The Private Sector and Climate Action: What are Science-based Targets and Why are They so Important?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Luz Cervantes, C+S ’16

The Paris Agreement, signed in December 2015, was widely perceived as a milestone in the fight against global warming. Nearly 160 countries agreed to limit the increase in temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to stay within 1.5°C. This agreement was without a doubt a big step forward. However, how do we get there?

Following those meetings, each signing country had to determine their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), which outlines their national climate action plans including its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. The problem is that the voluntary pledges made by 158 nations in December 2015 won’t allow us to stay within 2°C but will more likely lead us to a 2.7°C increase in temperature by 2100. Thus, these pledges are not enough to prevent the dangerous consequences of altering the climate system.

Pixabay by Hans licenses under CC0 Public Domain

Source: pixabay

For this reason, governments alone aren’t enough when it comes to tackling climate change. It will be necessary to work with the most important polluters: the world’s largest companies. From energy utilities to food production companies, they are all greenhouse gas emitters and their climate mitigation efforts could compliment the action taken by governments around the world.

Every day, more and more companies are taking action against climate change because they recognize that by doing so, in addition to fulfilling their social responsibility goals, they will have a competitive advantage by considering future climate risks that could affect their business. One of the key climate mitigation measures businesses can undertake is to set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. According to data disclosed by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), more than 80 percent of the world’s largest businesses have an emissions reduction or energy-related target. So the question is not whether the private sector is taking action to reduce its emissions or not, but rather whether the current efforts are ambitious enough. The works has a carbon budget so while reducing emissions is important but what is most important is to reduce them enough.

Imagine that the 2°C carbon budget is an apple pie. Setting a science-based target is assigning a part of the pie — that is an amount of allowed emissions — to every existing company. This is where the science-based targets initiative, a partnership between CDP, World Wildlife Fund, World Resources Institute, and the UN Global Compact, comes into play. The objective is simple: increase corporate climate action by aligning businesses’ greenhouse gas emission reduction targets with climate science so that we can reach our goal of limiting global warming to 2°C.

The overall idea is that if every company does its share (an ambitious, science-based share), we will not exceed the carbon budget. The concept is straightforward, but the methodologies to set science-based targets can be quite complex and the whole process is voluntary. However, 175 companies to-date are already working with the initiative to set targets that are in line with climate science. Coca-Cola, Dell, and Sony are among the companies that have already developed science-based targets. And the number is constantly increasing.

When I first started working at CDP North America this summer supporting the science-based targets initiative team, I didn’t really know what to expect as it was my first work experience in this area. After two months, I can say that exploring the corporate sustainability world has been extremely enriching and motivating. I have learned how important it is for us C+S students to engage with the private sector and foster their contribution to climate change mitigation.

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