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Set Science Based Targets; everything you need to know

If you are looking to make a significant impact on sustainability, setting Science-Based Targets is an effective approach. How are these targets defined? And how can your company set them? Read more about it.

If you are looking to make a significant impact on sustainability, setting Science-Based Targets is an effective approach. These targets provide a structured framework for committing to tangible actions in line with the ambition of the Agreement of Paris, to stay below 1.5 °C of global warming compared to the pre-industrial era. How are these targets defined? And how can your company set them? Read everything you need to know below.

What is the Science Based Targets initiative?

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a non-profit organisation which initiated and validates Science-Based Targets. It empowers companies and financial institutions worldwide to contribute to combating the climate crisis by offering clearly defined pathways for companies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) using standards, tools, and guidance. This enables companies to set targets in line with the necessary measures to keep global warming below catastrophic levels and achieve net-zero by 2050 at the latest. 

The SBTi is registered as a charity and partners include CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the We Mean Business Coalition, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

What makes these targets science based?

Targets are deemed 'science based' if they align with the most current climate science deemed necessary to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement—specifically, limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. For this, the SBTi has developed cross-sector and sector-specific (for some heavy emitting industries) 1.5ºC-aligned reduction pathways based on the scenarios developed by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 

Based on a maximum global temperature rise of 2 degrees, scientists calculate the maximum amount of CO2 that can still be emitted into the atmosphere. This is referred to as the 'carbon budget': the total amount of greenhouse gasses that can be emitted before climate change tips into an irreversible state and temperature rises more than 1.5 degrees.

To be validated by the SBTi, the targets have to meet the extensive requirements set by the SBTi in their standards. These criteria are based on the principles of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (the standard that covers the accounting and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions) and enriched with target-specific criteria developed by the SBTi. 

The different targets

Setting science-based targets is a voluntary initiative, and the level of ambition is determined by each individual company.

The most ambitious companies will set net-zero targets (as defined by the Corporate Net Zero Standard) with the aim to reach its long-term SBT and also to neutralise any lingering emission with carbon removals/storage initiatives.

There are four essential elements to reaching net-zero, as shown in the graph below:

  1. Near-term target: these are 5-10 year emission reduction targets in line with 1.5°C pathways
  2. Long-term targets: targets to reduce emissions to a residual level in line with 1.5°C, by no later than 2050
  3. Beyond Value Chain Mitigation (BVCM): companies should proactively invest in reducing and removing emissions beyond their immediate value chains. This broader approach helps amplify their impact on global climate efforts.
  4. Neutralisation of residual emissions: Once a company has met its long-term targets and reduced its emissions by more than 90%, it must engage in permanent carbon removal and storage techniques to offset the remaining 10% or more of emissions that are infeasible to cut. 

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) provides validation for 3 types of targets: near-term targets, long-term targets and net-zero targets. 

There are required minimum emission reduction ambition (for cross-sector):

Near-term target (5-10 years):

  • Scope 1 & 2: 4.2% per year
  • Scope 3: 2.5% per year

Long-term target (2050 or sooner):

  • Scope 1 & 2: 90% reduction
  • Scope 3: 90% reduction before 2050 or sooner

Targets examples from businesses

Let’s look at some examples of businesses who have already set near-term targets or committed to becoming net-zero:

Thalys: The International high-speed train operator Thalys has commited to reduce corporate scope 1, 2 and 3 GHG emissions per passenger kilometer by 41.4% by 2020, compared to a 2008 base-year. Scope 3 emissions covered by the target are approximately 50% of the total scope 3 carbon footprint. For the other 50%, Thalys commits to engage with the maintenance management suppliers to formulate more explicit targets to reduce these emissions

Microsoft: Microsoft has commited to continue annually source 100% renewable electricity through 2030. Microsoft also commits to reduce scope 3 GHG emissions intensity per unit of revenue 30% by 2030 from a 2017 base year and to avoid growth in absolute scope 3 emissions.

