One Planet Approaches

Commissioned by WWF Netherlands

Table of Contents

One Planet Approaches

A guide for companies to set science-based targets


A healthy planet is the foundation of a safe and prosperous future for us and the generations to come. At the moment we are heading in the wrong direction: we destabilize the climate, deplete our oceans, degrade our land and forests, and undermine the web of life that sustains us all. But with joint effort we can change our course and build a future in which we live well within the planetary boundaries.

Today, we have the knowledge and means to redefine our relationship with nature. Yet knowing the facts does not automatically result in action. Ensuring a healthy and resilient planet for generations to come requires human development to be decoupled from environmental degradation. And although there are many positive developments towards sustainable consumption and production, we are yet to make the transition to a truly sustainable and regenerative economy. We need to up our level of ambition, and develop business models that allow both society and nature to thrive.

Recognizing this need, as well as the growing desire of business to set clear targets to stay within the planetary boundaries, WWF Netherlands commissioned a project in 2016 to analyze and map existing sustainability approaches. The resulting One Planet Approaches report envisioned how organizations could take this ambitious concept and apply it in practice. Now, we have distilled these insights into an eight-step process for any actor to understand their impacts and set science-based targets – a vital step if we are to live within the means of our one planet.

To define what it means to do enough for the entire Earth system in all its complexity, WWF and a number of other organizations have also formed the Science-Based Targets Network. This guide can help businesses think about the steps and data requirements to set science-based targets. The network will help companies set science-based targets for the interrelated ‘systems’ of land, biodiversity, freshwater, ocean and climate and aims to make science-based target setting standard practice.

Marieke Harteveld

Chief Conservation Officer, WWF Netherlands


In 2016, WWF Netherlands, Metabolic, WWF Switzerland, and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment reviewed over sixty approaches, methodologies, tools, programs and action plans relating to human impacts on planetary limits.

The 2016 One Planet Approaches report presented insights from this review and set out eight steps that any organization could take to scientifically map operational impacts against planetary limits. This was an important first step towards developing a methodology for organizations wishing to design sustainability pathways that respect planetary limits.

This new updated report presents the most important conclusions from the 2016 report in a simplified format, making links to the growing field of science-based targets and illustrating each of the eight steps with real-world examples.

Corporate sustainability managers, policymakers and anyone else interested in beginning the journey towards setting science-based targets can use the report as a quick reference guide for implementation or communicating about the topic.

For any organization or business, setting science-based targets requires thinking in a systemic way. First, we have to consider whether our sustainability goals involve reducing deforestation, combating climate change, or protecting freshwater resources. Then, we need to understand how the planet functions in a whole range of interconnected ways that relate to our goals. Next, we need to consider how our operations interact with planetary processes, and then quantify these interactions.

Following this assessment, we then need to understand what capacity the planet has to absorb the types of impacts our operations have. Finally, we must decide as an organization or business, what level of impact we are entitled to make.

Clearly, this is a complex challenge. We have designed this guide both to support and inspire you to take these steps with your own company or organization. We begin by offering some background to the challenge, starting with an examination of the root causes of the current sustainability crisis. and then an exploration of the growing global movement around setting science-based targets.

The great acceleration

Modern humans have existed for at least 200,000 years. About 11,700 years ago, the human population started to grow rapidly as the invention of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and later, industrial systems, significantly expanded our capacity and need to extract planetary resources. In the 1950s, our world entered a period where our ecological impacts began to threaten our ability to flourish. Across a wide range of metrics, exponential growth and impacts started to become visible. The global environmental movement was born and awareness grew for the need to restrict the cumulative impact of our economies to a level which our planet can sustain.

Today, among decision makers in both public and private sectors, the urgency of shifting the pattern of human activities onto a more sustainable path is broadly accepted, and is integrated into both national policies and Corporate Social Responsibility plans. Society at large is also undergoing a progressive shift in consciousness with regard to environmental awareness. However, despite this focus, the decoupling of environmental impacts from economic growth – seen as the engine which will deliver prosperity to many of the world’s poor – has not been realized. Without this decoupling, economic activity will continue to have a negative impact on the environment.

