Science-Based Targets Are a Formula for Success

Sustainability spins a tight orbit around measurable results. Science-based targets align actions with outcomes.

Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter

June 24, 2024

5 Min Read
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The road to sustainability is paved with good intentions. Organizations can cut costs, boost revenues, fuel innovation and help make the world a better place. Yet, without a measurement framework to support an initiative -- one based on accurate data and specific criteria -- things can unravel quickly. 

Science-based targets (SBTs) take direct aim at this issue. They align a corporate program with the latest and best climate research, thus making it possible to prioritize actions, track progress, and achieve verifiable results. When they are used effectively, transparency and accountability follow. Customers, investors, and others are likely to view a company or brand more favorably. 

“Organizations are under growing pressure to disclose more about their impact on the environment and the climate in a credible way,” says David Linich, a partner and head of decarbonization and sustainability operations at PwC. “We’re seeing more regulations focused on transparency … Science-based targets take much of the guesswork out of the equation.” 

Adds Elfrun von Koeller, a partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group: “However you approach sustainability, you want to make sure you are aligned with the latest science. If you are going to set ambitious targets you and your stakeholders need to know that you are on track.” 

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Minding the Gaps 

Just as it’s unthinkable to drive to a distant destination without a navigation system or a map, achieving net zero and other sustainability goals is difficult without science-based targets. These standards align actions with the latest climate science in areas such as greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy integration, resource utilization, or sustainable materials sourcing. 

“Science-based targets bring greater transparency to the supply chain and help organizations account for their scope 3 emissions,” says Abhijit Sunil, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. The use of SBTs is growing, criteria are becoming more precise, and a broader array of factors are falling under the umbrella of science-based targets. “Many organizations now embed these tools in their supplier code of conduct, and they are increasingly plugged into marketing and branding initiatives,” he says. 

Recent political attacks on ESG programs haven’t deterred companies. Consulting firm PwC reports that 90% of companies are either standing by their net-zero commitments or accelerating them. Only 5% are pulling back from sustainability initiatives. Yet only 56% of these organizations are on track to meet their short-term Scope 1 and 2 emissions goals. Even fewer -- a mere 22% -- are on course to achieve Scope 3 goals. 

Related:Quick Study: Sustainability and ESG

PwC attributes these gaps to three critical factors: a lack of planning, a tendency to view sustainability through a short-term lens, and poor execution. “Sustainability programs can be surprisingly complex. In many cases organizations underestimate what’s required to meet goals,” Linich explains. Setting an ambitious goal like net zero by 2050 without a clear roadmap is akin to picking a target out of thin air. It fails to identify the specific actions, resource needs, and financial implications necessary for success. 

A lack of accurate data and an inability to track progress in a real-world way can quickly derail a sustainability program. This includes identifying specific decarbonization actions required to achieve results, understanding how different events and actions change the equation, and clearly mapping out cost, time, and regulatory variables. “Doing the math, counting the costs, and understanding what a plan is going to look like is critical,” he says. 

The Art of Climate Science 

Although several organizations and a handful of industry groups have established science-based targets in one form or another, the Science-based Targets initiative (SBTi) has emerged as the leading resource. Nearly 5,500 companies globally are actively using its framework to validate their performance and results. “Science-based targets provide a clearly defined path for how much and how quickly organizations must reduce emissions to be in line with 1.5° Celsius,” explains Paulina Moreno, communications manager for SBTi. 

Related:Why Data Science Isn't an Exact Science

The initiative hinges on a step-by-step model that ties into the Paris Agreement. SBTi requires participants to commit to a clearly defined set of targets, develop actionable criteria, submit a plan for validation, communicate progress to stakeholders, and disclose progress annually through reporting. The initiative addresses areas such as net-zero target formulation, the use of renewables, reporting methods, and numerous other areas related to sustainability initiatives.  

On a practical level, SBTi offers an extensive resource library that includes information about technical frameworks and downloadable tools that aid in tracking results, including a corporate net-zero tracking worksheet and resource guide and a public dashboard that displays progress for companies participating in the program. This includes the likes of AMD, American Express, Apple, CVS Health, Delta Airlines, H&M Group, Merck, Nike, Telefónica, and Walmart

The framework is valuable, Linich says, because it addresses many of the technical factors that a business isn’t equipped to deal with, including accounting methods, formulas, and technologies that aid in decarbonization. Science-based targets also can be used with other sustainability frameworks, including the Gold Standard, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, (TNFD) and the International Sustainability Standards Board (IFRS). 

A 2023 survey conducted by climate change advocacy group We Mean Business found that 79% of users find a science-based framework valuable. 

By the Numbers 

Not all SBTi methods and systems are universally popular and not all the organization’s criteria have been accepted by the corporate entities using science-based targets. Yet the value of using a science-based framework isn’t up for debate. 

Linich points out that emerging regulations such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive in the EU and the Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act in California are adding new and more stringent tracking and disclosure requirements. Almost every major company and even smaller firms within supply chains will feel the impact of these provisions. Companies that have a head start on science-based targets will have an advantage, he says. 

Plugging science-based targets into a sustainability initiative is wise, even as criteria and standards continue to evolve, Linich says. For example, for now, measuring Scope 3 emissions accurately remains elusive, yet an SBT framework can deliver a flexible foundation that allows an organization to adjust, adapt and refine methods as new and better tools, data and targets become available. 

“You can start with estimates and, over time, replace them with actual data,” Linich says. “You have an accounting method to get to decarbonization.” 

About the Author(s)

Samuel Greengard

Contributing Reporter

Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology, and cybersecurity for numerous magazines and websites. He is author of the books "The Internet of Things" and "Virtual Reality" (MIT Press).

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