Science told us about global warming and gave us irrefutable evidence that humans are the dominant cause of climate change. But can science deliver target-based solutions? In the wake of unprecedented global action on climate change, John Barwise assesses what science-based targets can do to help businesses avert a global crisis and looks at three specific case studies.

Youth speaks out

Frustration has been growing for some time, particularly among younger generations, over the failure of politicians to address the underlying causes of climate change. But it took a 15-year old girl from Sweden to tell it like it is and kick-start a global campaign with a simple message: “enough is enough”.

In 2018, at the height of the hottest summer ever recorded in Sweden, Greta Thunberg decided to go on school strike. “I am doing this because nobody else is doing anything. It is my moral responsibility to do what I can,” she says. “I want the politicians to prioritise the climate question, focus on the climate and treat it like a crisis.”

Within a matter of months, Thunberg had amassed a global following of thousands of young people willing to stand up for their future by going on school strike. The media was hooked. And news reports of this young girl’s actions went viral.

The power to change

In December, Thunberg was invited to address the UN climate change conference (COP24) — how could they ignore her? This was her moment and she was pulling no punches. To a packed audience of the world’s rich and powerful the school girl said this: “You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children... Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

Since then Thunberg has inspired climate action rallies across Europe. In April she told the European Commission it would take “cathedral thinking” to make change happen. She brought her simple message to Westminster and wasted no time criticising MPs for supporting continued exploitation of fossil fuels and exaggerating the UK’s cuts in carbon emissions. Describing climate change as an “existential crisis” she went on to say: “This ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind.”

Listen to the scientists

Climate action is driven by scientific facts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published in November, says we have just 12 years left to keep global warming within manageable limits and avoid catastrophic climate change from destroying much of the earth’s life support systems.

Since then, climate action has gone mainstream and resilience among campaigners to force change is gaining momentum. Extinction Rebellion, established in the UK last year, is the platform for most climate change protests. In April much of London and other cities across the world were in lockdown, as campaigners took their message to the streets.

“Listen to climate scientists,” Thunberg said. And there is good reason that some politicians and a growing number of businesses are starting to do just that. Both the Scottish leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Welsh Government have both declared a “climate emergency” and at the time of writing, MPs in London have just approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency.

Collective effort

In an open letter earlier this month, senior business leaders from companies such as The Body Shop, Ecotricity, Tridos Bank and investment group WHEB, pledged their support for climate action saying that while the “multi-million-pound costs that the Extinction Rebellion protests have imposed on business are regrettable”, businesses also recognise that “future costs imposed on our economies by the climate emergency will be many orders of magnitude greater”.

These are encouraging signs that businesses are taking their responsibilities for climate change seriously. But they need government regulations and fiscal measures to set the direction of travel and for scientists to come up with targeted solutions that deliver viable results.

Below are just a few examples of how science-based targets are beginning to work in practice — not just for larger companies but also through their supply chains.

The BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts, presented by Sir David Attenborough, looks at the science of climate change and potential solutions to this global threat. But it also tells us we are fast approaching a “tipping point” beyond which the damage to our life support systems would be irreversible.

The old adage “it’s never too late” to do something, doesn’t apply to climate change.

Pioneers in science-based targets — case studies

Proctor & Gamble — multinational consumer goods company

P&G is the world's largest maker of packaged goods, with a global range of consumer products including healthcare products, personal hygiene, household detergents and baby care product lines.

Mission

The company decided that its mission, “to improve the lives of the world’s consumers” needed to align with science-based targets to achieve a credible means of demonstrating and achieving its ambition.

The company is already committed to sourcing 30% of its energy from renewables but decided to redouble its efforts by introducing a science-based greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target of 30% by 2020 from a 2010 baseline.

P&G joined the WWF’s Climate Savers program in 2015 and committed to reduce absolute GHG emissions by 30% by 2020 from a 2010 baseline.

As part of that commitment P&G wanted to introduce emissions reduction measures across its value chain including: ensuring that 70% of all washing machine loads are washed in cold water, doubling the use of post-consumer resin in plastic packaging and ensuring zero deforestation in the palm oil supply chain.

Science-based targets

Energy targets to reduce GHG emissions Scope 1 (direct) and 2 (indirect) — the renewables portfolio includes geothermal, wind, solar, hydroelectric and biomass, with more wind power and combined heat and power (CHP) plants also coming on stream.

Reducing Scope 3 (indirect) emissions impact of products — actions to reduce from the environmental impact products include; improving transport and packaging, achieving zero deforestation in its palm oil supply chain and increasing the use of FSC-certified wood fibre.

Impact of consumers — by innovating in washing detergent design, working with machine manufacturers and raising consumer awareness, P&G aims to increase the proportion of cold-water washes to 70% by 2020, which will help consumers reduce energy usage and contribute to additional reductions in GHG emissions.

