Net Zero vs. Science Based Targets

Which approach to carbon emissions reduction is right for your business?

Lucy Piper
November 16, 2021
Professional woman at computer - Photo by Unsplash

Choosing the right carbon emissions reduction path for your business

As the concept of ‘net zero’ gains momentum, and more businesses, cities and even countries are announcing their own net zero target dates, the term has become a buzzword, as corporations race to future-proof their businesses against climate risk. However, reducing your corporate emissions in line with the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement is complicated, and setting a date to achieve net zero emissions is just the start.

Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi)

To help businesses navigate the complexities of carbon emissions reduction, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) was created. It acts as a framework to provide both guidance and accountability, ensuring corporate emissions reductions plans are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

So what’s the difference between net zero and a science-based target?

Net zero:
All carbon emissions have been reduced to a net result of zero, by a target date (which your company specifies). Businesses must reduce emissions, but carbon offsetting can be used to reach the ‘net zero’ total. Net zero targets are not created equally: the path to achieving net zero emissions is inconsistent across corporations (which means you might set a reduction target that is not in line with the remaining carbon budget for your sector), and there is no defined rate at which your company will decarbonise. So Net Zero targets are effectively a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality, as opposed to actual emissions reductions. 

Science-Based Target: Aligned with climate science and rooted in the Paris Agreement, they are scientific, quantitative and transparent. There is sector-specific guidance, based on IPCC modelling, and there are stringent frameworks in place to ensure your business sets targets that are compatible with less than 2 degrees of warming. What this means is that the scientific modelling has specified a total remaining carbon budget if we are to limit warming, and that total budget is then divided across all industries. Each industry has its own specific remaining carbon budget, and in order to stay within that number, every business within the sector will need to reduce their emissions accordingly, and as fast as possible. Carbon offsetting is not permitted when setting your science-based Target.

Why is carbon offsetting not permitted when setting a science-based target?

Carbon offsetting is problematic in the long term, as it is effectively an accounting tool that allows you to lower your emissions balance on paper, without having to take steps to actively reduce your emissions within your operations and supply chain. It allows a business to continue emitting at a continued rate, as long as they pay the cost of the equivalent carbon credits.

When setting a science-based target, your business’s carbon emissions are assessed within your industry sector, and your remaining carbon budget is the actual scientifically validated target that you will need to achieve in order to align with the Paris Agreement. With a science-based target, carbon offsets are permissible only as a tool during the transition period, and to neutralise all unavoidable emissions after reduction practices are implemented.

Choosing between net zero or a
science-based target

If your business is serious about reducing their emissions and keeping global warming to below 2 degrees, then committing to a science-based target is the best way for a corporation to confidently address climate change, due to the robust framework and accountability required. 

For many businesses however, the stringent criteria, and the costs associated with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) may be currently out of reach, so a net zero target might be a more immediate action that your company can take. Net zero can be set by anybody and can be an important signal to employees, stakeholders, customers and the broader sector that you are putting emissions reduction at the core of your business strategy. It can allow your company to advocate for action and increase pressure on policy makers to take more urgent action on climate. 

One caution for corporations setting net zero targets is that the absence of a specific rate of net decarbonisation means high emissions can exist until immediately prior to your deadline. Therefore, your corporate emissions could be higher than the carbon budget of an equivalent science-based target – and this is not compatible with limiting temperature rises to below 2 degrees. Greenhouse gas emissions have compounding effects, so reducing emissions sooner rather than later makes a big difference in how much warming occurs.

Your next step: choose which path you want to explore for your company.

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