Eight steps to set science-based targets for your organization


Organizations are trying to do better when it comes to the environment, but how can they know they’re doing enough? Our agrifood and biodiversity consultant Brian Shaw explains how to set science-based targets for businesses and governments.

To create a truly sustainable economy, organizations need to set specific goals to operate within the capacity of the planet to support them. This is where science-based targets come in. Best known for climate action, they are being developed to help organizations reduce impacts across all the interrelated planetary systems we cannot afford to undermine; whether that’s preserving the nitrogen in our soil we need to grow food, or making sure we aren’t contaminating the planet with toxic entities

Our advice to businesses and governments on how to set science-based targets is informed by an eight-step process devised with WWF and the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment. 

how to set science-based targets

Firstly, define what particular goal you have in mind and why; whether it is reducing impacts on freshwater, or minimizing biodiversity loss from operations. Producing within planetary boundaries can affect people and business practices, so make sure the goals are sound and communicated effectively. As an example, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) was set up in 2013 to address climate change. The network helps corporations establish science-based carbon targets to keep global temperatures below the current politically-negotiated 2ºC boundary. Over 550 companies have signed up, and more than 200 are working out how to set science-based targets for carbon reduction.

how to set science-based targets

The second step involves getting to know the environmental processes connected to your goals. The planet is a complex set of interconnected systems, and we need to understand which of these our objectives are related to. One initiative putting this into practice is Barry Callebaut’s “Forever Chocolate” sustainability program, which includes targets of becoming carbon and forest positive, and of using only sustainable ingredients in products by 2025. The company acknowledges that deforestation, soil degradation, and climate change threaten the ecosystems that provide ingredients for chocolate products, so they have set key progress indicators, including the percentage of raw material proven to be free of deforestation. They identified that land use change makes up around 60% of its total emissions, underscoring the link between climate change and deforestation.

how to set science-based targets

Once we have identified the systems relating to our goals, we need to understand how they respond to our activities. Most important is understanding the safe operating space for us. To do this, we try to identify when a system could go through an irreversible shift known as a tipping point, which can exist at many different scales, from a single water course to changes in ocean currents. 

One effort underway to do just this is the Earth Commission, convened by international research organization Future Earth and comprising an initial 19 members. The group is working to understand the biophysical processes that regulate Earth’s stability. Once this is done, a new Science Based Targets Network will seek to translate these into tangible targets specifically tailored to cities and companies, to preserve our oceans, freshwater, land, and biodiversity.

Next, we need to understand how to stay in the safe operating space. As we don’t know exactly when thresholds could be crossed, we have to be conservative in deciding how much impact is possible. Context is key, so boundaries should be defined at an appropriate scale and in a process which includes stakeholders and dynamically accounts for changes over time. 

In the case of climate change, the boundary of 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures was  negotiated during the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016; informed by science, politics, and the needs of stakeholders. Since the agreement, the emerging scientific consensus is that limiting the boundary to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures is achievable and worthwhile, prompting the setting of new targets.

how to set science-based targets

After this comes mapping company activities, which can be investigated in two ways: either territorially or economically. In our globalized world, operations transcend borders and are best assessed with an economic focus that considers supply chains holistically. Sony’s global environmental plan ‘Road to Zero’ divides product life cycles into six individual stages: product/service planning and design, operation, raw materials and components procurement, logistics, take-back and recycling, and innovation.

how to set science-based targets

In this step we calculate the amount of materials, energy, water, emissions and other physical flows that are consumed, emitted, or displaced through the activities identified in Step 5. To do so, a company generally draws data directly from its own product information, national statistics agencies, or multi-regional input-output tables. If the previous step required an economic approach, supply chain information and Life Cycle Analysis databases can provide insights. 

As an example, we worked with a consortium headed by WWF Netherlands on how to set science-based targets for plant-based food and drink producer Alpro. We analysed Alpro’s soy and almond supply chains, and found most environmental impacts related to agriculture. We looked at how nitrogen applied on a farm flowed through the soil and connected hydrological systems, and to how the local sub-basin was assessed for water flow and consumption requirements by both natural and agricultural vegetation. 

how to set science-based targets

In this step, we calculate how much of the operating space for the chosen boundary an organization occupies. Linking the flows calculated in the previous step to where they occur, we assess their impacts relative to the boundaries defined in Step 4. Depending on the boundary and location, these impacts can have very different meanings. Context is one of the most important aspects in considering how to set science-based targets. 

One example is beverage company Heineken, which in a global assessment with WWF identified breweries located in water-stressed areas. To account for the increased impact of freshwater use in those sites, Heineken increased local reduction targets and promoted access to water based on specific needs of the surroundings. These initiatives included detection of leaks, construction of sand dams, and restoration of wetland areas.

how to set science-based targets

Now that we understand how much impact in our area relates to our own activities, we need to decide how much impact we can have. In other words: it is time to negotiate. Allocation is based around ideas of fairness, historical justice, arguments for who can do the most with the least impact, and economic throughput. One approach for companies is to benchmark against an impact per unit of product informed by planetary boundaries, while another sets zero-impact targets. Markets which facilitate the exchange of impacts and burden sharing are also an option.

The SBTi is exploring this with climate change, having developed a range of allocation methods for  carbon emissions, including the Sectoral Decarbonization Approach, and the GEVA (GHG Emissions per Unit of Value Added). These methods provide a basis for benchmarking emission reductions. 

So what next?

As you can see, the process of how to set science-based targets requires thinking in a systemic way: from what the sustainability goals are, to understanding the natural systems they are connected to, to quantifying these connections, and determining the capacity of the planet to absorb our impacts. The more work that is done to map each boundary, the more accurate this process becomes. These eight steps are not a recipe for success, rather they inform and guide the process as we aim for greater sustainability.


Any questions?

Reach out to our 

Agrifood and Biodiversity Lead,
Brian Shaw

Does your organization want to set science-based targets?

Read the guide we wrote together with WWF.

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