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Science-Based Carbon Targets: G4 Falters, GHG Protocol Moves Forward

Image credit: GHG Protocol

"Basing your decision to have a greenhouse gas emissions target on the fact that climate science has identified a problem, and then to turn around and set a target that doesn't reflect what that science says, for us is incongruous." That’s what Kevin Rabinovitch, global sustainability director at Mars, the privately held food and beverage company, told me last year. "You've got to bridge the gap between what you're committing to and what the science suggests needs to be committed to.”

It follows from this common-sense logic that carbon disclosure standards should include provisions guiding organizations to set and disclose science-based carbon targets. Unfortunately, the carbon disclosure field has yet to reach this approach. Luckily, a glimmer of hope shone at the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Conference last week — though, sadly, not from GRI itself.

In a panel devoted to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions disclosure, the question of science-based targets arose. Pankaj Bhatia, director of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol — the global gold standard in carbon reporting — responded that the GHG Protocol is “creating guidance on setting science-based GHG reduction targets.” He further clarified that science is “one of the inputs” necessary to set credible targets. 

Fellow panelist Kevin McKnight of Alcoa described its process, hitting on other key inputs. “We set ambitious targets, negotiating with the business leaders in segments throughout our company, taking into account what they can achieve and cost.” However, he did not mention science as one of the inputs on Alcoa’s targets, which is borne out by an examination of the relevant section of the company’s sustainability website that doesn’t mention the science either. So while Alcoa’s targets may indeed be quite ambitious from a business perspective, judging from publicly available information the company appears to be flying blind in terms of the scientific perspective.

McKnight contended that science must be balanced with reality, to which Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) Technical Director Pedro Faria responded, “science is reality.” I spoke with Faria after the session, and he reminded me of our 2012 interview where he pointed out that CDP’s Climate Performance Leadership Index (CPLI) integrates scientific targets into its scoring methodology for identifying strong company climate performance.

“In 2011, this was around the 2.65 percent threshold and it was set at this level to link to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) target; in 2012, it was set at 3 percent,” Faria said. “However, we don’t want to set a precedent by linking this threshold to the IPCC permanently because we want it to keep tracking the results that high-performing companies are achieving, and it’s clear that leading companies will need to exceed this to achieve an 80 percent global CO2 reduction by 2050.”

Ironically, the newly-minted G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines that GRI released at the Conference had the opportunity to ask companies to set science-based targets, in keeping with its Sustainability Context Principle of presenting companies’ “absolute pollution loading in relation to the capacity of the regional [or global] ecosystem to absorb the pollutant." As if to flout its own Principle, GRI actively opted against doing so.

In November 2012, in response to the Public Comment Period for the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Thematic Revision, the Sustainability Context Group submitted a Comment Letter making an exceedingly simple request: add “Report the reference target (i.e. science‐based threshold or climate stabilization model) upon which the organization bases its own target.” Included in the letter, as required, was an extensive bibliography of scientific research and real-world case examples as precedent.

Sadly, here’s what G4 calls on companies to disclose regarding their GHG emissions: “Report standards, methodologies, and assumptions used.”

In a world where practice follows guidance, we’re now doomed to another half-decade or more of GRI-compliant disclosure that purportedly reports on sustainability, but in reality is enabled (if not encouraged) to be utterly decoupled from the science that animates the entire enterprise of GHG emissions measurement in the first place. We can therefore expect more DuPont-like reporting that may be ambitious business-wise, moving us in the “right direction,” but may also be completely insufficient climatologically — kind of like trying to keep your butter from melting by turning the stove down from high to medium, instead of putting the butter in the fridge.  

As an internationally recognized expert on sustainability context, online stakeholder engagement, and sustainability communications, Bill Baue designs systemic transformation. He's co-founder of a number of companies and initiatives:

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