What are science-based targets?
Part 1 in a new series
Your boss has asked you for a science-based emissions reduction target – how do you get started? This series of articles will cover what you need to know.
- Crash course in the science behind climate aligned targets
- Why science-based targets mean good business
- Quick steps to setting your targets
- How to achieve a science based target
Climate science and the carbon budget
The concept of science-based targets (SBT) emerged following the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. In New Zealand, SBTs are often referred to as science-aligned or climate-aligned targets. This is due to the term SBT being a trademark of the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi), so it can only be used if you have submitted your targets to this body for official validation. Regardless, for the sake of simplicity we’ll stick with the acronym SBT in this article.
At its most basic definition, an SBT is an emissions reduction target that aligns with climate science to contribute to the global goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C over pre-industrial levels – with the ideal being 1.5°C below (explore why we want to keep it to 1.5° here). As is often the case, that definition requires a bit of explanation to fully grasp what it means for you. So bear with us.
The Carbon Budget
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated how much carbon dioxide it believes we can release into the atmosphere, at a global level, before we lock in a temperature rise of 1.5°. This capped amount of greenhouse gases, roughly one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, is called the carbon budget.
Figure: Carbon budgets to stay within warming limits for 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees and 3 degrees
As you likely know, the Paris Agreement is a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and through the carbon budget we know how much carbon we can afford to emit over the next 29 years. The plan, as it stands, is to curb emissions growth immediately and then halve our emissions by 2030 to prevent more drastic action being required in later years. The closer we stick to the budget, the greater chance we have of limiting warming overall and the severity of climate change impacts.
The IPCC considers net-zero is achieved when carbon emissions from human activity are balanced globally by carbon emissions removals over a specified period.
Figure: Aligning with SBTI Net Zero Neutralize Residual Emissions
(Source: WWF, Beyond Science-Based Targets: A Blueprint for Corporate Action on Climate and Nature, December 2020)
SBTs in practice
An SBT works by aligning your emissions reduction targets, as an organisation, with the carbon budget. This requires you to calculate your full emissions profile, including through your supply chains, to work out your fair share of the remaining carbon budget. The end result is a bespoke emissions reduction target that is designed to track the IPCC’s global target.
The hard part comes next. SBTs are intentionally ambitious and require organisations to undertake and plan for substantial change in their current operations over the long term. The focus here is on reducing emissions at the source, rather than just offsetting them through carbon credits. It is intensive, but undoubtedly worth it. We will cover off how to set targets in Part 3 of this series, and how to action them in Part 4.
Figure: Organisation pathways will vary depending on your unique profile
SBTs and emissions reduction tools
To set and implement an SBT requires a suite of carbon accounting and reduction tools. This is where our expertise comes in. We are the first CDP-accredited science-based targets partner in Australia and New Zealand, with experience advising and auditing organisations of all sizes on carbon management and reduction initiatives. We have worked with Fletcher Building, Synlait and NZ Post, among others, to help them set their SBTs.
The main difference between SBTs and other science-aligned programmes, such as Toitū carbonzero or carbonreduce, is the specific alignment with the global carbon budget over the long-term. The tools we use to calculate, set and action targets are effectively the same.
What about offsets?
Offsets are a great tool to compensate for unavoidable emissions. Using carbon credits in the short term will certainly help the atmosphere while you reduce, even if you aren’t counterbalancing everything. But they don’t count as part of a science-based reduction strategy. To truly achieve net zero, we must reduce emissions overall.
As mentioned upfront, you can only refer to your emissions reduction programme as being an SBT if you have it officially validated by the SBTi. The SBTi was founded by WWF, CDP, United Nations Global Compact, and the World Resources Institute. For more information, check out their website.
You can of course choose not to go through the official validation process, or have your targets verified by other providers, including ourselves. In this instance, you would call your targets climate or science-aligned. Different name, same outcome.
In Part 2 of this series, we look at the benefits of SBTs and why you should consider committing to one. Keep reading here.
Want to know more?
Understanding the science behind strategic emissions reductions is just the beginning of decarbonisation. Read our other reduction stories here or:
- Speak to our experts to get support setting science-aligned targets for your operations and value chain.
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