SBTs offer organisations 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 organisation 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). Organisations 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:
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 organisations 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.
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 organisations’ emission reduction targets. The two main approaches are as follows:
Approach 1: Absolute Emissions Contraction – This is the most popular method for organisations setting SBTs as it is applicable to most sectors. This approach requires all organisations to reduce their emissions at the same rate, ensuring the delivery of absolute emissions reductions in line with global decarbonisation pathways.
Approach 2: 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 organisations 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 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 organisation 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 organisation should use the most ambitious decarbonisation scenarios and methods that lead to the earliest reductions and the least carbon emissions.