Planetary boundaries

The Planetary Boundaries (PB) framework, introduced by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) in 2009, is currently the most broadly studied and utilized approach for relating human impacts to planetary limits. The framework defines a “safe operating space” for humanity, based on nine key processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system as a whole. It proposes quantitative boundaries for each process, within which human and natural worlds can continue to thrive. Due to gaps in the science for planetary boundaries, zones of uncertainty and zones of high risk are defined within which there is an increasing risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

Transgressing any individual boundary increases the risk of the Earth system shifting towards a state which will have a negative impact on human well-being. Transgressing more than one boundary can result in a cumulative impact that is greater than the sum of its parts through interactions between key planetary systems. Out of the nine boundaries, SRC has estimated that we have already transgressed four: climate change, biodiversity loss, phosphorus and nitrogen flows, and land system change. There is therefore an urgent need for addressing the key social processes that contribute to these boundary transgressions. For one of these boundaries, climate change, there is already a large, global movement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to mitigate the effects of a changing climate. For the remaining boundaries, there is much more work to be done. 

Furthermore, there is still a significant gap between the high-level understanding of the planetary boundaries and the pathways to translating this information into concrete actions for companies or governments. Key challenges remain for a corporate actor to assess and understand the contribution of their supply chains to the global budgets. Programs such as the Science Based Targets initiative have emerged to facilitate this corporate transition.

Science-based targets

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), developed in partnership with the World Resources Institute (WRI), United Nations Global Compact, WWF, and Carbon Disclosure Project, helps companies establish greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets in line with climate science. A company’s GHG emissions can be classified into three different ‘scopes.’ Scope 1 emissions are those from sources owned or controlled directly by the company itself. For example, this includes emissions from chemical production in process equipment or from combustion in boilers, vehicles, etc. Scope 2 emissions are defined as indirect emissions from the generation of purchased or acquired electricity, heat, and cooling used by the company. Finally, Scope 3 emissions represent all other indirect upstream and downstream emissions, not included in Scope 2, that occur in the value chain of the reporting company. These emissions occur from sources not owned or controlled by the company itself, but are consequences of the company’s activities, for example: emissions from the use of services and products, or production and extraction of purchased material.

The SBTi has been rapidly and broadly adopted for setting targets for curbing climate change impacts, signaling that the corporate world is beginning to understand the urgent need of science in environmental target-setting. More than 550 companies are already engaged in setting science based targets to reduce their climate footprint. Building on this experience there is a drive to help companies set science-based targets for other environmental impacts, with many organizations working together to create an appropriate framework. 

In order to be able to set and implement science-based targets, we need tools for identifying the critical boundaries in the Earth system, determining how much “impact” the dynamic system is capable of absorbing, and then fairly distributing this impact “budget” among participating actors. Though this may sound straightforward, and has been successfully applied in the case of climate change targets, there are still a number of key challenges that need to be addressed before a similar approach can be deployed at scale for most other boundaries. Recognising that there is still a need for unilaterally agreed principles, a new alliance is emerging to link science with practice. The Science-Based Targets Network, aims to provide guidance and tools to help companies set Science Based Targets to reduce and improve their impacts across the interrelated “systems” of land, biodiversity, freshwater, the ocean and climate.

While much is still required in terms of metrics and standards for an agent to be able to set science-based targets, the eight-step process that we present here represents a pathway which one can follow. 

Reading guide – our approach

In the following pages we are going to walk you through the eight step method for setting science-based targets. It is important to keep in mind that some of the steps must be carried out by a company, while others are intended to be completed by scientists or by qualified advisors. Other steps require a broader collaborative scientific and political process. As we move through the steps, we indicate what sorts of actors are expected to be involved. We use brief examples of current impact reduction activities that represent companies that, while not explicitly setting science-based targets, are taking the first steps towards doing so. Throughout, we take the perspective of a company, however, setting science-based targets is not just limited to companies. The process can also be carried out by state actors, or any other entity that has an environmental impact.

