Notes: Science-Based Targets

“Setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in line with climate science is a great way to future-proof growth.”

Science Based TargetsThis headline from the first page of the website for the Science-Based Targets Initiative sums up their approach succinctly. It involves (a) using scientific methods and existing scientific consensus (b) to determine an organization’s fair share of greenhouse emissions reduction, on a timeline that also aligns with  science-based international climate agreements, while (c) maintaining something close to business as usual — “growth” in this case means steadily increasing revenues, profits, and market share — in the process.

Here is the formal definition:

Targets adopted by companies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are considered “science-based” if they are in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increase below 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures, as described in the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

[Applies to the 4th or 5th AR (Assessment Report) of IPCC as well as modeling of the IEA (International Energy Agency).]

The technical note in brackets is part of the formal definition. While this specificity makes the definition seem extremely robust, it is important to keep in mind that that the IPCC’s work is based on numerous climate models, which in turn rely on both past scientific data and a great many assumptions about the future. One of those assumptions is how much carbon dioxide will be removed from the atmosphere in the future, by technologies that either have not yet been developed or that will be scaled up to enormous proportions in the coming decades. If those technologies do not materialize, the “level of decarbonization required” is likely to be much higher.

The Initiative, run by a consortium of prominent global organizations, also presents science-based targets — “SBTs” — as the best way to minimize uncertainty (i.e. “future-proof”) with regard to business prospects. Predicting future business success is much less certain than predicting future global temperature rise, so this promise of future business success, implied by the SBT Initiative, is not based on similarly scientific methods.

The concept of SBTs does not just apply to the operations of a company, but to its core products as well. The SBT Initiative has even described how oil and gas companies can participate, by setting science-based targets and timelines for steadily reducing their production of fossil fuels and replacing these products with other, renewable forms of energy products and services.

Note that the phrase “science-based targets,” used in connection with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, has been around since at least 1992*; but it only began to gain serious traction after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which established a broad international consensus around the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degress C or less.

* See, for example, “Convention on climate change: economic aspects of negotiations,” OECD, 1992, p. 22-23.

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