As the world’s governments gather in Glasgow for COP26 to discuss how society can meet the Paris Agreement goals and reach Net Zero by 2050, a new standard on setting Net-Zero targets for the corporate sector has been released.
The new ‘Net Zero Standard’ established by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a framework designed to enable companies to set robust and credible emission targets in line with what science considers to be ‘Net Zero’; in other words, targets aligned with what is needed by the planet, rather than what might be achievable by a particular company.
Specifically, the Standard defines:
What does this mean for businesses?
But it also means:
Given that some elements of the Standard remain unclear and a number of the sector-specific guidance documents will not be released until late 2022, there is still some way to go before we have a full and comprehensive picture. Nonetheless, the Standard does provide much-needed clarity for corporates on what a robust Net Zero target should look like.
In this article we untangle some of the core concepts of the new emission Standard and explore the challenges and opportunities it will bring to companies setting emission reduction targets.
What do we mean by Net Zero? What is the difference between Net Zero and carbon neutral? Why has the SBTi produced a ‘Net Zero Standard’ rather than a ‘carbon neutral standard’?
There are a myriad of climate, carbon and emission reduction terms increasingly used (sometimes interchangeably) by organizations wanting to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability goals and climate action.
Whilst different, all the terms describe an ‘end state’ in which there is a theoretical ‘balance’ between Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emitted by the organization (e.g., from fuels, energy use and raw materials sourced) and emissions associated with sequestration of carbon by (mainly) natural sinks (i.e., carbon removed from the atmosphere by, for example, trees).
As we are all aware, our economic activities are currently ‘out of balance’ with nature, with more GHGs emitted globally than are sequestered naturally, resulting in anthropogenic climate change.
To create balance, we need to reduce human-related GHG sources to absolute zero. However, ‘absolute zero’ is neither practical, nor technically or economically feasible—especially for the private sector.
Organizations can, however, achieve balance by reducing their emissions and using proxy instruments (such as offset credits from carbon sinks) to ‘neutralize’ hard-to-abate emissions.
This concept of ‘balance’ and the various degrees of emission reduction and neutralization for each of these terms are shown in Figure 1.
In simple terms, Figure 1 shows how companies achieve different types of ‘Future End States’ by pulling on different levers in varying amounts (and at different times).
Whilst complex GHG accounting rules are required, some key components to consider when setting a climate target include:
Absolute Zero: a company does not emit any carbon dioxide emissions and so therefore does not have to balance any emissions.
Carbon Neutral: a company balances its GHG emissions with a similar amount of GHG emissions removed or avoided over a specified period.
Science Based Targets: targets in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increase below 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures (IPCC).
Net Zero: anthropogenic emissions of GHG released into the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period.
Carbon Positive/Negative: a company removes more GHG or carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere than it emits.
Climate Neutral: a company creates a state in which human activities result in no net effect on the climate system.
The SBTi was launched in 2015 as a collaboration by the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), the UN Global Compact (UNGC), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Its mission is to help companies set emission targets that are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.
The SBTi has built solid credibility in the climate action space, with over 2,000 companies (including big names such as Nestle, Unilever, Nike, and Apple) taking action with the SBTi to reduce their emissions in line with climate science.
Companies commit to setting a target, developing the target in line with the SBTi’s science-based criteria, submitting the target for validation, communicating it externally, disclosing progress in-line with target requirements regularly and neutralizing residual emissions at the target date (see technical descriptions below). The new Net Zero Standard released by SBTi in October 2021 builds upon and extends the foundations already laid out by the original emissions reduction standard.
The SBTi Net Zero Standard defines four pillars of a robust and credible long-term target.
The SBTi has historically sought to help companies define short-term targets through the adaptation of society’s global carbon budget to a company’s specific context. Capitalizing on its influence and legitimacy in the climate space, the initiative now seeks to standardize the landscape of companies’ long-term climate strategy through the following four pillars:
While the Standard only recommends compensation3 between now and Net Zero, it requires companies to use high-quality and permanent removal offsets when reduction targets have been reached.
What is meant by high-quality and permanence remains, however, to be defined by the Standard in later documentation.
The proposed Standard demonstrates a shift from the UN-inspired Net Zero definitions, which have mostly focused on the balance of emissions and sinks at a given time.
With the SBTi Standard, companies will only be able to claim they are Net Zero once they have achieved the target level of emission reduction (80-100%) and neutralized the remaining residual emissions. Until then, companies are considered en route towards Net Zero.
Committing to a Net Zero target engages companies in a highly ambitious and transformative pathway. Reducing CO2 emissions by around 90% over the next 30 years is an essential but incredibly challenging goal, especially as 2050 is, in global terms, just around the corner. Before engaging on this path, companies should do two things:
These roadmaps should allow decision-makers to build a consensus, internal credibility and momentum, and to identify immediate actions and investments to engage reductions and avoid locking in carbon in long-life assets.
Reaching these targets will be an incredible challenge for companies, but so is climate change. By committing to these targets and designing the appropriate roadmaps, companies have a unique opportunity to signal to their clients, their employees and their supply chain that long-term climate targets matter most, and that they are prepared to activate all the necessary levers and enablers—at all scales—to deliver on these goals.
Mitigation and Offsets: Historically, the SBTi has focused on mitigation pathways, leaving the offset talk aside. However, a Net Zero state at the planet level cannot be reached without a significant increase of our carbon sinks’ capacity. While companies must contribute to emission reduction, it’s only logical they contribute to the increase of carbon sinks through—if not available within the value chain—financing activities that enhance the capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Neutralization: While neutralization of residual emissions is mandatory to claim Net Zero (long term claim), the Standard remains unclear as to what kind of removal activities should be funded: tree plantations, regenerative agriculture, Carbon Capture and Storage, etc. Also unclear at this point is how the Standard will assess their quality.
Compensation: The Standard recognizes that all levers of decarbonization and removal must be activated today in our global effort. However, it only recommends that companies engage in financing external reductions or removal (otherwise known as offsets) with no further recommendations on quality, type, hierarchy and possible claims following the purchase of offsets.
COP26 in late 2021 will be a decisive point on the road to reaching the Paris Agreement climate goals and achieving Net Zero by 2050. The new SBTi Net Zero Standard provides a robust and solid foundation for all companies looking to set credible Net Zero targets aligned with climate science. The Standard is, however, ambitious and requires companies to make significant commitments to taking climate action over the coming years.
These actions include:
Delivering against this level of ambition will require significant changes across all aspects of a company’s value chain. This will create challenges and opportunities, as companies will need to deploy more internal decarbonization investment in more places over a longer period of time and will be obliged to work with suppliers to identify financially efficient, lower-carbon solutions across their entire value chain.
The authors would like to thank Mark Chadwick, Jeremy Handler and Jessica Brooks for their contributions to this article.
1 Minimum target boundary is 95% of Scope 1, 2, and 3 long-term science-based net-zero targets applied to mixed sector pathway absolute contraction of 90% reduction overall by 2050 or sooner (1.5°C ambition).
2 Residual emissions are emissions sources that ‘remain unabated by the time Net Zero is reached at the global or sector level in 1.5°C mitigation pathways with low or no overshoot’ (Source: Science Based Target Initiative Net Zero Manual & Criteria (September 2021)). In this article, carbon offset credits are presented as the main instrument to neutralize residual emissions. Other balance mechanisms exist including GHG removals from value chains, avoided emissions from sold products and renewable energy certificates.
3 Compensation refers to Measures that companies take to prevent, reduce or eliminate sources of GHG emissions outside their value chain (Source: Science Based Target Initiative Net Zero Manual & Criteria (September 2021)).
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