Can we implement science-based targets for oceans and cities?

city buildings with an ocean background
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This article is drawn from the GreenBuzz newsletter from GreenBiz, running Mondays.

Over the past few years, the idea of science-based targets — simply put, goals that commit companies to address their fair share of climate pollution and align with the goals of the Paris Agreement — gradually has taken off.

This year in particular has seen "a surge" of corporate commitments, according to the Science-Based Targets Initiative, a coalition of NGOs that independently assesses and approves companies’ targets: Since January, more than 130 companies have joined SBTI, a 40 percent increase over the same period in 2017, incuding AB InBev, Adidas, IKEA, Kraft Heinz, Michelin, Salesforce, Stanley Black & Decker, United Airlines and Yamaha Motor Co.

All told, SBTI members represent a combined market cap of nearly $10 trillion, and nearly a fifth of Fortune Global 500 companies.

Not every company that has set a science-based target is a member of SBTI, resulting in the type of bragging rights we’ve seen in the past related to LEED building certification, zero-waste goals, renewable energy commitments and other sustainability initiatives and achievements: The first LEED Silver-certified nail salon, or some other highly specific "first."

Example: Tyson Foods, which announced its intention to set science-based climate goals earlier this year, on Thursday became one of the latest companies to join SBTI, "the first U.S. protein company in the food and beverage sector to receive such an approval," according to its press release. However, in February, Cargill, another global meat giant, aligned its climate goals with science-based targets, although it hasn’t joined SBTI. Technically, of course, Tyson's claim is correct.

The point is, setting a science-based target has become a corporate badge of honor, not to mention a transparent public commitment to a defensible goal to which it can be held, and can hold itself, accountable.

Given the success of science-based climate targets, why not apply such goals to other sustainability challenges?

That was the topic of a workshop I facilitated last week at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York. The event, in its second year, was part of Climate Week, which coincides with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. The summit’s stated mission is "to raise ambition and turn commitments into action on climate change and sustainable development."

WEF, of course, is the organization that puts on the storied annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, each January. Its events draw a high-level audience. For example, my session included the board chair of a global beverage company, the CEO of a global finance organization, the executive secretary of a multilateral biodiversity organization and senior sustainability executives from companies on four continents. (The event was held under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that participants and their organizations could not be publicly identified.)

The session, "Delivering the SDGs through Science-Based Targets," was built around a nascent effort among a group of global NGOs to establish science-based targets for things other than climate — namely, for water, land systems, oceans, biodiversity and cities.

Yes, I know: Each of these things is different from the others, and all are different from climate change. Water systems, for example, are hyperlocal, not to mention temporal, changing from place to place, season to season and year to year, as well as the rate of withdrawal by humans and replenishment by the hydrologic cycle. A water goal for a city will be different from that of an agricultural community, and a temperate region different than a tropical one. Similarly, preserving biodiversity depends on a range of factors, specific to biome type, the nature of development and many other things.

And oceans — whose responsibility are they, besides companies whose livelihoods are directly connected, such as fishing and shipping operations? What’s everyone’s "fair share" of oceanic stewardship?

Therein lie the challenges ahead.

The challenges don’t seem to be stopping this group of NGOs, many of the same organizations that created the SBTI, the Global Reporting Initiative, CDP and other initiatives in which hundreds of large companies already have participated. Last week in New York, the group met to advance a Science-Based Targets Network that would develop frameworks and goals in these new areas. The NGOs are cheered on by a small group of leadership companies that want to push themselves, their competitors and their trading partners to go further, faster on sustainability in general, and the Sustainable Development Goals in particular.

Look for more on this early next year.

Creating such goals can go a long way toward ensuring companies’ sustainability initiatives are truly moving the needle, and to counter claims of greenwashing among critics. And the NGOs needn’t stop with even these five emerging topics. Could there be a science-based target for corporate commitments to ending poverty or hunger? How about reducing inequality or ensuring gender equity?

True, the "science" of measuring these things will be thorny, to say the least, but without knowing exactly how to achieve a particular destination, how will we know if we're on the right path?

If companies can truly demonstrate that they are doing their "fair share" in solving the world’s biggest environmental and social challenges, as determined by agreed-upon scientifically derived metrics, then they — and we — will stand a chance of actually succeeding.

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