carbon footprintThe latest thing in Sustainability is 'Science-based Targets'. The basic idea is to use the carbon emissions trajectory that the IPCC says is required to stick to 2°C of warming and apportion that reduction to your organisation's carbon footprint either in absolute terms, via a sector-based target, or based on your turnover. I always think it is worth questioning whether the 'latest thing' stands up to the hype or not, so here is my take.

The advantages I see of the science-based approach are:

  • You can be reasonably sure that you are committing to your 'fair share' of emissions cuts;
  • It will communicate the scale of the challenge to stakeholders and decision makers;
  • You can point to other organisations (preferably competitors) who are using science-based targets;
  • Many, but by no means all, will see 'science based' as a seal of approval for the target.

The disadvantages are:

  • Setting the target is almost certainly going to have to be outsourced to a third party, losing an element of ownership ('The boffins say we have to do X' is weaker than 'Let's do X!');
  • Some see 'science', particularly climate science, as alien and/or unreliable – you could be inviting a long debate featuring all your favourite zombie climate myths;
  • The targets can be more difficult to communicate. When setting a target based on UK Government emissions trajectories (i.e. effectively science-based) with a client, we extrapolated a 38% cut in 10 years and rounded it up to 40%, but the board bumped this up to 50% to give it a more simple tagline "We're going to halve our carbon footprint";
  • There are many examples where the best in Sustainability are cutting emissions much more quickly than the science-based trajectory. Given that not everybody is doing their 'fair share', the slack is going to have to be taken up by somebody. And, collectively, why aim for 2°C if we can do better?
  • The emphasis of the approach is on scope 1 and 2 emissions (i.e. on-site emissions and power, respectively); the requirements are quite a bit looser on scope 3 (supply chain and sold product) emissions. This reinforces the idea that scope 1 and 2 are your main concerns, rather than promoting innovation in your whole business model which almost always has a bigger impact on carbon emissions.

So, would I recommend science-based targets?

If your organisation is a bit complacent in regard to its carbon emissions, then science-based targets could provide a much needed kick up the backside for key decision makers. You should be prepared to use a bit of green jujitsu to translate them into a form which appeals to your wider audience if necessary.

However, if you want to be at the forefront of Sustainability, then 'zero carbon', or even 'carbon negative', is the place to be. 'Zero' focusses the mind in a way that a line on a graph never will.


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