One Planet Textiles:

In this guide, we use the fictional example of a textile company that wants to pilot science-based targets. This company sees both the commercial and ethical value in offering its customers products that are produced within planetary boundaries. As we go through the eight steps, we outline what each of them would mean to the textile company. This is intended to serve as a real-world illustration to the reader to help them see how setting science-based targets for their own organization might look.

There are a number of key challenges associated with setting science-based targets. One of them is the question of how to understand where an impact occurs, what it affects, and how much the local system can absorb. Each scale at which the impact occurs brings a different set of challenges in how it is assessed, measured, and dealt with. In our eight step process, we pay particular attention to this issue. The second challenge is the question of who gets to own those impacts, meaning, if there is a cap on the amount of total impact we can have on the Earth system, how do we decide which of all the productive, extractive, and polluting social processes get to continue? We work through these questions during the eight step process, as well as in the examples. 

This method has been generalized so that it can be applied to any planetary boundary, as well as any other sustainability objectives beyond those in the planetary boundaries framework, for example those outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). After the eight steps, we describe the role of validation, action, and monitoring in an impact reduction process. Finally, we zoom out and present two case studies of companies who are leading the charge in setting science-based targets beyond carbon.

The eight step method for setting science-based targets

1. Define the sustainability objective

The first step in setting science-based targets for your company is to define what particular goal you have in mind and why. It might be to reduce freshwater impacts from your operations, or to avoid contributing to biodiversity loss, or climate change. As part of its corporate social responsibility program, a textile company might decide that it wants to offer customers clothes that are produced without contributing to climate change or river pollution. In this handbook, we imagine the perspective of a company that has decided that, with sustainability increasingly on the agenda, there is a social obligation for it to offer a line of One Planet products.

Producing within planetary boundaries can also have implications for people and business practices. This means that boundary setting should have a strong rationale and be communicated effectively.


The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) was set up in 2014 to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. The network helps corporations establish science-based carbon targets to keep global temperatures below the current politically-negotiated 2ºC boundary. Currently over 550 companies have signed up, and over 200 have set science-based targets for carbon reduction. The underlying objective is to maintain planet habitability and to ensure fair living conditions for people. The SBTi is also responsive to climate science developments. Since the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, the SBTi has releazed new target-setting resources and updated its target validation criteria based on the latest science.

2. Identify the relevant environmental systems

The second step involves getting to know the environmental processes connected to your sustainability goals. The planet can be understood as a complex set of interconnected systems, and we need to understand which of these systems our goals are related to. In the case of One Planet Textiles, we are interested in the atmosphere and connected systems for greenhouse gases and the hydrological system for its water targets. The first describes the way in which gases move between the atmosphere, soils, vegetation, and water. This also includes the many human activities that accelerate the redistribution of these gases into the atmosphere, such as (but not limited to): the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and raising cattle (as shown above). The second is the set of systems that manage how water moves and is distributed through the land. Once these interrelated systems are understood, we can begin to examine the dynamics between them.


Barry Callebaut’s “Forever Chocolate” sustainability program includes the targets of becoming carbon and forest positive, and of using only sustainable ingredients in products by 2025.

The company acknowledges that climate change, deforestation and soil degradation threatens agricultural production in general, and this is also related directly to the ecosystems that provide ingredients for chocolate products. Hence, key progress indicators for the targets mentioned above are the CO2 intensity per tonne of product, the percentage of raw material proven to be free of deforestation, and the percentage of sustainably-sourced ingredients. 

Regarding CO2 emissions, the company accounts for scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions, which includes land use change, making up around 60% of its total emissions and underscoring the link between emissions and deforestation. To combat deforestation, Barry Callebaut traces the geographical footprint of its raw materials, and any risks connected to them. Using this information, it assesses which measures have to be put into place in to ensure deforestation-free procurement. 

