Science Based Climate Targets

Calculating and understanding your carbon footprint has become generally accepted practice.  Organisations use carbon footprinting to identify greenhouse gas hotspots, understand the use of expensive inputs like diesel, electricity and fertilisers and to communicate their sustainability credentials.

Once you know and understand your carbon footprint you can set targets to reduce it.  Unfortunately few businesses set clear carbon reduction targets, and the few that do often choose arbitrary targets like “reduce electricity use by 20%”.  With the effects of climate change becoming a reality, consumers are rightly asking if “reducing electricity by 20%” is enough to slow down and eventually stop climate change.  This is where science based climate targets come in.

In 2015 the Paris Climate Agreement was negotiate by 196 countries and to date 174 countries have become party to it[i].  This agreement aims to keep the global temperature rise this century “well below 2 degrees Celsius” compared to pre-industrial levels.  This ‘hard’ target makes it easy to determine science based carbon budgets to achieve this.  Broadly speaking the 2 degrees Celsius target means we have to ween ourselves of fossil based inputs by 2050 (the latest research shows even this may be too little too late, but that is a discussion for another time).

What is a science-based climate target?

A carbon target is defined as ‘science based’ if it is in line with the level of decarbonisation required to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures.[ii] .

A science-based target thus defines a trajectory to move out of fossil fuel based inputs by 2050. Targets can be described as “weak” when not science based, and “strong” when they are.

An example of a how “strong” science based climate targets can and should influence policy is France’s decision to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 and to no longer use coal to produce electricity after 2022.[iii]

As society increasingly feels the ‘bite’ of climate change, and its bigger brother, ‘abrupt climate change’, so the demand that businesses and their associated supply chains set meaningful and impactful carbon reduction targets is gaining momentum.

It is important to understand that science-based climate targets are very ambitious, long term in nature and will take businesses out of their comfort zones.  Imagine fossil-fuel free logistics connecting your business to your suppliers and markets.  This is the new reality we have to create for ourselves if catastrophic climate change is to be effectively avoided.

Adopting science-based targets puts your business and supply chain at the forefront of carbon management and reduction.

Who ensures the credibility of science based targets?

The Science Based Targets Initiative ( ) is a collaboration between the Carbon Disclosure Project CDP, the World Resources Institute (WRI), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC).  This initiative allows organisations to[iv]:

Step 1: Submit a letter of commitment.

Step 2: Develop a target.

Step 3: Submit the target for validation.

Step 4: Announce the target.


Which agri and retail businesses are perusing science based carbon targets in South Africa?

The bad news is not many companies at the moment.  The good news is you can become a leader in this regard!  Currently four South African retail and/or agriculture companies have signed up with the Science Based Targets Initiative.  They are[v]:

  • Pick ‘n Pay;
  • Tiger Brands;
  • Tongaat Hulett; and
  • Woolworths

Even though the companies above have committed to science-based targets, they have not as yet set any targets with the Science Based Target Initiative

Internationally, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Wal-Mart Stores have gone a step further and set science based climate targets with the initiative.

So there remains a long way to go but the signs are positive that companies are beginning to understand that their targets need to move from “weak” to “strong” if they are to make any meaningful contributions to the de-carbonisation of our economic systems. The emergence of the concept of science-based targets and the formation of the Science Based Targets Initiative are important developments to both challenge and support businesses and supply-chains in this regard.