The Coca-Cola Company: The Coca-Cola Company sets a target to reduce absolute scope 1, 2, and 3 GHG emissions 25% by 2030 from a 2015 base-year.

CSRD compliance through Science-Based Targets

While the Science-based Targets started as a voluntary initiative for companies, its use will only get more prominent with the introduction of the European Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) taking into effect initially in 2025 for listed companies and soon for all companies.

This new legislation mandates comprehensive sustainability reporting for EU companies, aiming to enhance their transparency and accountability when it comes to taking action on sustainability. Within this framework, disclosure ESRS E1 focuses specifically on climate change mitigation and makes it mandatory for companies to:

  • Set GHG emission targets for the year 2030 (and, if available, for the year 2050)
  • Define five-targets every year from 2030 on
  • Mention whether the targets are science-based

Every company will therefore at some point need to include GHG emissions reduction targets in their strategies, and SBTi provides the most agreed-on framework to do so.

What benefits are there for your organisation in setting Science - Based Targets?

Science-Based Targets are a great way to shape your sustainability strategy. And they will bring you many benefits:

Sustainable leadership. Companies committed to scientifically grounded carbon reduction are not only taking a proactive stand in combating climate change, but they are also marking themselves as leaders in corporate responsibility.

Growth opportunities. In today's market, sustainability metrics are often a criterion for investment decisions. Investors increasingly favor companies with strong environmental credentials, recognizing their potential for long-term viability and resilience. This alignment is also important to satisfy the growing customer expectations on this topic.

Meeting legislation. Staying competitive in any industry means keeping ahead of trends and regulatory changes, like the previously mentioned CSRD. This proactive approach saves time and resources, allowing businesses to focus on innovation rather than only compliance.

Efficiency. Refining their operations to meet emission targets, companies will often implement more efficient (and often renewable) energy solutions that not only cuts emissions but also reduces operational costs. The process of meeting SBTi’s rigorous standards encourages companies to rethink and optimise every aspect of their operations.

The 5 steps to set Science-Based Targets

To improve, you first need to know where you currently stand. The first requirement before you can commit to the SBTI is doing a full and recent GHG inventory/screening of your scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, which will be used as base year for your target setting. This GHG inventory is a calculation of your business carbon footprint.

Once you have this footprint available, this five-step process needs to be followed:

  1. Commit to set a SBTi
    The process begins by formalising your dedication to carbon reduction through a letter of commitment towards SBTi. This letter should clearly outline the company's plans to align with the SBTi’s targets, enhancing their carbon management strategies.
  2. Develop your target(s)
    Parallel to the first step, companies must define detailed emission's reduction plans, following the specific criteria provided by the SBTi. There is a two-year window after commitment to finalise these plans using the guidance and standards from the SBTi as base. 
  3. Submit your target for validation
    Your targets need to be submitted and validated. The SBTi provides extensive resources and documentation to support companies through this process, helping them avoid common pitfalls that could delay approval.
  4. Communicate your targets
    Transparency is critical. You are encouraged to publicly share your approved targets immediately, enhancing accountability. If the SBTi approves the targets, they will be featured prominently on its website and partner platforms. Timely public disclosure, within six months of approval, is essential to maintain credibility and visibility.
  5. Disclose your progress
    Finally, approved companies must regularly report their progress towards these targets, with a minimum of an annual review. Effective communication strategies might include publishing sustainability reports or updating stakeholders through the company's website, ensuring the public stays informed of their ongoing environmental efforts.

SMEs follow a simplified process, skipping step 1 and 2.

François Mahé, Sustainability Manager: “Do you want sustainability at the core of your business? By setting Science Based Targets, you lead by example and show every other company and your customers that you are serious about reducing your impact. Avoid individual initiatives with vague ambitions. This is about clarity. Setting a clear strategy. Mapping out the path to achieve it. Tracking your progress. This is how you make sustainability a reality.” 

Reach out to François if you have any questions or want to see how Science Based Targets can work for your company. Schedule a free 30-minutes consult. 

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