3. Understand the system dynamics

Once we have identified the systems relating to our goals, we need to get an understanding of how they might respond to the pressures that our activities put on them. In the case of One Planet Textiles and its carbon commitments, the key factor to understand is that there is a non-linear relationship between increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the system response. This means that the size of the effect is not always equal to the strength of the pressure. There are moments when the system will go through an irreversible shift, which can have additional effects across a range of other systems. These are called tipping points. One example is the melting of the tundra. As global temperatures increase, the frozen tundra of the Arctic melts, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In what is called positive feedback, this results in additional global warming, and leads to further melting and warming. In another example relating to climate change, the Amazon rainforest could shift to a savanna-type ecosystem in response to a warmer, drier climate. It is also important to be aware that tipping points can occur at a variety of scales, depending on the affected system. For the water commitments of One Planet Textiles, the dynamics would then be much more local in scale, and tied to the specific water systems that it is accessing for its production process.


A commission of leading international experts are seeking to identify risks and develop a coherent suite of scientific targets to protect Earth’s life support systems. Johan Rockström, Joyeeta Gupta, and Dahe Qin co-chair the Earth Commission, convened by international research organization Future Earth and comprising an initial 19 members. The group is working on a high-level synthesis of scientific knowledge on the biophysical processes that regulate Earth’s stability, and targets to ensure this stability. The goal, ultimately, is to translate these into tangible science-based targets for Earth, specifically tailored to cities and companies. This translational work will be undertaken by a new Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) comprised of leading NGOs, enabling cities and companies to reduce their impact on and restore our oceans, freshwater, land, and biodiversity. The aim is to make this standard practice in leading companies and cities by 2025.

4. Set the boundary and safe operating space

We have mapped how our systems function and interact, and tried to understand where tipping points might be located within them. Now, we need to make sure that we avoid crossing them. As our understanding of tipping points and impacts is by no means comprehensive, there is a certain amount of uncertainty inherent in how we plan to avoid them. In essence, we have to be cautious in deciding how much impact is acceptable to make sure that we don’t inadvertently cross a tipping point. A further challenge is that boundaries can differ across scales, geographical areas, and systems, meaning they are often highly contextual, and responsibility for them is also well spread and difficult to manage. Therefore, the definition of any boundary and its associated safe operating spaces should be negotiated in a process which ideally includes all the affected stakeholders. The boundaries must often be assessed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with local context, and be dynamic and updated to account for variation and changes over time. For One Planet Textiles and its water commitments, the negotiation process for defining the boundary could include local and downstream communities; companies that extract water; farmers that use the water for irrigation; land managers such as farmers, foresters; and municipalities within the water basin; and even fisheries and other marine stakeholders that might be affected by pollutants being carried out to sea by the water system.


In the case of climate change, the boundary of 2°C above pre-industrial temperature was negotiated during the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, which is operationalized with an atmospheric limit of 400-500 PPM of CO2 equivalent. The boundary is a reflection of society’s capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the risks associated with this limit. This is the interim result of an ongoing extended stakeholder, political and research process informed but not determined by science. Having a global, permissible atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases allows for the negotiation process to then focus on the allocation of this budget across nations and sectors, which in turn allows for targets to be set at a level which is operationalizable for a company, city, or other actor. This is a dynamic, multi-stakeholder process. Since the agreement, the emerging scientific consensus is that limiting the boundary to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperature is both achievable and worthwhile in terms of lowering the relative impacts on ecosystems and to retain more of their services to humans. Different sectors and actors are responding to this new proposed boundary and setting new targets.

5. Map operations and activities

Anyone setting science-based targets, regardless of whether they are a company, individual, or regional actor such as a city, will have impacts in a range of different ways across their operations. These impacts can be understood either territorially or economically. With a territorial focus, the actions that occur within a defined space are considered, such as within a particular country or region. However, in our highly globalized world many operations and impacts transcend borders and are better approached with an economic focus. Such a focus considers all actions across the value chains which ultimately provide a product or service, and therefore include activities related to, for example, production, manufacturing, and distribution. For this step, One Planet Textiles would look at all the activities that occur at each stage of the production process of its products. This could include the cotton grown in Uzbekistan, its dyeing in India, the production of clothes in China, and all the transport activities in between and afterwards. Ideally, to set science-based targets, a company would be aware of and have data on the range of its activities across the entire supply chain.


