Take these 9 steps to demystify science-based targets

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The technical requirements may look daunting at first, but taking science-based targets one step at a time delivers measurable benefits.

More companies are setting greenhouse-gas emission targets in line with what science says is needed to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures. More than 300 corporations from around the world representing many sectors have made commitments to set Science-Based Targets (SBTs).

This is unsurprising, considering all the benefits. In addition to knowing that your company is doing its fair share to address climate change, science-based targets can help your company to drive innovation, build credibility with stakeholders, and increase its resilience.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to join the movement. The Science-Based Target Initiative (SBTi) provides many free online resources and a process for creating, validating and communicating your target. It's a joint effort of the CDP, U.N. Global Compact, World Resources Institute and Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Perhaps your company has not yet set greenhouse-gas emissions targets, or you've created targets without the benefit of the SBT approach. Maybe you're overwhelmed by the technical requirements involved.

We at the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative's SHIFT.tools project have broken down the process into nine simple steps you can take, no matter your company size or sector, to begin the journey. For each step below, you'll find links to several tools and resources based upon our online platform:

1. Know the targets

Understand what science-based targets are, why they are important for the planet and how they differ from the traditional approaches to setting GHG emission targets. The first step to setting a science-based target is to understand how it differs from traditional targets and what the business case is for taking this approach.

2. Make the case

Gain buy-in from your colleagues and leadership from the start by involving them in the process, making a strong business case for change and helping them figure out how to meet the targets, no matter how ambitious. The SBTi website and SBT manual include several examples of how companies who already have set SBTis made the case internally, such as how to help make the business case for sustainability. In the more challenging conversations, be sure to avoid these pitfalls of advocacy for sustainability, and use the conversation tools described in the book "Breaking Through Gridlock."

3. Know the methods

Understand the three basic components of any SBT methodology, all of which start with the premise that there is only so much carbon that can be emitted while staying within a 2-degree-Celsius limit. The SBT methods use emissions scenarios to predict carbon levels over time — some of which are tied to specific sectors and geographic regions.

The models then look at how that carbon should be divvied up among companies to stay within the carbon budget. Depending on the allocation approach, that divvying up might or might not be along sector and regional lines. Different allocation approaches also produce different types of targets, such as physical intensity versus absolute emissions.

4. Know the data

Know the data you will need to input into distinct types of SBT methods. For example, what year did you start tracking emissions data and for what scopes? For an SBT method to "work," certain data inputs are required that result in the method’s output. The data needed varies by SBT methodology. Determine how you will gather this relevant data for your company, and to what extent it is even available before you select an SBT method.

5. Learn the methodologies

Understand the various methodologies you might use to create the target. They incorporate different allocation approaches and create different types of targets (such as absolute vs. economic intensity). Depending on your sector and what kind of data you have available as inputs, you may prefer one method over another.

6. Set the target

Set your target using your chosen method. This part of the process is very similar to the steps laid out in the GHG Protocol Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard. The output of a method is the target itself, which can be expressed in absolute terms (such as 30 percent reduction in emissions, or minus-20 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent) or as an intensity metric, reducing emissions relative to a physical or financial business activity (such as 10 metric ton of CO2 equivalent per dollar of revenue).

7. Validate the target

Get your target validated by a knowledgeable, objective third party such as the SBTi. During the target-making process, you need to make a lot of decisions about what methods to use, how to establish scopes, and how to frame your targets. Getting your target validated can give you the confidence to know that your decisions were backed by the best science.

8. Communicate the target

Communicate your target following the reporting principles noted in chapter 9 of the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard including relevance, completeness, consistency, transparency and accuracy. Evaluate where to disclose your target and how you want to present your target to reach different audiences with your message.

9. Make it happen

Implement your target. You may want to explore emissions reduction strategies best suited to your company's industry. For example, transportation companies may focus on fuel efficiency while a consumer goods company looks to product innovation. Broad categories of emissions reduction measures include energy efficiency, low-carbon or renewable energy, biological carbon sequestration and Scope 3 reduction (for example, supplier standards, business travel, waste diversion).

Don't let fear of the unknown stop you from joining the ranks of hundreds of companies taking a science-based targets approach.