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Embracing science to bridge the sustainability gap

Bridging the Sustainability Gap


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Embracing science to bridge the sustainability gap” was written by Bill Baue for the Guardian Professional Network, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 23rd April 2012 14.26 UTC

The scenario has become commonplace: a company accepts the scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, and decides to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Good. Except, when it comes to setting targets, the company essentially ignores the scientific significance of threshold numbers such as 350 ppm CO2 or 2 degrees.

“Company target setting is motivated by market forces, not scientific requirements,” says the 2009 Carbon Chasm report from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) — an inconsistency that largely remains today. And unfortunately, this disconnect is not isolated to carbon, but applies across the entire triple bottom line, creating a “sustainability schism” — a gap between companies’ good intentions and real-world ecological, social, and economic limits.

“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,” says Kevin Rabinovitch, global sustainability director at Mars, the privately held food and beverage company that has released its first sustainability report, Principles in Action.

“You’ve got to bridge the gap between what you’re committing to, and what the science suggests needs to be committed to. This has become a very strong hallmark of our sustainability programme.”

Mars bridges this gap through a formal protocol for understanding and quantifying its impacts. Its second step consists of assessing available science to set targets that focus on outcomes rather than processes. Rabinovitch , an engineer at Mars, used this protocol to formulate the company’s Sustainable in a Generation (SiG) strategy, which covers four areas: operational efficiency, capital efficiency, new technology and renewable energy. On the operational efficiency front, in addition to water and waste goals, Mars set direct GHG emissions and fossil fuel use targets of 25% less by 2015 (from a 2007 baseline, the first year it has complete data sets) for its factories and offices, and down to zero on both by 2040.

This trajectory is “consistent with the recommendations of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” says Janet Ranganathan, the vice president of science and research at the World Resources Institute (WRI), who serves on the Mars scientific advisory council. It also aligns with the Ceres roadmap for sustainability, she points out, which recommends that “companies must begin calibrating their performance goals against national and international performance standards that are grounded in science.”

“It would be great if zero emissions target becomes contagious and inspires other companies to do the same — perhaps we might even see negative emissions commitments in the future.”

Currently, Mars is among just a handful of companies enacting what the Global Reporting Initiative calls “sustainability context,” which it defines as “discussing the performance of the organisation in the context of the limits and demands placed on environmental or social resources at the sectoral, local, regional, or global level.”

Despite the fact that sustainability context is one of in the GRI Guidelines that all sustainability reports are supposed to incorporate, precious few companies take this final step of comparing impacts against the ability of our broader systems to absorb those impacts. In other words, these reports do not measure performance toward sustainability, but rather they discuss environmental, social, and economic performance in a context-free vacuum.

EMC, has also embraced a science-based approach to carbon management that peaks in absolute emissions before 2015, which is what current science says is required in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, then reduces absolute emissions by 80% below estimated 2000 levels by 2050.

While most climate stabilisation models allow for near-term emissions increases, Mars has opted against allowing any increase in its direct emissions. “The only reason the models assume a continued rise in the short-term is that nobody thinks that society can actually make a ninety degree turn on that trajectory,” says Mars’ Rabinovitch. “As a business, certainly at a theoretic level and to some degree at a practical level, we can.

“What matters is the cumulative emissions of humanity over a long period of time, so the sooner we can get down, the better.”

BT takes a slightly different science-based approach that allocates proportional responsibility for carbon reductions the planet must make to the company’s contribution to GDP. Former BT chief sustainability officer Chris Tuppen developed this climate stabilisation intensity methodology for target-setting that allows for business growth while still respecting stringent global carbon reductions.

However, bridging the sustainability schism will take more than isolated efforts by individual companies. At the systems level, standard-setters and other intermediaries will need to integrate science-based target setting throughout their protocols.

The CDP deserves applause for publishing the Carbon Chasm report, which revealed that current corporate greenhouse gas reduction targets will not achieve scientific requirements and recommended company targets should reflect the IPCC scientific recommendations.

However, the 2012 CDP information request questions on “targets and initiatives” prompts companies to provide details on their absolute and intensity targets, but nowhere does it prompt companies to disclose how their targets reflect the IPCC recommendations nor any other science-based trajectory or model for emissions reductions, for that matter.

In other words, CDP chided companies in 2009 for falling into the carbon chasm yet three years later it doesn’t give companies the tools and incentives they need to set science-based targets. Mars, EMC and BT’s work may set the standards in bridging the sustainability schism, says WRI.

Bill Baue is a corporate sustainability architect who designs systemic transformation and company-level solutions for multinationals and smaller organisations. He also teaches an MBA in managing for sustainability in Malboro College, Vermont

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