based targets? Why do they matter? And what are the main business benefits behind implementing them? Find out in the first installment of edie's new content series.

Science-based targets can take a company's sustainability strategy onto the next level, and also serve to enhance reputation among key stakeholders

Science-based targets can take a company's sustainability strategy onto the next level, and also serve to enhance reputation among key stakeholders

What are science-based targets?

Science-based targets are a set of goals developed by a business to provide it with a clear route to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An emissions reduction target is defined as ‘science-based’ if it is developed in line with the scale of reductions required to keep global warming below 2C from pre-industrial levels.

In order to scale-up the number of businesses adopting science-based targets, the Science Based Targets initiative was formed towards the end of 2015 through a joint partnership between CDP, the UN Global Compact (UNGC), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and WWF.

The initiative helps businesses commit to and meet science-based targets by independently assessing and approving any targets that are set, and offering resourcesworkshops and guidance to reduce any barriers to adoption. The initiative’s overall aim is that, by 2020, science-based targets will become standard business practice and corporations across the world will therefore be playing a major role in driving down greenhouse gas emissions.

Why do science-based targets matter?

Last year was the hottest year on record, setting a new high for the third year in a row, with scientists firmly putting the blame on human activities that drive climate change. The impacts of climate change on businesses are coming sooner and with more ferocity than ever before, according to scientists. As the world’s largest source of emissions, the corporate sector therefore has a clear role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Using science-based targets to reduce emissions in line with the level of decarbonisation required to keep global temperature increase below 2C is seen as a critical step in the low-carbon transition, and is especially relevant following the enforcement of global frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement on climate change.

How does the science-based targets process work?

The Science Based Targets initiative allows businesses to choose from seven target-setting methods. For instance, businesses can make contributions based on total GDP, or take a sector-based approach that divides responsibility by industry. This flexibility enables companies to set targets that are most relevant to them and that account for the dynamics of the sector they operate in.

A step-by-step guide to the implementation of science-based targets is provided by the initiative. Firstly, businesses are asked to sign a commitment letter which indicates a pledge to set a science-based target. Companies then have up to 24 months to fully develop the goal. Once a target has been developed, a ‘Target Submission Form’ must be submitted. This form will then be verified by the Science Based Targets initiative, which will confirm whether the target has been formally approved or requires additional work.

As part of the criteria for setting a science-based target, the target boundary must be company-wide, covering all emissions included in the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, and must include both Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. Moreover, the commitment period must cover a minimum of five years from the target announcement date. Companies are also required to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions on an annual basis along with any other data that shows progress against their targets.

Who has agreed science-based targets so far?

The Science Based Targets initiative has reported that 269 companies, representing almost $5trn in market value, have signed up to the scheme, therefore committing to adopt science-based targets. The programme has accepted targets from 46 companies, including multinationals such as technology company Dell, fashion chain H&M, retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) and digital product seller Sony.

And the number of businesses signing up to science-based targets only looks set to increase. A recent survey of members of the edie Leaders Club – an exclusive, membership-based group of professionals that are responsible for leading their company’s sustainability strategy – revealed that more than half (55%) of the 31 respondents were either beginning to apply science-based targets, or that the methodology was already fully embedded in their strategy.

Just over a third (35%) or respondents said the adoption of science-based targets was on their radar, while less than 10% said they were not considering them at this stage.

What are the key challenges when adopting science-based targets?

Science-based targets represent a new way of setting goals for many companies and may therefore require careful justification to gain buy-in across the business units and supply chain. Showing progress over the target period can help stakeholders better understand a company’s progress and efforts before reaching the target deadline.

Achieving a science-based target takes the co-operation of multiple divisions within the company. Sustainability professionals will often need to partner closely with both executive leadership and business unit managers across the company in order to access the resources required for developing, finalising and ultimately achieving the target. The Science Based Targets initiative recommends framing targets using terms such as risk, opportunities, revenue and reputation, rather than using climate or sustainability jargon, as this approach will resonate more with corporate decision-makers.

Sustainability professionals should also be wary that the transition to science-based targets could also potentially undermine staff morale and create some anxiety among employees, due to the ambitious and inherently transformative nature of the goals that are being set. 

The Science Based Targets initiative states that it is essential to communicate change effectively by explaining “what you are doing, why you are doing it, how it will be a gradual process, as well as the steps that would be taken to help employees make the transition”.

A lack of time and resources is another key factor that must be taken into consideration by sustainability professionals. When necessary, companies are urged to partner with NGOs or consultancies that fully understand the science behind the goals and can provide guidance in setting a science-based target - whilst this can come at a financial cost, it can also save significant time and ensure that the process is undertaken thoroughly.

What are the business benefits of adopting science-based targets?

While the science-based target approach to reducing emissions is relatively new, there is already a good body of evidence to support the business benefits of taking this route. Quantifiable benefits from GHG emission reductions include cost savings, energy savings, and an improved bottom line.

  • Because science-based targets include a long-term sustainability vision, companies can think beyond short-term solutions for GHG emissions reductions.
  • Science-based targets can also help to spark the development of new low-carbon innovations and technologies that can accelerate emissions reductions across a business.
  • It is also claimed that businesses that take ambitious action in advance of future climate-related regulations will be better-equipped to influence policymakers and respond to evolving legislation.
  • The target-setting process also serves to enhance company reputation among key stakeholders such as investors, customers, employees and NGOs.
  • Moreover, the effective communication of science-based targets can help to guide internal management decisions and increase buy-in from employees when it comes to driving sustainability improvements.

What happens if science-based targets aren't met?

Of course, a well-thought-out science-based target may not always be met due to unexpected circumstances that can occur along the way. These might include stronger-than-predicted business growth or delays in bringing renewable energy projects online.

In such cases, the Science Based Targets initiative recommends that companies retain the confidence of their stakeholders by transparently communicating their situation, including progress achieved to date and remaining reduction gaps. It is also important to elaborate on the plan moving forward and to calculate exactly how any progress slowdowns will be addressed.

Where can I find more information?

You can read all of edie's news stories, feature articles and blogs related to science-based targets here.

The Science Based Targets initiative showcases a number of companies that have set science-based targets through case studiesevents and media to highlight the increased innovation, reduced regulatory uncertainty, strengthened investor confidence and improved profitability and competitiveness generated by the science-based targets process. More information is available on the Science Based Target website.


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