Sony’s global environmental plan ‘Road to Zero’, aims to achieve a zero environmental footprint throughout its business activities by 2050. It addresses the environmental impact of its products throughout their life cycle, from the moment resources are extracted, through production, distribution, use, and final disposal. To achieve this, Sony 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.

6. Quantify the associated flows

Once the extent of our activities has been determined, the environmental flows related to them are quantified. In this step, we calculate the amount of materials, energy, water, emissions and other physical flows that are consumed, emitted, or displaced throughout the scope of activities identified in Step 5. To complete this step, 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 a spatial approach, geospatial models using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used to estimate environmental flows. If an economic approach is followed, supply chain information and Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) databases can provide data. One Planet Textiles can examine its supply chains and calculate the total change in resource flows that it has contributed to at each step of its operations. 

This information is used in the next step to estimate the impact in the area where environmental pressures actually occur. This can be during extraction, production, transport, or disposal. Processes that operate at the regional level are dependent on local contextual factors, such as, for example, the capacity of ecosystems to absorb different pollutants. Therefore LCA assessments and data should also be regionally specific, and through the integration of local carrying capacities, be translatable to regional budgets for specific processes. 


The supermarket chain Tesco aims to become a net-zero carbon company by 2050. In terms of scope 3 emissions, TESCO conducted a full supply chain footprint survey of its product portfolio to identify the hotspots that should be targeted for GHG emission reductions. During this process it observed that different targets were needed for emissions from agriculture than for those from food manufacturing. This reflects the relative contribution of these life cycle stages to the overall supply chain footprint.

7. Assess the impacts

As mentioned in the introduction, any boundary can be understood as having a safe operating space; a zone of uncertainty that is low risk; and a final, high-risk zone. Staying within the safe operating space means limiting impacts to a conservative distance from the threshold where a tipping point may occur. In this step, we want to understand how much of the operating space for the chosen boundary is being occupied by our business. 

In the previous step, we quantified the environmental flows associated with our operations. In this step, we link these flows to the places where they occur, and assess their impacts relative to the boundaries defined in Step 4. Depending on the boundary, and depending on the location, these impacts can have very different meanings. This is what we call context specificity, which is one of the most important aspects of setting science-based targets. If One Planet Textiles needs 3000 litres of water for the entire production of a pair of jeans, this can be both acceptable and unacceptable depending on where the impacts of water use occur at the different stages, from cotton production, to textile manufacturing, and jeans production. In an area where the sum of the impacts of all water users exceeds the set boundary, it may be appropriate for the company to seek mitigation options there, or even to cease activities in that particular basin, and focus its operations in an area where the boundary is not exceeded. In the next step, we discuss different approaches to making these decisions of allocation. 


Beverage company Heineken’s sustainability report includes targets for reduced freshwater use in its breweries. A global assessment conducted in cooperation with WWF identified a certain number of breweries located in water-stressed areas. To account for the increased impact of freshwater use in those sites, Heineken set more ambitious local reduction targets and launched various projects to promote access to water, based on the specific needs of the surroundings. These projects include the installation of more efficient equipment, the detection of leaks, the construction of sand dams, and the restoration of surrounding wetland areas, often carried out in collaboration with local NGOs.

8. Allocate impact within the operating space

Now that we understand how much impact in our area relates directly to our own activities, we need to decide how much impact we are allowed to have. This is called the question of allocation. In a world where there are finite resources, there are also finite impacts that the Earth can take. At this point of the process, the question arises of how to divide up the safe operating space. In the water basin where One Planet Textiles just measured its impacts, there needs to be a process in which impacts are allocated to each agent active there, in such a way that the overall safe operating space is not exceeded. When the safe operating space is exceeded, the question of who should reduce their impact arises. How is this decision made? Do One Planet textiles reduce its impacts because a producer of food gets priority? Who gets to decide this and how?

