What's a Science Based Target for Sustainability or Climate Action?

Science Based Target Definition

A science-based target (SBT) is a corporate sustainability, climate, or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goal that meets three criteria:

  1. It has a clearly-defined emissions reduction pathway
  2. It has a defined baseline amount and year, as well as target goal date (i.e., reduce absolute GHG by 50% by 2030)
  3. It's set in line with the latest climate science necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement: limiting global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C

Science-based targets come from the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). SBTi is the lead partner of the Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign - an urgent call to action from a global coalition of UN agencies, business, and industry leaders focused on mobilizing companies to set net zero science-based targets in line with a 1.5°C future. SBTi defines and promotes best practice in emissions reductions and net zero targets in line with climate science.

Unilever Science Based Target Chart Example

Source: Unilever

How Widely Used are Science-Based Sustainability Targets?

According to SBTi, as of March 2022, 2,643 companies around the world have made science-based target commitments, and 1,226 companies have set and are working toward defined SBTs. 74% of companies reporting they've set a science-based target are large enterprises or global brands, and the practice is much more common today among corporations compared to small businesses.

Currently SBTs are only used by companies. SBTi does not currently assess targets for cities, governments, public sector institutions, educational institutions, or non-profits.

SBTs can also vary by carbon accounting scope. For example, a company might set an SBT for only it's Scope 1 and 2 emissions, and perhaps a second SBT for its Scope 3 emissions.

Science-Based Target-Setting Example

While SBTi offers guidance on setting a science-based target, there's no rule to follow today on what your target needs to be. Some organizations select one flagship target like reduce absolute corporate GHG by X% by a certain year, while other companies may set multiple more specific SBTs.

For example, global consumer goods brand Unilever sets three primary science-based targets:

  1. A Short-term Emissions Reduction Target: to reduce in absolute terms our operational (Scope 1 & 2) emissions by 70% by 2025 against a 2015 baseline;
  2. A Medium-term Emissions Reduction Target: to reduce in absolute terms our operational emissions (Scope 1 & 2) by 100% by 2030 against a 2015 baseline
  3. A Long-term Net Zero Value Chain Target: to achieve net zero emissions covering Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions by 2039
Unilever Science Based Target Example

Source: Unilever

Getting Started and Next Steps with Science-Based Targets

If your company's considering setting and adopting science-based sustainability targets, we recommend following these steps:

First, you'll need to measure your emissions baseline. Your baseline is your starting point. For example, if your carbon accounting shows your company generated 1,000 tons of CO2-e in 2021, you might set that as your baseline amount and year. You can use a carbon accounting tool like Brightest to measure your baseline, or collect and calculate all your emissions manually.

Science-Based Target Definition Example

A Net Zero science-based emissions reduction target example measured in CO2-e and automatically graphed in our sustainability reporting software dashboard

Next, work with executive leadership, your operations team, and other relevant stakeholders to determine what a realistic science-based target is for your company. By definition, science-based targets are based on clear science and a feasability estimate of what your organization can achieve by your target date. For example, after internal discussion and analysis, you might determine it's realistic to reduce your emissions 30% by 2025 to 500 tons of tons of CO2-e in that year, your SBT.

Then, register your organization with SBTi, submit and declare your public SBT, and start tracking your progress. Remember, you don't have to publicly disclose to SBTi in order to have or use a science-based target. If your company doesn't have high confidence in the target, or is early in its sustainability journey, it might make more sense to work toward a private, short-term SBT until you have higher confidence in the progress your organization will be able to make year-over-year.

For further reading, check out our free guides on sustainability measurement, sustainability reporting standards, how to implement sustainability reporting at your company, and how to take the next steps setting science-based targets.

Each guide provides additional advice and insights on how to measure and report on your sustainability performance and science-based targets.