Science Based Targets initiative to support businesses with 1.5C goals in wake of IPCC report

The Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) will place a renewed focus on assisting businesses in setting emissions reduction goals aligned with the 1.5C ambition of the Paris Agreement, a WWF official has revealed.

From left-right: Unilever’s Thomas Lingard, CDP's Jennie Gleed, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership's Sarah Millar, BT's Gabrielle Giner and WWF's Jaco Du Toit

From left-right: Unilever’s Thomas Lingard, CDP's Jennie Gleed, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership's Sarah Millar, BT's Gabrielle Giner and WWF's Jaco Du Toit

Speaking in London on Monday (15 October) as part of a panel discussion to mark Green GB Week, WWF’s senior policy advisor Jaco Du Toit explained that the SBTi will offer new tools that enable companies to set more ambitious carbon reduction targets that are aligned with pathways to a 1.5C world.  

Published last week, the report warned there are only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C - beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

The half-degree difference could also prevent corals from being completely eradicated and ease pressure on the Arctic according to the report, which combined the findings of more than 4,000 scientific studies.

WWF is one of the four founding organisations of the SBTi, along with the CDP, UN Global Compact and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Speaking at the Natural History Museum alongside representatives from BT, Unilever, CDP and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, Du Toit was asked whether all businesses currently following an approved 2C trajectory will need to switch to a 1.5C approach.

“The ambition has always been to align with the Paris Agreement, but the latest science available ultimately has to be what we draw on,” Du Toit said, confirming that the SBTi would soon be providing new resources for businesses to achieve a 1.5C pathway - set to be released next year.

“We are acutely aware of the fact that the IPCC’s 1.5C report has shown the case for keeping to 1.5C rather than 2C, so with the new science coming out, the initiative is finally in a place to offer better advice to companies in line with 1.5C and not just 2C. The exact mechanics of how the transition will happen are still going to have to be worked out, but what we will do for a period is offer both scenarios– 2C and 1.5C – while being clear which approach was followed when the target is published.”

The SBTi has responded to the IPCC, outlining that science-based targets signal "the emergence of a new normal" for corporate strategies. In a blog post, the SBTi outlined intentions to review its target setting resources to take into account the updates to scenarios listed by the IPCC.

Du Toit confirmed that the 490 businesses to have signed up to develop science-based targets should not be made to switch to 1.5C immediately, noting medium-term cycles that would need to be considered.

“There is also real anxiety to simply get cracking on implementing existing targets, so we don’t want to go back to [businesses] that have spent 18 months developing a target to tell them that the science has been updated,” Du Toit added.

Beyond 1.5C?

TescoBT and Carlsberg remain the only three corporations to have publicly targetted the more ambitious goal in line with a 1.5C trajectory. 

BT’s head of sustainable business policy Gabrielle Ginér argued that before the SBTi was founded, businesses tended to set their emissions targets simply on “what rhymed” – 20% by 2020 or 50% by 2050, for example.

She claimed that the move to set a target in line with a 1.5C trajectory, which BT took in September 2017, allowed the business to “anchor [its] targets in something real”.

Under the SBTi, BT has pledged to reduce emissions by 87% by 2030 against a 2016/17 baseline. However, in light of the IPCC’s advice, the telecoms giant this week decided to increase the ambition of its targets and commit to becoming a net-zero-carbon business by 2045.

Ginér said she hoped that setting such an ambitious goal would “show other businesses that this is possible”.

“It is a leap of faith and in continuing to set and keep to these targets, but I think what happens is that it galvanises the business and lets the company know that it needs to come together and work towards them,” she concluded.

“What it also does is send a demand signal to the market; the more companies and governments that do this, the more we will raise the bar and the pressure to innovate and create a supply of [low-carbon] assets.”

‘Normalising the necessary’

More than 490 businesses have joined the Initiative since its launch in 2015, with formal, public commitments to set an approved target having been made by a further 800 organisations to date.

Among the biggest-name businesses to have set an emissions reduction aim in line with the SBTi’s 2C advice is Unilever, which has pledged to become carbon-positive across its operations by 2030.

Speaking at Monday’s event, Unilever’s director of climate and environment Thomas Lingard emphasised the importance of science to the company’s Sustainable Living Plan sustainability strategy, which is also set in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“When you start to realise that interdependence between the journey you want to take the company on and the way that the world is trying to go [in terms of climate ambitions], I think you get much more into advocacy and realise that you can’t do [sustainability] in a ‘business-as-usual’ way,” Lingard explained.

“Science-based targets can start to look like a technical exercise, but for us, it is a deeply political process. It’s about normalising the necessary and sending an unequivocal message to governments around the direction of travel that we want to take as businesses, and that we believe consumers want to take as well.”

Lingard added that the move to incorporate scientific evidence into Unilever’s emissions targets served to “reframe” the corporate sustainability conversation by placing increased focus on Scope 3 (indirect) emissions. Notably, these emissions account for more than 90% of the company’s overall carbon footprint.

“When you are thinking only about decarbonising factories, it’s a relatively simple task; you either install renewable energy assets or switch to renewable energy providers – heat is a little more tricky but there are solutions,” Lingard concluded.

“But when you start thinking about the other 95% of your emissions, you get a totally different conversation which brings in broader company strategy and external stakeholders including governments.”


edie’s science-based targets webinar

Companies seeking to investigate or commit to science-based targets are invited to tune into edie’s free webinar, taking place 18 October.

This webinar will cut through the complexity and provide you with the answers to key questions, by hearing from leading businesses and science-based targets experts to map out exactly how science-based targets can be used to future-proof growth.

BT’s Ginér will be joined by speakers from Capgemini, Signify and The Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group for the one-hour webinar. Register for the webinar here.

Sarah George


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