Photo: A power plant in Florida. Today, the Science Based Targets initiative launched a new report laying out the foundation for credible, science-based net-zero targets for the corporate sector.
Pledges to zero out greenhouse gas emissions are fast emerging as the corporate climate commitment du jour. But how can consumers, investors and other stakeholders be sure a company’s net-zero target translates into meaningful action?
Some companies claim net-zero emissions based on the purchase of carbon offsets, for example, but does this really move the needle on climate change? And what types of emissions need to be eliminated in order to qualify a company as net-zero, only their operational emissions or also those from their supply chains?
The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is looking to provide some answers for companies and their stakeholders. Launched in 2015, SBTi is a partnership between CDP, the U.N. Global Compact, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and WWF. As its name implies, the coalition pushes companies to adopt GHG targets that are “science-based” — in other words, they go beyond what seems attainable for a company and align with what science tells us is required to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.
After five years of certifying corporate goals based on available science, this week the SBTi kickstarted a process to develop what it calls the “first science-based global standard” specifically for net-zero targets.
A paper released on Tuesday outlines the basic foundation for net-zero targets that align with the global push to achieve net-zero global emissions by 2050, as outlined in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The report clears up some basic questions, such as what kind of emissions should be included in net-zero targets and what exactly it means to zero out a company’s emissions.
The Paris climate agreement calls on governments, businesses and civil society to cap global temperature rise at “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, which climate scientists agree is key to prevent the most disastrous effects of climate change. In order to achieve this, GHG emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and ultimately reach net-zero by 2050.
The SBTi certifies corporate climate goals if they align with this trajectory. To date, more than 970 companies have committed to set science-based targets and 460 have targets validated by the initiative.
Further, the SBTi’s Business Ambition for 1.5C campaign targets global companies to commit and set GHG reduction targets that align with climate science, with 279 companies signing on so far. This campaign defines a company’s success by its reduction of GHG emissions in value chain activities or by compensating for any contributions through direct carbon-removal tactics such as reforestation or soil carbon sequestration, rather than solely through the purchase of offsets.
According to SBTi’s most recent report, more than 300 billion tons of GHG emissions have been incurred by human activity in the past decade. It’s clear that to stop this number from increasing and to achieve the goals of this campaign, there needs to be accountability from global companies — and accountability is possible with a universal foundation.
In order for net-zero targets to be science-based, they must meet two requirements, according to SBTi: Targets must first meet decarbonization requirements which prevent global temperature from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, and any GHG emissions that cannot be omitted must be balanced with the equivalent removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide or carbon-removal tactics.
This SBTi report undertakes the current issue of corporate targets not being easily calculable. Its criteria cover three areas. Targets must include boundary (whether targets cover areas: geographical, operation, etc.), timeframe (establishing short and long-term targets) and mitigation (neutralizing, compensating emissions, etc.).
Still, it can be difficult to quantify the impact of some corporate climate targets. With its framework, SBTI aims to provide clarity to stakeholders and help companies align with climate science. Primarily, all net-zero targets should include three criteria, according to SBTi: a boundary, either geographically or with respect to departments within the company; a timeframe that establishes both short- and long-term targets, and plans to mitigate emissions, either through neutralization or direct compensation.
Reducing value chain emissions is a key priority for the coalition. In other words: It’s not enough for a company to make its operations more efficient or switch to renewable energy — it must also account for (and mitigate) the emissions created by suppliers and customers. And offsetting is not the only solution, SBTi insists. To that end, science-based criteria sets a foundation for the business sector to follow. With the goal of standardizing these processes, we can collect data, hold leaders accountable to their commitments, and translate company visions into tangible plans of action.
To do this, the partners driving SBTi insist business leaders must hone in on their operations and supply chains and implement changes from the inside out. Companies must not only balance climate change objectives and profit, but also scrutinize their partnerships and value chains. The SBTi will continue to engage with partners to translate this initial criteria into a global standard.
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