Part III of The 1.5 Degree Series

Setting science-based targets is the only way for companies to be recognised as credible climate leaders. That’s why we’re doing it too.

The science is clear, if we exceed 1.5°C of global warming, we are in trouble. Despite the historic Paris Agreement in 2015 where countries committed to taking climate action, even if all nations deliver on their promises (which isn’t looking likely) we will still miss the 1.5°C target. In the absence of stronger governmental commitments, there is a clear role for companies to step up and make changes to the way they operate to reduce emissions and be in line with a 1.5°C scenario. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is one absolutely crucial strategy for the new 1.5°C Business Leaders

By joining the UN Global Compact’s 1.5°C campaign for ‘Our Only Future’ and committing to setting science-based targets for greenhouse gas emissions, companies signal that they are willing to transform the way they do business to be part of a world where global warming is limited to 1.5°C. Even as a small, service-based company with carbon footprint that pales in comparison to many other organisations, we at Sustainia have joined the campaign and are currently on the way to setting science-based targets to ensure our business does not conflict with a sustainable future of this planet.

“More than anything, setting science-based targets proves that companies are prepared to walk the talk. It gives them so much credibility.” Rasmus Schjødt Pedersen, CEO, Sustainia 

How does it work? 

Conceptually, science-based targets are simple. Companies estimate the emissions they are responsible for, directly and indirectly, and then set targets to reduce these emissions in line with a 1.5°C scenario. This means committing to becoming net-zero by 2050, or by reducing emissions in line with the 1.5°C scenarios. We at Sustainia have chosen to opt for the latter. 

Estimating corporate carbon footprints 

In practice it can be incredibly difficult to estimate the exact amount of greenhouse gas emissions a complex international company may be responsible for, but the SBTi has a range of resources to help companies with the carbon accounting. The sources of emissions from businesses can be broken down into three scopes: 

Scope 1: Direct emissions from burning fossil fuels.

  • For example: Burning gas for heat at a manufacturing company’s factory. 

Scope 2: Indirect emissions from purchased energy. 

  • For example: electricity for offices.

Scope 3: All Indirect emissions (not covered by scope 2) that occur in the value chain. 

  • For example: Emissions from transport, use and end-of-life of sold products, waste, and many more categories. This can often hold the majority of emissions for companies and can also be the hardest to quantify.

Setting carbon targets

Once companies have estimated the emissions they are responsible for and set targets to reduce them, the calculations and targets are submitted to the SBTi for approval, and the initiative will verify if the targets are indeed in alignment with a 1.5°C scenario.

Delivering change

And then the real work begins. Following the target-setting process companies are required to begin to put policies, initiatives, and actions into place in order to bring down their emissions in line with the targets they have set themselves. 

Potential pitfalls of SBTs

There are still a couple of potential problems with the SBTi. Firstly, whilst setting targets for making emissions reductions is applaudable and undoubtedly the first step towards making actual emissions reductions, it doesn’t actually create emissions reductions. Companies who join the campaign only have to commit to setting targets within two years of signing up. It will be interesting to see how many of the 87 companies currently part of the campaign actually make it to signing targets, and then how many can convert targets to tangible emissions reductions.

Secondly there is the troublesome issue of kicking the can down the road. If companies are ambitious enough to set targets committing themselves to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, there may be twenty nine years of doing absolutely nothing, waiting for a technological wonder-fix that will make it extremely easy to become net-zero. Carbon capture and storage comes to mind… 

Having said this, science-based targets are undoubtedly a step in the direction, and anyone who does commit to the initiative will be carefully watched to see whether they can covert commitments into action. 

Sustainia’s progress

We are still at the stage of estimating our carbon footprint but are already confident that the lion’s share of our emissions will be from business travel, printing and delivery of reports, and from the energy we consume whilst at work. 

Despite being a very low emitor, the exercise of setting science-based targets is a fascinating tool that brings into focus which areas are the most costly in terms of emissions, which is the first step towards taking action to reducing them. 

We are excited to be on this journey and will be continuing to share our experiences of working with science-based targets as a small consultancy, and are always available to help those curious to begin their own journey. 


This article is part of the 1.5 series, which aims to outline relevant steps for business to not exceed global warming beyond 1.5 degrees celsius. Read the rest here:

Part I: Why should I care about half a degree?

PART II: Business Involvement in Climate Action is a Must Have