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Blog Post 13 April 2022 Updated 9 May 2024

What is a science-based sustainability target?

As business net zero targets become more common, they are starting to come under increasing scrutiny, with recent analysis finding that some targets cover just 40% of company emissions.

This can erode consumer trust in an organisation if carbon reduction methods are half-hearted or if the company is seen to be greenwashing. When making a sustainability strategy for your organisation, you’ll want to use honest, measurable and achievable targets that are grounded in science.

A science-based target can help your company commit to long-term emission reductions.  A target is considered science-based if it is in line with the latest climate science to meet the Paris Agreement to limit climate change to below 2°C, or preferably 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels. Setting such a target can help inform a step-by-step route to increased emission reductions, helping the UK achieve its net zero target by 2050 and address the climate emergency.

Why does a science-based target matter for you?

Businesses of all sizes have an important role to play in addressing the climate emergency. Having a science-based target will show you exactly how much and how quickly you’ll need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Science-based targets can work for organisations of any size. However, according to a survey by the SME Climate Hub, two in three SMEs don’t think they have the skills needed to transition to net zero, which means setting targets can be difficult.

Larger organisations are more likely to have the knowledge and capability to set science-based targets as part of a wider sustainability strategy, but for smaller organisations, hiring a sustainability professional or consultancy can help them understand how to achieve net zero or the logistics of creating a science-based target.

What are science-based targets?

  1. They account for the global greenhouse gas emissions that have ended up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
  2. They estimate the volume of future emissions that can still end up in the atmosphere while maintaining the increase in global temperatures to 2.


Is there guidance to help set a target?

Last year, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) launched a framework that provides clearly defined pathways to reduce GHG emissions. This includes both short-term and long-term pathways that will help futureproof organisations against the worst impacts of climate change as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR).

A science-based target can be your framework to reaching net zero as part of a long-term sustainability strategy. To reach net zero by 2050, our global economy needs to halve GHG emissions by 2030.

To commit to the SBTi, larger companies (with over 500 employees) will need to set science-based targets for all Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions and get their proposal validated. SMEs do not need to set targets for their Scope 3 emissions, however they must commit to measuring and reducing them.

Where to start?

The first step in creating and implementing a science-based target is to make a business case. Convincing leadership teams and important stakeholders will require an investment plan that balances the greatest sustainability improvements against financial restraints.

Here are some measurable areas you should consider in your case for a science-based target:

  • Direct energy use: A large portion of your carbon emissions will be from direct energy use. Measuring, understanding and highlighting opportunities for reduction is an important stage to identify savings.
  • Energy efficiency: Improving your organisation’s energy efficiency through staff behavioural change and replacing inefficient equipment can be a cost-effective route to operational savings.
  • Renewables and low carbon transport: Looking out for opportunities to install renewable technology and switch company fleets to electric can be an appealing long-term measure. Consider cost projections as these technologies become increasingly affordable.
  • Stakeholder engagement: Identifying and engaging with key stakeholders throughout your organisation is imperative. Give evidence that making reductions in line with a science-based target is possible.

One you have internal buy-in, you can begin by making a science-based target commitment through the SBTi. Once your organisation has committed, you’ll have up to two years to develop your goal.

After you’ve submitted your target, SBTi will verify if it’s realistic and either approve it if they can validate it against science-based criteria, or communicate with detailed feedback if it needs additional work.

Make a start

What are the challenges?

Even with buy-in from stakeholders, achieving a science-based target will require work and commitment from many different areas within your organisation.

Framing your target using terms such as ‘risk’, ‘opportunities’, ‘revenue’ and ‘reputation’, instead of using sustainability jargon, can help convince decision-makers to support your goal. A sustainability lead can help with this.

It’s also important to show staff regular progress towards the target, as this can help them understand the importance of wider sustainability. If you don’t have a sustainability lead or lack internal resources, then consider outsourcing an external sustainability professional to help.

What are the benefits?

With over 2,000 businesses using science-based targets to reduce their climate impact, the benefits are already being seen. They include:

  • Long-term and permanent GHG emission reductions.
  • Introduction of low carbon technology to accelerate emissions reductions.
  • Improved organisational reputation and evidence for CSR.
  • Sustainability knowledge for leadership and stakeholders.
  • Increased buy-in from employees at all levels.
  • Long-term cost savings from direct energy savings.

What happens if science-based targets are missed?

If we’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s to be prepared for the unexpected. It’s important to communicate any setbacks to stakeholders who are invested in the science-based target you’ve set – this means giving progress updates and calculating how any minor setbacks will be addressed.

In the worst-case scenario, companies can withdraw from the initiative, but milestone deadlines can always be recalculated to reflect significant changes in circumstance. You will need to recalculate your actual science-based target if your Scope 3 emissions become the majority emissions group, your company structure changes significantly, or your growth projections drop significantly.

Going beyond a science-based target

Setting a science-based target is a great way to commit your organisation to reducing carbon emissions as part of a wider sustainability strategy.

With new policies coming into force and renewable technologies continuing to improve, you may need to adapt your sustainability strategy to ensure it offers the greatest benefit to the environment and to your customers. Make sure that strategy is underpinned by a science-based target.

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Last updated: 9 May 2024