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What are science-based targets and why do we use them?


Authored by Thomas Lingard

Thomas Lingard, Unilever’s Global Director, Climate & Environment, on how Unilever’s sticking to the Paris Agreement

Ben and Jerry's climate action

About the author

Thomas Lingard, Global Climate Advocacy & Sustainability Strategy Director

Thomas Lingard

Global Climate and Environment Director at Unilever

Thomas leads Unilever’s global climate & environment agenda in support of our goal to improve the health of the planet.

At current rates, man-made greenhouse gas emissions will increase average global temperatures by 4–6°C by the end of this century. Even if the pledges made at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 are honoured, it still leaves average surface temperatures on track to increase by more than three degrees, resulting in an unpredictable and unmanageable impact on climate change.

That’s why hundreds of businesses – including Unilever – are setting science-based targets, which aim to prevent the catastrophic damage that global warming could cause.

We spoke to Thomas Lingard, Unilever’s Global Director, Climate & Environment, to find out what science-based targets are, how we’re using them and why they’re good for business as well as the environment.

What are science-based targets?

Science-based targets are greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that are informed by independent climate science.

These transparent targets ensure a company’s emissions are in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, reached in 2015 when 195 of the world’s governments committed to prevent the worst effects of catastrophic climate change by limiting average global temperature increases this century to well below two degrees Celsius. They also agreed to pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Of course, companies’ operations, and therefore emissions, take place within these countries. So setting high ambition targets at a company level helps governments to see the art of the possible, and sends a clear signal that businesses want to work with governments to achieve this stretching but necessary goal.

How do science-based targets differ from other sustainability targets?

They focus purely on greenhouse gas emission reduction. The targets are based on current climate science and projections of what’s known as the ‘emissions budget’ – the emissions permitted that will keep climate change within the limits set by the Paris Agreement.

It means targets are led by science. It’s about doing what is necessary, not what is easy or convenient.

What are the benefits of setting science-based targets?

For the environment, science-based targets set long-term, consistent targets. They avoid the risk of a change in management or business priorities over-riding a company’s ambitions on climate change.

There are clear benefits for businesses too. Setting science-based targets is a powerful way for companies to boost their competitive advantage in the transition to a low-carbon economy by ensuring that they are not exposed to regulatory pressures of carbon prices which are expected to rise over time. They also add transparency and external credibility to internal sustainability goals.

Bike in flood

4–6°CGlobal temperature increase by 2100 if we don’t take action (based on current rates)

What science-based targets does Unilever have in place?

We have an approved science-based target to reduce our Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions (those from our direct operations such as manufacturing and offices, and from the energy we use) by 100% by 2030, compared to our 2015 figures.

We also have a target in place to halve the greenhouse gas impact of our products across their lifecycle – including Scope 3 emissions (from suppliers and consumers) – by 2030, compared to our 2010 figures.

How has setting these targets informed Unilever’s wider sustainability strategy?

Science-based targets set the basis and guiding principles for all climate action strategy at Unilever. All our brands are covered by our overall targets, and some have also set themselves individual science-based targets that go beyond our overarching goals, such as Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation and Pukka.

In addition to science-based targets, Unilever also has a carbon-positive target which includes using 100% renewable energy in our operations by 2030 and supporting the generation of more renewable energy than we consume, making the surplus available to the communities in which we operate. And as a member of The B Team, a global coalition to do business more sustainably, we have committed to net zero emissions by 2050 – a goal considered the gold standard within the science-based targets community.

What will be the impact of businesses setting science-based targets?

Almost 500 companies have committed to taking science-based action on climate change.

The large number of companies who have committed to setting science-based targets shows a groundswell in climate ambition. These targets are ambitious, but if every business were to set science-based targets, we would have the confidence that we would be on track to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Ice caps

488companies taking science-based climate action

What would you like to see in coming years?

Targets are nice but action is what’s ultimately important. I hope that more companies will get on board to set science-based targets, and that in turn will lead to greater action on climate change.

How can readers help address climate change?

There are many things we can do to make a difference.

  1. Eat less meat and more plants. Meat-rich diets are very carbon intensive because of the land and fertiliser required to grow the feed for the animals. Flexitarian or vegetarian diets tend to be healthier too.
  2. Buy your energy from renewable sources. Where you have the option to choose your energy supplier, switch to a genuinely green tariff, preferably from a supplier who is actively investing in building new renewable energy assets.
  3. Travel more responsibly. Embrace agile working, don’t make journeys that are unnecessary. Consider fewer but longer holidays rather than lots of short trips by air.
  4. Write to your elected officials about this issue and ask them what they are doing to take action. At election time ask your candidates what they will do to accelerate climate action if elected. One of the biggest barriers to action occurs when politicians think people don’t care.
  5. Tell your friends about the issue and enlist their help. Connect with climate advocacy groups and learn more about how to get involved.

Bicycle photo taken by Tinto Alencherry, Senior Research Executive, R&D Unilever Bangalore Ice photo taken by Mauricio Jimenez, Hispanic Foods Brand Manager, Unilever USA

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