Step Eight departs from the previous seven in that an ethics-based negotiation process is required. Allocation principles are based around ideas of fairness, arguments for who can do the most with the least impact, ideas of historical justice, and economic throughput. Each of these approaches have advantages and drawbacks, and issues of legitimacy regarding their application. One approach for companies is to benchmark against an impact per unit of product, advocated by an appropriate sectoral pathway informed by planetary boundaries. Another approach could be to set zero-impact targets for any given process. 

Seeing as planetary boundaries are already surpassed for climate change, biogeochemical flows, freshwater, and biodiversity, zero or net positive impacts should be considered in all sectors where they are technically feasible. Markets which facilitate the exchange of impacts and burden sharing between actors can also be established. Such approaches are complex, require extensive stakeholder support, but may, with the right design and implementation, ultimately be the most effective allocation mechanism for impacts.


The Science Based Targets initiative proposes different allocation methods for allocating the budget for GHG emissions. One is the sector-based approach, which divides the global carbon budget by sector, allocating emission reductions to individual companies based on its sector’s budget. Another is the absolute-based approach, which applies to all companies equally the percent reduction in absolute emissions required by a given scenario.

Validate, act and monitor

Following the process of boundary setting, impact assessment, and allocation, an organization might have to think about what comes next. In this short section we outline how a company takes action to reduce its impact and monitor its performance.


As we have indicated, the eight step process is complex, and target-setting is often contextual. With the overarching goal of setting science-based targets being to maintain impacts at a level which does not transgress a set boundary, it is essential that all organizations, whether private or otherwise, follow agreed principles, accounting methods, and metrics, so that the sum of all their impacts stays within the boundary. In reality, full engagement by all parties is rare but sustainable leaders working with a fair share without being forced to offset for others, as well as scope 3 actions can ensure broader commitments over time.  For the SBTi, validation is an important part of the process of setting targets for carbon reduction. A dedicated Target Validation Team conducts an audit of the company’s approach, accounting, and target-setting, to ensure that they are appropriate, as well as sufficiently robust and ambitious.


After the company or actor has determined their impact reduction targets, they must develop an action plan to achieve them. This will most likely mean changing and improving key aspects of their operations and collaborating with their value chain. During the eight step process, an organization will have conducted an analysis to locate impact hotspots within their operations. Impact hotspots are areas along the value chain with a high or disproportionate impact on the operating space. These can be the starting point for taking action when devising impact reduction strategies. These strategies can then become part of an organization or agent’s broader sustainability or corporate social responsibility planning.

Monitoring & Evaluation

Once targets have been set and validated, and impact reduction actions taken, a process of monitoring and evaluation should follow. Monitoring the evolution of the company’s impacts and the state of the related environmental systems is crucial to ensure that action taken to reach reduction targets is effective, and allows for adjustment of the effort and strategies if needed. As mentioned earlier, boundaries are dynamic and might have to be adapted to new findings or a change of local context, which can further call for intervention. An evaluation of the applied measures gives an opportunity to inform decision-making and target-setting for future activities.

Expanding to other boundaries

In the previous section we described the eight step process for setting science-based targets, along with short examples of companies that are taking these steps. In this section we introduce two companies who are setting science-based targets beyond carbon.

Alpro: Setting Science-Based Targets for Nature

A pilot by a consortium, headed by WWF Netherlands and coordinated by Metabolic, developed and tested approaches for assessing impacts and setting science-based targets for plant-based food and drink producer Alpro. Impacts for four processes were assessed: biodiversity loss, land-systems change, biogeochemical flows, and freshwater use. These processes were selected as they are directly connected to agricultural activities, and because biodiversity loss and biogeochemical flows are two of the most severely transgressed at the planetary level. 

First, baseline impact assessments were carried out on Alpro’s soy and almond value chains. A material flow analysis showed that the bulk of the environmental impacts occurred during the agricultural production phases for both products. A number of farms were selected and contextual analysis carried out. For each of the impact areas selected, the underlying system processes were mapped. For biogeochemical flows, this related to the ways in which nitrogen applied on a farm flowed through the soil, and the connected hydrological systems across a range of scales. For freshwater, the sub-basin where the farms were located was assessed for water flow and consumption requirements by both natural and agricultural vegetation. Boundaries were then set at the spatial scale appropriate for each of the impact areas, and impact indicators were selected.

