written by
Mieke Priem

Science Based Targets: moving towards a zero-carbon future

Business 7 min read , March 26, 2021
  • Science Based Targets have emerged as the leading method for companies setting climate action goals.
  • This article provides an introductory guide into the targets - what they are, how they can benefit your business, and what steps you need to take to set a Science Based Target.
Science Based Targets have emerged as the leading method for companies setting climate action goals.
Science Based Targets have emerged as the leading method for companies setting climate action goals.

Most organisations understand the importance of integrating climate into their business strategy and have started setting targets to reduce their emissions. But many of them ask themselves whether they are ambitious enough. This is where the Science Based Targets Initiative (or SBTi) can provide an answer.

What are Science Based Targets?

The Science Based Target initiative sets out methodologies for companies to set a target to reduce their emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. These targets are considered ‘science based’ because they reflect what climate scientists consider to be necessary to limit global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.”

With emission targets linked to the Paris Agreement, companies can be on an equal footing in terms of their climate ambitions. This harmonisation of carbon targets is key to driving climate action adoption and scaling up the number of businesses playing their part to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. There are three main methods that companies can use when setting an SBT :

  • The absolute-based approach is relatively straightforward. It defines an absolute amount of emissions to be reduced by a target year, relative to a base year. This method is used by most companies.
  • The sector-based approach is a more complex approach and is based on a carbon budget per sector. This method can only be applied by a specific set of carbon-intensive industries such as power generation or cement production.
  • The economic-based approach is less used and determines a company’s share of emission reduction by its gross profit as a percentage of the global GDP.

To set an SBT, companies first have to sign a commitment letter. After submitting this letter, they have up to 24 months to develop the target, choosing one of the three methods. This target then needs to be verified by the Science Based Targets initiative, which will confirm whether the target has been formally approved or requires additional investigation.

Small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) with less than 500 employees can bypass this target validation process and immediately set a science-based target for their company-related (scope 1&2) emissions. They have the option to commit to a target of 50% reduction by 2030 (1.5°C aligned) or to a target of 30% reduction (well-below 2°C) from a 2018 base year. The SBTi does not have specific requirements for setting targets related to SME’s value chain emissions (scope 3), but they encourage companies to orientate themselves to the SBTi criteria and best practices in their sector.

What are the benefits of SBTs?

In addition to helping to fight climate change and having a positive impact on future generations, there are many benefits for businesses setting a science based target :

  • Driver for action: Companies committed and acting to achieve SBT can be safe in the knowledge that they are doing their part to tackle climate change. The SBTi sets out an undeniable benchmark for companies allowing them to show their ambition to be aligned with the goals of the Paris agreement and to communicate it to stakeholders and customers.
  • Investor confidence: When it comes to investing in companies, sustainability is becoming an increasingly more important investor metric. New EU legislation such as the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), will take this further and make it much more difficult for asset managers to ‘greenwash’ carbon-intensive or unsustainable companies in their funds.
  • Resilience against regulation: National governments have a big part to play to achieve their commitments under the Paris Agreement. It’s a ‘question of when, not if’ governments ramp up regulation on GHG emissions, increase carbon taxes, etc. Businesses working towards SBTs will be more resilient and adaptable to any future changes to emissions compliance or regulations.
  • Increased innovation: With an SBT, everyone in the company knows what needs to be achieved. The challenge presented can help create an environment for innovation within the business, empowering employees to come up with new, more efficient products or business processes.
  • Bottom line savings: Setting SBTs can translate to a direct improvement in business profitability. Targets help a company to focus on more efficient use of resources, which should lead to cost savings and less exposure to volatile commodity markets.
  • Competitive edge: All of the benefits mentioned above result in a company’s competitive edge. Advances in business resilience, innovation, and profitability all serve to help an organisation get the upper hand on competitors and ensure further growth.
 addition to helping fight climate change and having a positive impact on future generations, there are many benefits setting science based targets.
In addition to helping fight climate change and having a positive impact on future generations, there are many benefits to setting science based targets.

What companies have joined the Science Based Target Initiative?

To date over 1,000 companies globally have signed up to the initiative, with 427 companies committed to even stronger targets under the “Business Ambition for 1.5°C”.

Here are a few examples of companies that already set a Science Based target:

  • AB InBev - Global Brewer AB InBev has committed to reducing absolute scopes 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 35% by 2025 (from a 2017 base year).
  • Cofinimmo - Real estate company, Cofinimmo, has committed to reduce absolute scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 (from a 2018 base year), and to measure and reduce its scope 3 emissions.
  • Proximus - Mobile telecom company, Proximus, has committed to reducing absolute Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 30% between 2015 and 2025.

Other Belgium based companies such as Vandemoortele, Barco, Solvay, UCB, Greenyard and Elia Group have also recently committed to or are in the process of setting SBTs.

Preparing your company for Science Based Targets

If you are planning to join the growing list of companies committing to set a Science Based Target, there are a number of steps that need to be taken.

Step 1: Understand your business goals

What are your company ambitions, what are your stakeholders’ requirements, what measures are already planned? What are the major challenges (company growth, understanding the impact in the value chain, etc.)? These are important questions that need to be answered before taking on an SBT.

Step 2: Manage your Data

Calculate the emissions within your value chain to understand your carbon hotspots. Don't waste time collecting data with low accuracy or that do not significantly contribute to your total emissions. Focus on areas where your company has the highest impact and ability to change.

Step 3: Define your baseline emissions

Understand the evolution of your emissions over time in a business-as-usual scenario taking into account both internal (e.g. organic growth, acquisitions and divestments, major investments planned) and external factors (e.g. greening of the grid, electrification of transport).

Step 4: Set your reduction action plan

Draw up a climate action plan including planned and possible emission reduction measures to understand your reduction potential.

Step 5: Close the Gap

Evaluate whether further measures need to be taken to align with the Science Based Target you are aiming for (SBT 2° or SBT 1.5°). Decide on priority measures based on investment cost, payback time, and marginal cost per ton of carbon saved.

Step 6: Set your Science Based Target

With the insights gained, you can now set an SBT which is backed by a thorough evaluation. This will make it easier to gain approval from internal and external stakeholders.

How can our consultants support your Science Based Targets?

From working with companies on their sustainability journeys, we see that many companies are willing to make a radical shift and to actively participate in the transition to a carbon-neutral world. But the same challenges come up over and over again – lack of quality data, limited staff resources, tight capital budgets, etc. Within these constraints, companies find it difficult to create and deliver on their emission reduction goals.

With over 10 years of experience in climate consulting, Futureproofed Business can help:

  • Make the business case for climate action within your organisation
    Get a deep understanding of the key emissions in your value chain based using our state-of-the-art calculation tools/
  • Set up carbon reduction targets in line with the SBTi and sector-related best practices
  • Develop a carbon reduction program taking into account your business ambitions and innovation opportunities

If your company is thinking about setting up a Science Based Targets, our consultants can help you choose the best methodology. Get in touch with our team to learn how SBT can support your company!


Mieke is the FutureproofedBusiness team lead, with over 20 years of experience in sustainability and climate strategies, carbon footprints and environmental impact assessments. Her business-minded approach helped many organisations create business with impact. She spent a large part of her career abroad in France, Denmark and India. In her free time, Mieke loves spending time with her family, riding bikes or exploring the world through her camera lens.


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