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Why do we need to set science-based targets on climate change?

Posted by Jamie Plotnek | 28 July 2016 | Viewpoint

Setting the bar high enough: the case for science-based targets on climate change - Part 1


This is the first in a series of five articles on science-based targets:
Part 2: What exactly is a science-based target?
Part 3: Why should a company set a science-based target?
Part 4: How do you make the internal business case to set a science-based target?
Part 5: What should businesses be doing in addition to setting science-based targets?

In a year where we are seeing record-breaking temperatures around the world, we have finally reached a point where there is common consensus on global warming. After years of dithering and dispute, businesses and governments are broadly in agreement on the need to take urgent action. With the possible exception of Donald Trump everyone seems to be on the same page. Even Kim Jong-un has pledged to reduce North Korea’s emissions by 37.4 percent by 2020 and declared war on deforestation.

So if there is general agreement on the need for action, why are science-based targets so important? You can answer this question in the form of a joke.

A politician, a business leader and a scientist walk into a climate change-themed bar. They are surprised to find that it is far smaller inside than they had imagined, with the taps just above ankle height. They debate whether they ought to go somewhere else, but with a two-to-one vote decide to stay and have a drink.

The politician goes up to order his drink first. The tiny bartender leans over the low countertop, looks up and says, “Before I serve you, you have to tell me what you are doing to solve the challenge of climate change?

The politician provides a long-winded description of his government’s position, explaining, “We are taking a number of positive steps, while accommodating competing economic priorities.

The bartender responds angrily. She picks up a baseball bat hidden behind the bar, swinging it over the top of the counter and catching the politician on the knee, causing him to topple over.

The bartender then turns to the business leader and asks her the same question. Although slightly nervous after what just happened, the business leader still wants a drink, so she sets out her company’s position to the bartender, saying, “We do what we can to reduce carbon emissions while saving costs, making good progress, but we need to make sure we are serving the interests of our shareholders today.

Visibly displeased by the response, the bartender picks up the baseball bat again. She jabs it smartly over the top of the bar into the business leader’s stomach, causing her to collapse.

At this point the scientist is standing there with a smug look on her face. The bartender looks at her menacingly and says, “What are you smiling about?”

The scientist takes a moment to look down at the other two, before saying, “I told them that if we wanted to avoid painful consequences from climate change, we needed a higher bar.

The joke may not be funny. Then again nor are the very serious impacts that dangerous climate change will have on future generations. These are likely to cause major disruptions to the global economy and security, which will have severe repercussions for governments and businesses.

Currently the bar for our collective ambition as a society is set far too low. If we are going to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the worst consequences, it is important we make use of the best available science in our decision-making.

On the positive side, in Paris last year we had a historic and unprecedented moment of international consensus on climate change. 195 countries agreed to limit global warming to no more than 2°C. The talks even left the door open to raise that ambition to 1.5°C.

However, there is very serious problem that undermines the positivity of Paris: the collective sum of national commitments to support the agreement gets us nowhere near the total emissions reductions necessary to have a good chance of maintaining warming below even 2°C. Although there is a mechanism in place to ratchet commitments upwards at regular intervals, there is no certainty that this will happen.

But against this mixed backdrop of good and bad news, something very important was occurring. In the run up to the talks over 100 leading corporates – including some of the world’s biggest businesses –announced their intention to support the Science Based Targets Initiative. This involved making groundbreaking commitments to set carbon emissions targets that are consistent with the best available science. Momentum has been growing ever since and at the time of writing 170 companies have made commitments, with approximately two major businesses a week signing up to the initiative.

Dealing with global and systemic challenge like climate change is going to be incredibly difficult. In a world where many people don’t know what will happen next week, we have to address an issue where there is a lag of decades between a cause and its worst effects. Using science seems to be the only way to move beyond what is politically or commercially expedient today to make sure that we take sufficient action to prevent serious harm for future generations.

In this series of articles the Carbon Trust’s team will provide expert insight into science-based carbon emissions targets for businesses, providing details of how they are being set, the factors that are driving their implementation, and exploring some of the limitations they have in a company’s approach to sustainability.

In Part 2 of this series we explain in more detail what makes a target science-based and the key methodological approaches that companies are using to set them today.

Science-based targets

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