Important insights were derived from the process of setting science-based targets for Alpro. Firstly, boundaries and impacts should be considered together, and a mechanism for analysing trade-offs must be developed. For example, there might be a safe operating space for biogeochemical flows which can be used to reduce the impact on land-use and biodiversity by increasing per-hectare yields, and effectively sparing land for nature conservation. Currently, no mechanism for assessing the potential of trade-offs exists. Additionally, there are real social impacts associated with the implementation of science-based targets. Currently, the majority of research and testing for setting science-based targets is focused on the technical aspects of systems mapping and impact assessment, while analysis of the social impacts and allocation have received relatively little attention. As companies move through assessment to implementation, consideration needs to be given to the transition impacts to actors in their supply chains.

Mars: the global purveyor of food and pet products has based its climate, land, and water targets on the latest science

Sustainability experts at Mars worked together with the World Resources Institute (WRI) to move towards science-based sustainability targets. Mars is the parent company of dozens of confectionary and pet food brands such as M&M’s, Pedigree, and Uncle Ben’s rice. With agriculture being one of the largest users of freshwater, causes of land degradation, and contributors to GHG emissions, Mars decided to analyse its footprint and develop sustainability targets for the corresponding planetary boundaries. 

Setting targets for climate change can be relatively straightforward since emitting GHGs has the same impact globally, regardless of the location it takes place in. One target-setting methodology for GHG emissions was developed by Mars in 2009. 

Water and land impacts on the other hand are context specific, meaning their intensity depends on the local situation in which they occur. Mars proposes that water targets must be set at each watershed, aquifer, and tract of land within its operations and the value chain of its raw ingredients. Strategies were set to prioritize attention towards the most-stressed watersheds, and increases in water efficiency have already reduced overall water intensity by 7% since 2015. Water-use targets include increasing water efficiency at water-stressed sites by 15% (from 2015 levels) by 2020, and cutting unsustainable water use in the value chain in half (from 2015 levels) by 2025.

Concerning the land-system, Mars is committed to ensuring its production does not encroach on natural ecosystems, and that biodiversity and soil health are protected. It focuses on five raw materials (beef, cocoa, palm oil, paper pulp, and soy), the production of which are considered the main drivers of deforestation. For each, Mars aims to determine the extent of its activities and impact. To achieve this, it needs greater transparency in its value chain. The Global Forest Watch Commodities tool is being used to do this for palm oil, and recently the company achieved 99% traceability for that material. A goal set by Mars is to freeze the land footprint of its entire value-chain to the 2015 level of 2.3 million hectares, while increasing its production and supply of raw materials. This will be achieved by improvements to productivity and yields, especially with smallholders in developing countries.

Additional recommendations

In addition to each of the eight steps, we have some key recommendations for companies tackling the complexity involved in setting science-based targets. 

  1. Define the operating space in terms of flows rather than states. When setting boundaries for a given system, they should be defined as flows, rather than states. This means that boundaries can be articulated as amounts of resource extraction or emissions that can be easily linked to economic activities. 
  2. Set context-specific boundaries. As we have already stressed in this guide, different systems require different types of boundaries, especially in terms of spatial scale. For Global systems, such as the climate, a planetary boundary is appropriate. For other boundaries, such as freshwater, land, and biodiversity, boundaries need to be defined at a level that is appropriate to the system in question. This also applies when identifying the range of stakeholders who should be involved in boundary setting and allocation negotiation. 
  3. Pay attention to seasonal variability in boundary setting and impact assessment. Earth systems are highly dynamic in nature, and boundary setting should reflect this. For example, a freshwater system has seasonal fluctuations, which means that at times the boundary can shift depending on supply and demand of water within the system. This is also true of a biogeochemical flow. The range and speed at which nutrients can flow through a system and cause pollution is dependent on seasonal weather patterns. That means that the calculations and management of impacts must also be considered along a timeline to ensure the safe operating space is occupied at all times. 
  4. Consider boundary setting as a social process informed by science. In step four of this guide, we discussed the collaborative nature of boundary setting, and this is a point worth reiterating. Social expectations and needs for a given operating space must be considered alongside the entitlement of a company to have an impact in this space. The setting of these boundaries must be a genuinely participative and collaborative process. 
  5. Where possible, set and assess boundaries in unison. Boundaries can overlap and offer tradeoffs. As seen in the Alpro example, where multiple boundaries are being set within one system or a number of overlapping systems, there may be opportunities to mitigate the transgression of one boundary by increasing impacts for another towards (but not beyond) the tipping point. When the end goal is to optimize production while maintaining impacts within a safe operating space, a mechanism for evaluating trade-offs on a case-by-case basis is necessary.

