Science Based Targets & the Future of Corporate Climate Action
By TIM CRONIN, September 27th 2018
In the past month, ambitious emissions reduction plans have been all the buzz. California has set a blistering pace by announcing a goal of 100% renewables for the electric sector (read more about the implications of this here). But the push to reduce emissions is not isolated to the public sector.
Facebook made headlines with the announced of its own commitment to use 100% clean energy in its operations. And during the San Francisco climate summit numerous international companies unveiled plans to reduce their emissions. In the context of businesses reducing their emissions one phrase has been used more than any other: “science-based targets.” But what exactly are science-based targets? How can they help companies reduce emissions? And can we realistically expect these targets to help us address global climate change?
Targeting emissions, with science!
Originating from a 2008 United Nations climate report, the term “science-based target” refers to a carbon emissions reduction goal that is line with internationally agreed goals to keep global warming in check. More than a term, the Science Based Targets Initiative is a program of the UN Global Compact in partnership with several other global environmental NGOs. The goal of the initiative is help guide companies towards actions that reduce their carbon footprint, and therefore contribute to international climate goals and reduction targets.
According to the innitiave’s official website, “targets adopted by companies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are considered ‘science-based’ if they are in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre- industrial temperatures.” According to the IPCC, greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 will have to be 40 to 70 percent lower than what they were in 2010 and by the end of the century, they will need to be at zero if we are to remain below 2 degrees Celsius of warming.
The Reasoning for Scientific Targets
Science-based targets arise because of the role the private sector must play in order for us to move towards a low-carbon economy. Because of how vastly different each company is it is hard to determine their carbon footprint, and what the best way to reduce their emissions is. By setting targets that use consistent and standard scientific methods, a companies can reduce its emissions in a transparent and more effective way. Through individual examinations based on science, an individual company’s global footprint and projected emissions overtime can be determined and an individual target can be set.
Science is used not just in determining the targets, but also in establishing how a company achieve those targets. According to the Science Based Targets Initiative these steps can include efficiency improvements, use of clean energy, implementing a new low-carbon business model, or other company-specific solutions. For example, companies focusing on transportation might want to focus on increasing fuel efficiency, while consumer oriented ones might be better served by looking at product innovation.
Challenges to the Targets
As beneficial as science-based targets are, the practice still involves challenges.
Although an ever growing number of companies are committing to science-based targets, the vast majority of international businesses have made no commitment to reduce their carbon footprint. As of publication, 488 international corporations are taking action using science-based targets, with over 130 companies joining since last January. A full list of companies can be seen here. Much more than a majority of global companies, especially the large multinationals must participate if we are to avoid a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius.
Additionally, companies must be held accountable to meeting their targets. The goals are technically voluntary, just like those of the Paris Accord, leaving plenty of wiggle room for companies to come short of their commitment. In recent years we’ve seen companies cheat on their emissions standards, with the most prominent being the Volkswagen tailpipe emissions scandal.
Future of Science-Based Targets
Yes these challenges to science-based targets exist, but there is reason to believe that they will work.
There growing popularity among companies combined with wider business trends strengthen their case. In recent years we’ve seen greater shareholder advocacy on climate action and increasing consumer desire for companies to be part of the solution. Companies have also been getting alot of positive media attention when they commit to targets, improving public perception for their brands. These create compelling reasons for more companies, especially larger ones, to adopt such targets.
Once they are adopted, the transparent and public nature of the targets makes it hard for companies to avoid their responsibility to meet them. Those same shareholders and consumers who wanted them in the first place will also be watching ensure they are met.
There will be plenty of external pressure to adopt science-based targets, but business leaders still play a role in moving their company to the forefront on climate action.
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