Outcomes

P&G say science-based targets have helped reduce GHG emissions and saved the company $500 million in the process — with more savings to come. The company also confirmed it is meeting the minimum standards of multiple methods including the 3% annual emissions reduction target (3% solution), Sectoral Decarbonisation Approach (SDA) and the performance-based Context-Based Carbon metric approach.

Download the P&G study here.

Alpro — a plant-based food and drink producer

The food and beverage sector rely on agriculture produce for base products, which can have significant impacts on climate change, biodiversity loss, nutrient loss, land use change and water use.

Alpro is Belgium company specialising in plant-based food and drink alternatives to traditional yoghurt and cream, desserts, margarines and ice cream. Ingredients include non-GM soya, almonds, hazelnuts, cashew, rice, oats and coconut.

Mission

Alpro wanted to go beyond measuring carbon emissions and reduction targets based on efficiency or feasibility, and instead consider options for ensuring its products are not exceeding the planet’s capacity in terms of the wider impacts on water consumption, land use and biodiversity.

The study — “Setting Science Based Targets for Nature” focused on the company’s almond and soy drink supply chains. The project, co-ordinated by science consultants Metabolic working with WWF-NL and Alpro, tested science-based targets for land, water, nutrients, and biodiversity that respect planetary boundaries and don’t cross the tipping points that threaten the functioning of the earth’s ecological system.

Science-based targets

Corridors of biodiversity — Alpro’s almonds come from farms located in the Mediterranean Forest, Woodland, and Scrub biome which are below the critical tipping point of 10% vegetation cover. The specific areas in which the farms are situated have relatively high vegetation cover of 73.8%. By introducing green corridors around the farms, Alpro was able to increase connectivity with surrounding natural habitats, helping to increase local biodiversity.

Water footprinting — after assessing the freshwater balance of a selected basin, the study indicated the river system is under significant strain during the summer months and climate change could make this situation worse if it alters rainfall patterns. These insights have helped craft science-based targets for water for the farms.

Trade-offs between boundaries — performance in one area is linked to impacts on other boundaries. The study found that Alpro’s organic farms performed better than its conventional farms on water efficiency, soil nutrient loss, and carbon emissions. However, the organic farms produced less yield per hectare of land used, so the report explored what trade-offs they could make to increase this, such as increasing irrigation or alternative forms of fertiliser use on organic farms that are safely within the limits for water or soil nutrient impact.

Outcomes

The food industry as a whole, has a crucial responsibility in understanding and reducing the damaging impacts that their products can have on the environment. The study revealed a range of gaps in data that need to be filled to enable companies to set more precise science-based targets to reduce or mitigate those impacts in line with what the environment can absorb.

“Crucial to this effort is the establishment of a process for companies to budget for other environmental impacts in the same detail as many already do for carbon emissions,” the study found.

Download the Alpro study here.

Tesco — multinational retailer

Tesco is a British multinational grocery and general merchandise company and one of the world’s largest retailers, with more than 6000 outlets across Europe and Asia serving millions of customers every week.

Mission

Tesco has a long-standing ambition to become a net-zero carbon company by 2050 and set its first business-wide carbon reduction targets in 2006.

Following the 2015 Paris Agreement, the company conducted a review of its short- and medium-term plans to ensure that its efforts were aligned with science-based targets to help keep global temperature rise below 2°C.

The review concluded that although long-term, zero-carbon ambition (2050) is aligned with this global aim, the company needed to set steeper absolute targets over the short- and medium-terms. These targets are included in a revised climate change strategy, comprising energy and refrigerant efficiency, renewables deployment and policy engagement.

Science-based targets

Tesco has committed to reduce direct (scope 1) and indirect (scope 2) GHG emissions by 60% by 2025, from 2015 base-year. Tesco also commits to reduce its scope 3 GHG emissions by 17% by 2030, using a 2015 base-year.

The emissions categories covered by the scope 3 targets are purchased goods and services (supply chain), fuel and energy related activities, upstream transportation and distribution, and waste generated in operations.

Outcomes

Efficiency improvements — the company has invested over £700 million in energy and refrigeration efficiency improvements since 2006. This has reduced emissions from our stores and distribution centres by 41% per square foot and delivered absolute reductions despite significant floor area growth.

Renewables — Tesco has switched to 100% renewable electricity in the UK and the Republic of Ireland and invested £8 million in onsite generation in 2016 across its Asia outlets, with a plan to expand renewable onsite generation further.

The company has also developed a cost-neutral renewable electricity plan to 2030 for the whole company. This includes a commitment to ensuring that the majority of our renewable electricity comes from renewable onsite generation and power purchase agreements.

Download the Tesco study here.

More case studies on science-based targets for different businesses sectors are available here, and see also our previous article Setting science-based targets — how and why?.

Last reviewed 14 May 2019