What can companies do to get started?

In this guide, we have described eight steps that any organization can follow to approach science-based targets. Setting targets requires approaching the challenge in a systemic way: from thinking about what our sustainability goals are, to understanding the natural systems the goals are connected with, to quantifying these connections and determining the capacity of the planet to absorb the impacts we make. Finally, on a planet that we now understand has limits to the amount of impact it can take, we have to collectively decide how much impact a company is entitled to make. 

We designed these steps so that they can be followed by a wide range of organizations. Some steps can be followed by the company alone, while other steps require broader collaborative approaches between stakeholders. The range and scale of the stakeholder process is linked to the range and scale of the potential impact of the company operations, be it the global atmosphere, a river basin, a particular landscape, or an entire biome. While this is one of the key challenges of setting science-based targets, it is also one of the most important things to get right so that all impacts are captured and accounted for. 

Setting science-based targets is by no means straightforward. Nevertheless, as we have shown with our examples, many companies are already doing so, there are organizations who are supporting them, and there are many ongoing collaborations which a company can join. In the final section of this guide, we want to show you a few ways to begin taking concrete steps to set targets for your own company.

Join and support ongoing initiatives

One of the most straightforward ways to get going is to join a program that is supporting the implementation of science-based targets. The Science Based Targets initiative, as presented in Step 1, has been supporting companies in their GHG reduction since 2013. Organizations wishing to address GHG impacts can take steps right away to do so. Going beyond carbon, the Science-Based Targets Network was established in 2018 as a collaboration of NGOs, scientists, and support organizations to facilitate companies and cities to establish science-based targets for their impacts on biodiversity, land-systems, oceans, and freshwater. The SBTN is developing approaches and metrics for these boundaries, and companies can support this work with early prototyping.

Identify impact hotspots and priority actions

We recommend a company to conduct a systematic hotspot analysis of their entire upstream and downstream activities to identify areas of particularly high impact. As we saw with the Alpro case study, a hotspot analysis showed that the bulk of their impacts was associated with the agricultural phase of their value chain, and this was the focus area for further data collection and target-setting. Impacts are not always associated with the highest material or product flows. Sometimes they can be hidden in smaller resource flows or bio-based material extraction. Beginning any science-based target-setting process with a hotspot analysis can reveal these disproportionate impacts and focus further work for target-setting.

Incorporate a science-based targets mindset in corporate goal setting and sustainability communications

A small but important measure a company can take is the adoption of the principles and philosophy of science-based targets. Even if targets have not yet been set, it is essential to frame the intention to set targets and to communicate this commitment both inside and outside the organization. This will set the tone internally for further strategy development, and communicate to the outside world that your company is part of a growing community of organizations that are committed to developing sustainability pathways that are based on planetary limits.


Produced by Metabolic

  • Brian J. Shaw
  • Eva Gladek
  • Davide Angelucci
  • Raphaël Lelouvier

Additional Contributions

  • Jorien van Hoogen, WWF-Netherlands
  • Chris Weber, WWF-US


  • Daniel Metzke, Potsdam Institute for Climate Research
  • Martha Stevenson, WWF-US
  • Monique Grooten, WWF-Netherlands

Original Study: 

  • Muñoz, O. S., & Gladek, E. (2017). One planet approaches: Methodology mapping and pathways forward.
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