Advanced Topics

What are ‘Science-Based Targets’ and are they right for my organization?

Science-Based Targets can accelerate carbon reduction at an impressive rate and are a key strategy for achieving Net Zero.

What are Science-Based Targets (SBTs)?

Science-based targets refer to specific goals set by companies and organizations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with scientific recommendations to mitigate climate change. These targets are designed to ensure that a company's emissions reductions are consistent with limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

What is the Science-Based Targets initiative? (SBTi)

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a collaboration between organizations like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which provides guidance, assessment, and validation for companies and organizations setting science-based targets.

Why are science-based targets important?

SBTs offer organizations a clear pathway for reducing their carbon footprint. It’s important to note that sustainability targets are only considered science-based when they align with the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2˚C, with an ever-increasing ambition for a 1.5˚C world.

The concept behind SBTs is that of the ‘carbon budget’, which outlines the maximum amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions permitted to enter the atmosphere, in order to remain below the temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement.

When it comes to climate action, the world relies on SBTs simply because they work. Progress reports from the Science-based Targets Initiative (SBTi), indicate that by implementing these targets, a typical organization is able to reduce its direct (scope 1 and 2) GHG emissions at a rate of 6.4% every year– surpassing the 4.2% rate encouraged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Science-Based Targets are good for business

Reducing GHG emissions in line with scientific consensus is not only good for the planet but good for businesses too. Setting targets based on climate science is a much better way for organizations to build resilience in the transition to a low-carbon economy, rather than incremental carbon reduction strategies. SBTs are cost effective as they: improve investor confidence, reduce regulatory risk, boost innovation and competitiveness, and also strengthen the credibility and reputation among environmentally conscious consumers.

In all categories, SBTs go above and beyond current mainstream incremental climate goals. Whilst both are cost-effective strategies, the latter is often accused of being unambitious and not transparent, whereas SBTs encourage businesses to be leaders in the green transition.

How are SBTs calculated?

Organizations of all sizes have an important role to play in tackling climate change and embedding SBTs within sustainability management strategies is an important step for reaching Net Zero. The integrity of SBTs relies on various criteria outlined below:

  • The target year should be between 5 to 10 years from the baseline year. This is considered a ‘short-term’ target and is often used as a point in the journey to Net Zero.
  • The boundaries of an organization's science-based target should align with those of its GHG inventory.
  • Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions reductions must align with at least the well below 2˚C temperature target and SBTs should cover at least 95% of emissions under these categories- It should be noted that from July 2022 the SBTi is increasing this required ambition to the 1.5˚C pathway for Scope 1 and 2.
  • SBTs must be periodically reviewed and updated to reflect significant findings in climate science that would mean existing efforts are deemed ineffective.
  • If an organization's Scope 3 emissions amount to more than 40% of its total emissions, a target should be set specifically for this scope.
  • Carbon offsetting  and avoided emissions should not be included.

How to set a Science-Based Target

It’s clear that setting SBTs is not a straightforward pursuit, as it requires careful navigation of an uncertain future. Thankfully, there are several open-sourced methodologies designed by the SBTi, to assess organizations’ emission reduction targets. The two main approaches are as follows:

Absolute Emissions Contraction

This is the most popular method for organizations setting SBTs as it is applicable to most sectors. This approach requires all organizations to reduce their emissions at the same rate, ensuring the delivery of absolute emissions reductions in line with global decarbonisation pathways.

Sectoral Decarbonisation Approach (SDA)

This is a method for setting emission reduction targets relevant to the decarbonisation trajectory of a specific sector. The SDA recognises that some sectors are able to transition to the low-carbon economy faster than others and enables organizations to calculate their science-based targets in relation to sector-wide activities.

Despite increasing improvements in the SDA, this method can only be used by certain energy intensive sectors at present. Also, although the SDA covers Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions , it has limited applicability for Scope 3 categories.

Due to the complexity of calculating a Scope 3 footprint and the limited influence that an organization may have on its emissions outside its own operations, the SBTi has separate guidance for this. The reduction pathways must still be aligned with science but from July 2022 can still be in line with a well below 2˚C pathway.

To effectively contribute to climate mitigation efforts, an organization should use the most ambitious decarbonisation scenarios and methods that lead to the earliest reductions and the least carbon emissions.

Next steps for my organization

  • If you have already set climate targets within your business strategy, you can now use the information in this blog to decipher whether or not they would be considered science-based and therefore most beneficial for your organization.
  • Does your organization have its Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions information prepared for a science-based target? Minimum offers automated carbon accounting  and planning advice for science-based targets – Book a call today to discuss your carbon footprint and start your reporting process!