Science-Based Targets (SBTs) – helping to prevent the world from warming up by more than 2 degrees

There is no denying that climate change is now widely recognized as the major problem facing the earth. Climate change is going to directly impact human health, livelihoods and the economy. Extreme weather, drought, heatwaves, sea level rises, storms and floods will all cause irreversible damage to infrastructure and agriculture. If humans want to reverse this, emissions of CO2 need to be cut immediately!

Luckily, we have had COP21 where agreements were made to limit global warming to 2°C. And please also take a look at our January blog. There we argued that stricter guidelines and regulations on emission reduction and energy consumption targets were to be expected.

However, as things go, the market is already ahead of policy makers. For instance with new target setting initiatives and benchmarks. A first concrete example of this is the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTI), a partnership between CDP, UN Global Compact, WRI and WWF. SBTI aims to support organisations in taking emission target setting to the next level. But what are science-based targets?  Why are they needed? What are the benefits and how can business integrate them in their strategy?

What are Science-Based Targets?

Science-based targets (SBTs) are organizational targets that are in line with scientifically confirmed requirements for the transition to a low carbon economy through which we can stay within the 2 degree threshold. The efforts around the 2 degree approach are then cascaded to countries’ sectors and organisations. One method used to determine such targets is the Sectoral Decarbonization Approach (SDA). [1]

The underlying idea of science-based targets is pretty simple. Currently, most organisations have integrated emission reduction, climate change, or environmental goals into their short- and long-term strategies. They have set relevant targets for their own operations or even expanded these efforts to their value chain.

But how can we ensure that all the ambitions and efforts contribute to staying within the 2°C limit, and at the pace climate scientists believe is needed? This is where science-based targets become relevant. The more organisations that align their greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts to the science-based targets, the higher the probability of limiting climate change consequences. All thanks to concept of critical mass effects.

But why?

We all want to protect the planet we live on. The more we work on this together, the bigger the impact and the more streamlined efforts will be. That is the most obvious benefit of SBT.

But there are more benefits to be had for organizations, especially for the big players who have a huge impact because of their size and global footprint. They now have a validated way of setting their targets while simultaneously linking their efforts to the world’s biggest threat. Additional benefits are a closer alignment with the requirements of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) which in turn will satisfy investors. Another big advantage is that, with comparable targets, benchmarking between companies becomes much easier and a level playing field is created.

How do we work with Science-Based Targets?

The remaining question and challenge concerns how science-based targets can be applied. The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTI) provides a manual covering this and an overview of the different methodologies that can be used to align GHG emission reduction efforts to science-based targets. According to the SBTI, a 3 stage process should be followed to integrate SBTs into practice.

  1. Getting started
    1. Make the business case
    2. Understand the methods
  2. Setting the Science-Based Target
    1. Choose a SBT method
    2. Determine the target
  3. Announcing and implementing
    1. Gain internal buy-in
    2. Report and communicate
    3. Implement

Organizations should create a business case to enable them to understand the relevance and impact for their own business. This also helps create an understanding about their needs and so identify a SBT method that best suits their organization. Having identified a method, such as (a) the Context-based Carbon Metric (CSO), which allows for multiple scenarios covering different regions, target years or industries, or (b) the 3% Solution, focusing on reducing energy-related corporate emissions by 3.2% by 2020, the target can be set accordingly.

Of course the process does not end after having determined the SBT. Crucial steps for a successful integration include getting commitment from internal stakeholders and decision makers, reporting and communicating the target, and implementing initiatives in order to make the target achievement possible.

So let’s see if can make this thing big! Let’s make our ambitions bigger and bolder and send a signal to policy-makers that companies really are willing to accept their responsibilities as regards saving the world. Right now is always a good time to get started and find out how SBTs can be integrated within your organization!

Nick de Ruiter is a partner at Sustainalize. He is a specialist in CSR strategy setting and performance monitoring.

Lena Hülsmann is a consultant at Sustainalize for the German speaking markets. She is a specialist in CSR target setting, benchmarking and reporting.


[1] Science-Based Targets Initiative (2015). SECTORAL DECARBONIZATION APPROACH (SDA): A method for setting corporate emission reduction targets in line with climate science. Retrieved from

[1] Science-Based Targets Initiative (2015). SECTORAL DECARBONIZATION APPROACH (SDA): A method for setting corporate emission reduction targets in line with climate science. Retrieved from