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Beware Science Based Targets, they may not be enough

Science Based Targets are being promoted as a clever way to help business set greenhouse gas emission reductions targets that fit with the science of climate change and the commitment to keep global warming to below two degrees Celsius, driving ambitious corporate climate action.


Using global emissions data and IPCC projections, the method defines the total remaining global carbon emissions budget then allocates this out to sectors. Companies can then determine their own pathway within this budget for their direct emissions as well as their value chain emissions. The logic seems sound. And if we assume the maths is OK, it leaves us with the science.

Science Based Targets rightly use the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report from 2014 as the source of the “science”.

This report probably brings together more intellectual horsepower from around the globe than any other report, on any subject ever, to try to understand carbon emissions and global warming. It’s the report that says that manmade greenhouse emissions are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

The Fifth Assessment Report also provides a summary of the global carbon budget that would limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius with a probability of greater than 66 per cent.

That’s where the language is disconcerting: probability. The modelling is so complex and there’s so little known of the effects of global warming that the scientists apply probabilities because nothing about future scenarios is certain.

In other words, sticking to the carbon budget gives something less than a one in three chance that global warming will exceed two degrees Celsius. Given that temperature trends seem to be tracking upwards at rates closer to some of the extreme projections from not that long ago the odds of limiting growth below two degrees Celsius are reducing quickly.

We know that the Queensland, Victorian, ACT and NSW state governments have already set net zero emission targets by 2050 and several leading property companies in Australia have set net zero targets to be achieved before 2030 or 2040.

There are 125 companies with certified targets on the Science Based Targets website and only some of them seem to have goals as ambitious as our own state governments. The failure to solicit targets of zero emissions, apart from a couple of outliers, even if on a longer timeframe than many of the current commitments, is concerning.

The companies that volunteer a target are among the global leaders in understanding their role in emissions abatement.

You could have expected a vigorous pursuit of accelerated emission reductions. What happened to “driving ambitious corporate climate action”? Maybe these targets really are as good as you can get from businesses and we must thank Science Based Targets for even gaining these, sometimes weak, commitments.

Take a look at some of those on the Science Based Targets website:

  • Walmart: American multinational retailing corporation Walmart commits to reduce absolute scope 1 and scope 2 GHG (Greenhouse gas emissions) emissions 18 per cent by 2025, from 2015 levels. Walmart will also work to reduce CO2e emissions from upstream and downstream scope 3 sources by one billion tonnes between 2015 and 2030.
  • Marks & Spencer: British multinational retailer Marks & Spencer commits to reduce absolute scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions 80 per cent by 2030 below 2007 levels and has a longer term vision to achieve 90 per cent absolute GHG emissions reductions by 2035, below 2007 levels. Marks & Spencer also commits to reduce scope 3 GHG emissions by 13.3 million metric tonnes of CO2e between 2017 and 2030.
  • Panasonic: Japanese multinational electronics corporation Panasonic commits to reduce scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions 30 per cent by 2030, from a 2013 base-year, and to zero by 2050. Panasonic also commits to reduce scope 3 GHG emissions from the use of sold products 30 per cent by 2030, from a 2013 base-year.
  • Origin Energy: Australian energy company Origin Energy commits to reduce scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions 50 per cent by 2032 from a 2017 base-year. The company also commits to reduce scope 3 emissions 25 per cent over the same time-period.
  • Pepsico Inc: Multinational food, snack, and beverage corporation PepsiCo commits to working to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions across its value chain (scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3) by at least 20 per cent by 2030 from a 2015 base year.
  • Danone: Multi-national food company, Danone commits to reduce scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions 30 percent by 2030, from a 2015 base year. Danone also commits to reduce scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 emissions per ton of sold product 50 per cent by 2030, from a 2015 base year. Danone will adjust its science-based targets a full calendar year after the recently-acquired White Wave company has been fully integrated into Danone’s inventory boundaries.
  • IKEA: Swedish-founded furniture group IKEA Group (INGKA Holding B.V.) commits to reduce absolute scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions 80 per cent by financial year 2030, from financial year 2016. For scope 3, IKEA Group also commits to reduce GHG emissions from customer and co-worker travel and customer deliveries by 50 per cent in relative terms. Inter IKEA Group, which is responsible for developing the IKEA range and supply chain, commits to reduce emissions relating to home furnishing products and food by at least 15 per cent in absolute terms for the same period.
  • Unilever plc: Dutch-British transnational consumer goods company, Unilever commits to reduce scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions 100 per cent by 2030 from a 2015 base year. The company also commits to reduce GHG emissions from the life-cycle of their products 50 per cent per consumer use by 2030 from a 2010 base-year.

The focus on scope 3 emissions in Science Based Targets is a welcome inclusion. If every company had already adopted a rational target it wouldn’t be necessary as scope 3 emissions are someone else’s scope 1 or scope 2 emissions from upstream or downstream of the business process. Scanning the Science Based Targets didn’t reveal any companies targeting zero emissions from scope 3.

Applying a scope 3 strategy to Australian property companies could increasingly see construction emissions included in the discussion as well as tenant related emissions, both ideas that Green Star and NABERS are well into. Scope 3 emissions are areas of influence, rather than control, for property owners, and proving tougher to commit to. After all, take the scope 3 argument to its conclusion and you’ve taken responsibility for the total of global emissions.

What the scientists are telling us in the IPPC Fifth Assessment Report is that “substantial cuts in GHG emissions over the next few decades can substantially reduce risks of climate change by limiting warming in the second half of the 21st century and beyond.”

Every tonne of emissions cut today contributes to increasing the probability of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius.

There’s clearly one true Science Based Target, one that comes without the bureaucracy of dealing with another NGO and another set of reporting. One that’s based on science, ethics and understanding probabilities, and that’s zero emissions now for scope 1 and scope 2, work it out for scope 3, and if not now, as soon as you can.

Bruce Precious is the Principal Consultant at Six Capitals Consulting

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Comments

2 Responses to “Beware Science Based Targets, they may not be enough”

  • Kristian Hardiman says:

    It’s an interesting article and some really good points made. I’m a tad curious why the author promoted net zero emissions targets as inherently more ambitious? Net targets, more often then not, will require offsetting and indeed can shift responsibility away from emissions reductions initiatives. A SBT does not rule out a company also setting a neutrality target alongside, but it possibly shows more ambition that the target must demonstrate absolute emissions reductions targets. A company could in theory still offset whatever remains after those calculations. I certainly think SBT has areas to be ambitious, especially for sectors with high Scope 3, but not sure if neutral targets are way forward

  • linda says:

    Dear Bruce
    Please make this easier to understand for the normal reader of Fifth Estate – not trying to be difficult but if the message is to get around as it must for change to happen …..
    Cheers
    linda

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