Skip to main content

Science-based targets look beyond carbon

It's hard to overstate the challenge in broadening the science-based approach for land use, water and biodiversity.

The following is adapted from State of Green Business 2019, published by GreenBiz in partnership with S&P Global Trucost.

In 2015, a group of nonprofit organizations came together to help companies create GHG emissions reduction targets that were in line with the 2 degree Celsius goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. In other words, that companies would reduce their "fair share" of emissions relative to their size, sector and other factors.

In its first 18 months of operation, 200 companies committed to doing so. Nearly four years into the initiative, that number has grown to more than 500 companies. In relatively little time, "science-based targets" became the gold standard for companies, cities and others seeking to establish credible goals for reducing their contributions to climate change.

Now, a new initiative, created by many of those same nonprofit organizations, is looking into how to set science-based targets for other environmental impacts, including those for water, land use, biodiversity and oceans. Last fall, a group of about 25 organizations formed the Science-Based Targets Network to consider undertaking this complex task.

Science-based targets make sense, particularly in a world where the global commons — the natural capital humans rely upon to support life, grow food and provide fresh water, among many other things — are governed in widely different ways, from nation to nation and region to region. By creating a set of standard goals and methodologies rooted in science, companies and other interested parties can assess whether they are implementing solutions at the appropriate scope and scale.

Those goals can go a long way to ensuring that humans stay within what scientists call 'planetary boundaries.'
Those goals can go a long way to ensuring that humans stay within what scientists call "planetary boundaries," the parameters within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations. Exceeding those boundaries means consuming resources at a rate faster than they can be replenished by natural systems.

The concept has significant implications for companies. "Companies need to link planetary boundaries to their core business model by decoupling economic growth from the impact on planetary limits and linking economic growth with the delivery of social thresholds," according to a 2016 report by British consultancy Article 13.

Now, that concept may be extended beyond GHG emissions to other parts of the global commons.

Over the past year, more than 250 people have pitched in to develop the Science-based Targets Network, with representatives from BSR, CDP, Ceres, the U.N. Global Compact, the WEF, World Resources Institute (WRI), the We Mean Business Coalition, the WBCSD and WWF, among other organizations.

The group has its work cut out for it. Creating science-based targets for things such as land use and biodiversity will push the boundaries of both scientific knowledge and corporate governance. What is an individual organization’s "fair share" of preserving biodiversity or stewarding the health of oceans? How do you measure those impacts and allot responsibility across companies, sectors and national borders?

Water may be the easiest of these to tackle, primarily because of the amount of work that’s already been done to promote water stewardship around the world.

"Water is something that companies can imagine that they’re having an impact on, and that impact should be measured and they should understand what that is in absolute terms, as opposed to ‘We’re using less water,’" consultant Randall Krantz says. He works with the Science-BasedTargets Network through the Swiss-based consulting network Value Web, a network of process facilitators working in sustainability.

Some companies already have started. Mars, the global manufacturer of candy, pet food and other products, in 2016 developed "context-based" water targets in partnership with WRI. The goals recommended basing total water withdrawals within a given watershed at or below 40 percent of the annual average renewable available supplies, as identified by the United Nations.

Creating science-based targets for things such as land use and biodiversity will push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and corporate governance.
The company’s diverse global supply chain includes many water-dependent commodities: cereals; fats and oils; nuts; meat and fish; dairy products; and commodities such as sugar, cocoa and mint. Among the biggest part of its water footprint is irrigating the rice products sold under its Uncle Ben’s brand, much of it sourced from water-stressed locations in India, Pakistan and Spain.

Mars’ Sustainable in a Generation water-withdrawal goal, a science-based target, strives to make significant cuts to its agricultural irrigation in waterstressed areas. The long-term ambition "is to ensure water use in our value chain is within annually renewable levels by watershed," according to Mars Global Site Sustainability Manager Ian Knight.

Meanwhile, International Paper, the packaging, pulp and paper giant, last year partnered with WWF to take on forests, and to encourage what WWF has dubbed "forest positive" actions. The collaboration will help answer the question of the quantity and quality of forestland needed for the planet to thrive, with the goal of creating the world’s first science-based targets for forests.

Developing and harnessing such goals will be essential in the coming years, as climate change and population growth conspire to further stress natural resources. For example, it is estimated that global water demand will increase by 55 percent by 2050, and more than 40 percent of the global population will be living in areas of severe water stress. The lessons learned by companies such as Mars and International Paper about setting science-based targets will inform how, and how quickly, other companies can move forward with setting their own goals.

The difficulty of this endeavor cannot be overstated.
The difficulty of this endeavor cannot be overstated. Each goal presents complex questions for companies and stakeholders in creating meaningful metrics, avoiding double counting of benefits, engaging suppliers and effectively communicating the goals and outcomes to the full spectrum of stakeholders.

For now, the Science-Based Targets Network is just getting organized. It met in January, at the 2019 WEF annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, to resolve some governance issues this sizable and potentially unwieldy group of organizations will need to operate effectively. There are the usual funding challenges of any nascent nonprofit. There is the need for a roadmap for developing guidelines and getting public comments, then piloting frameworks with a handful of leadership companies before rolling them out.

And there’s no guarantee that what comes out of the process will be embraced, not just by companies, but also investors, activists, communities and policy makers. More to come on that during 2019. If it works, the notion of leveraging science to determine how to take on complex environmental challenges could play a key role in accelerating progress on addressing climate change and pressing resource issues.

Key players to watch

Mars — the global purveyor of candy, pet foods and other products is an early leader in science-based targets for climate, land and water impacts.

Science-Based Targets Initiative — a coalition of five partner NGOs, it is the principal organization providing guidelines and guidance for creating science-based GHG goals.

Science-Based Targets Network — a consortium of roughly 25 nonprofit organizations and more than 200 individuals working to develop science-based targets for water, land use, biodiversity and oceans. Currently in formation.

We Mean Business Coalition — the coalition of seven leading sustainable business NGOs — The B Team, BSR, CDP, Ceres, Climate Group, the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders’ Group and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development — is taking a leading role in the Science-Based Targets Network.

World Resources Institute (WRI) — its Science-Based Targets Initiative has led the way in developing emissions-reduction goals for carbon and has worked with companies to develop goals for water and other issues.

More on this topic