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An introduction to science-based climate targets

Claire Scott explains what is meant by climate change targets that are ‘science-based’, why they’re important and how SMEs can follow a science-based pathway in their own carbon reduction plans.

Setting and working towards targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is nothing new. But science-based targets (SBTs), a term coined in 2015, take things a step further by aligning an organisation’s goals with what climate scientists say is necessary to avoid ‘dangerous’ levels of global warming.


What do we mean by ‘science-based’?

In practice, basing targets on climate science means aligning them with the goals of the Paris Agreement, an historic deal brokered between 197 countries in 2015. Think of it as the world’s official climate change plan. The terms of the agreement are to:

  • Work together to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels
  • Reach a peak in global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve net zero by mid-century.

SBTs ensure that an organisation is delivering its ‘fair contribution’ to achieving these goals and has a robust plan to do so. They also reduce the risk of greenwashing by making sure targets are clear, transparent and proportionate.


Examples close to home

SBTs are not just for organisations. The UK’s national target of net zero by 2050 (with a key milestone of 78 per cent by 2035 compared to 1990 levels), is based on the ‘science-based’ recommendations of the UK’s Climate Change Committee.

Greater Manchester’s 2038 target is also ‘science-based’ and was developed with the support of climate scientists at the University of Manchester.

Note that both targets are based on climate science but are still different. This is because the ‘fair contribution’ element is ultimately subjective. The experts behind Greater Manchester’s target took a slightly stricter interpretation of the Paris Agreement and set a tighter ‘carbon budget’ in order to reflect our responsibility to take on more of the burden for reducing emissions compared to poorer parts of the world.


Corporate targets

In the corporate world, science-based targets often follow criteria set by the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi). The SBTi guides companies in setting SBTs, promotes best practice and provides independent assessment and validation of targets.  

More than 1,000 major companies worldwide have set SBTs through the SBTi to date (you can find a searchable list of them all here), and numbers are growing rapidly. In fact, research shows that all large UK businesses need to set and follow SBTs within the next few years if the country is to stand a good chance of achieving net zero by 2050.


Why you should take notice

It may seem like SBTs are something for large organisations, cities and countries to worry about, not small businesses. But while setting a formal verified target through the SBTi is perhaps a step too far for many SMEs for the time being (although there is a streamlined route designed specifically for organisations with less than 500 employees), it is still advisable for small businesses to follow science-based principles in their own carbon reduction plans. 

This way, you can demonstrate to customers and stakeholders that you are taking a strong position on the climate emergency, while keeping up with those leading the way. This is important because SBTs require large companies to cut the emissions associated with the goods and services they procure (also known as ‘Scope 3’ emissions), which means they will be looking for suppliers that can help them.

How to be a ‘net zero ready’ supplier

Corporate SBTs are already filtering down supply chains as a result. For example, Unilever has announced that it will actively prioritise partnerships with suppliers that have set science-based targets going forward. Similarly, tech platform Salesforce is working with 250 of its top suppliers to set their own individual SBTs by 2024. This is something we can expect to see much more of in future.


How to follow a science-based pathway

So how can SMEs set a science-based pathway of their own? It starts with your organisation’s carbon footprint. If you’re new to this, take a look at our beginner’s guide to carbon footprinting before continuing here.  

Beginner’s guide to carbon footprinting

Once you have your first carbon footprint, covering as much of the more difficult Scope 3 emissions as possible, use it as a baseline to plan your reductions.

Next, you need to set targets that fit within the boundaries of climate science. These include ‘near-term’ targets of 5-10 years as well as a ‘long-term’ target of reaching net zero.

It’s important to have both. Long-term net zero targets are all well and good, but as most greenhouse gas emissions have a cumulative effect on the climate for hundreds of years, it’s critical that we galvanise action to reduce emissions as soon as possible.

These targets can take a variety of forms, but the most straightforward (following the rates set by the SBTi as of September 2021) is to:

  • Reduce your Scope 1 and 2 carbon footprint in absolute terms by at least 2 per cent annually
  • Reduce your Scope 3 carbon footprint in absolute terms by at least 5 per cent annually (this is optional for SMEs going through the formal SBTi process, but measuring Scope 3 is considered a minimum)
  • Achieve an absolute reduction in your total carbon footprint of at least 90 per cent overall by 2050 or sooner.

If you want to read the detail behind these numbers, you can find them in the SBTi’s Net Zero Manual. More guidance is also available via the Carbon Trust and if you want your targets to be formally verified, you can find information about the SBTi’s streamlined verification route for SMEs here.

The SBTi criteria are not dissimilar to the SME Climate Commitment that is backed by UK government. This commitment asks you to:

  • Halve your absolute carbon footprint (Scope 1, 2 and business travel as a minimum) by 2030
  • Achieve net zero before 2050, with at least a 90 per cent absolute reduction in your total carbon footprint.


Watch out for carbon offsetting

Science-based targets are about taking direct responsibility for the emissions we produce. With that in mind, under the SBTi protocols, carbon offsets cannot be counted towards them; organisations can only count the direct reductions they make themselves.

This makes the targets more difficult to achieve, but with good reason. To get the most benefit out of your carbon reduction journey, offsets should always be the last resort. You can read more about that in our guide to offsetting.

Beginner’s guide to carbon offsetting

Get support

It’s important to think through your targets carefully (although the SME Climate Commitment is a good basis to work from), and you also need a robust plan in place to achieve them. If you’re new to all of this and need support, consider joining our Journey to Net Zero programme – a fully-funded online course of group workshops and guidance to understand your carbon footprint and build your own strategic plan towards net zero. Our specialist Resource Efficiency Service is also on hand to offer one-to-one support.

Join Journey to Net Zero

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