Net-zero vs. science-based targets

June 20, 2023

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Over the last decade, the escalation of climate change has been top of mind, leading public and private figures to search for actionable mitigation strategies. As a result, various standards, practices, and ways to measure progress have cropped up to guide organizations’ emissions reduction plans. 

Still, confusion arises when it comes to the vocabulary of setting emissions reduction targets. For instance, many decision-makers face a common question: whether to aim for net-zero vs. a science-based target. Are they two sides of the same coin? Or, are they distinct strategies with disparate merits? 

Read on as we break down the relationship between net-zero vs. science-based targets. 

What are net-zero targets?

There have been calls for a transition to a net-zero economy that echo across the globe, but what does net-zero actually mean? 

The World Economic Forum defines net-zero as: “A situation where global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are in balance with emissions reductions. At net-zero, carbon dioxide emissions are still generated, but an equal amount of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere as it is released into it, resulting in zero increase in net emissions.” 

In 2013 the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report solidified prior science and stated that achieving a net-zero balance between released and absorbed emissions is essential to stop warming trends. Net-zero targets align with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by reaching net-zero by 2050.       

What you need to know about net-zero

Net-zero is often mistakenly conflated with carbon neutrality, and companies looking to set emissions reduction targets should be aware of the distinctions. Both strategies seek to balance released and absorbed emissions, but carbon neutrality permits this balance to be achieved through the purchase of offsets. Carbon offsets allow businesses to finance nature- and technology-based carbon removal and reduction projects like reforestation and renewable energy expansion to counterbalance their emissions. While these projects are valuable, their impact is difficult to verify, and critics of offsetting worry that they enable businesses to make climate claims without taking systemic action to reduce their direct emissions. 

What are science-based targets? 

As noted above, the goal of reaching a net-zero world originated in scientific literature, so how is a net-zero target related to a science-based target? 

Prior to 2014, companies interested in setting a target lacked authoritative guidance to verify whether or not their target would constitute a meaningful reduction. While several frameworks existed, they were inconsistent, varied by industry, and lacked cohesion. In response, four of the largest environmental organizations worldwide—CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)—partnered together to form the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi). Their goal: design an actionable target-setting framework. SBTi’s Corporate Net-Zero Standard Criteria provided a harmonized standard for companies to set meaningful targets that would help limit global warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Their explicit criteria align with the most up-to-date climate science for setting, verifying, and validating targets.  

To set a science-based target, as defined by SBTi, businesses must aim to reduce emissions at the rate necessary to reach net-zero before 2050. They must also set and achieve near-term targets in 5-10 years to advance toward the 2050 goal appropriately. 

Getting to know emissions reduction targets whitepaper

How do you set science-based targets? 

Wondering how to set a target, exactly? 

What a generalized net-zero emissions strategy looks like and how to achieve it will likely vary depending on an organization’s size, sector, and specific value chain. That said, most corporations and countries that have taken up the net-zero pledge have committed to an interim or near-term target of reducing their emissions by half by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050. 

How will they go about this? 

Setting net-zero targets typically follows these steps: 

1. Understand emissions scopes – To understand and measure their GHG emissions, organizations must separate emissions categories into one of three scopes: 

  • Scope 1 – Direct GHG emissions from combustion and chemicals 
  • Scope 2 – Indirect GHG emissions from purchased electricity, steam, heat, and cooling 
  • Scope 3 – Upstream and downstream emissions indirectly associated with business activities 

2. Identify organizational boundary and consolidation approach – For measurements to be consistent and inclusive over time, organizations must determine which entities, facilities, and operations will be included in the emissions assessment and how data will be collected and reported. Having a clear understanding of organizational boundaries ensures that all emissions sources are accounted for. 

3. Establish a baseline – Establishing a baseline is crucial to track progress toward carbon reduction goals. To select an appropriate base year, organizations should consider data coverage and completeness and choose a year before any significant reduction activities begin. It’s also important to ensure that the baseline data is accurate and reliable and to use estimates or proxy data only when necessary and appropriate. Sustain.Life can help you measure your emissions for your base year. 

4. Set a science-based target – To align with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the latest climate science and demonstrate their trajectory toward net-zero, SBTi’s Net-Zero Standard requires both near-term and long-term targets. Near-term targets are 5-10 year emission mitigation targets that serve as milestones for companies moving toward their long-term target of at least 90% reduction by 2050. The SBTi Net-Zero Standards lay out the following steps for businesses pursuing science-based target validation:

a. Commit to the cause via a submitted commitment letter to setting and pursuing science-based targets.
b. Develop emission reduction targets, which involve assessing, tracking, and reporting GHG emissions.
c. Submit science-based targets and have them validated by the SBTi.
d. Communicate the organization’s commitment to the targets. 
e. Disclose progress towards sustainability goals.

5. Develop the strategy – After establishing the targets, the organization must design and implement a strategy to achieve these goals. This requires top-down buy-in and commitment from all stakeholders along the value chain. 

6. Measure and report progress – With a plan in place, the organization must continuously measure and report its progress toward its net-zero targets, assessing the impact and efficacy of the chosen strategy. 

Net zero vs. science-based targets

Net-zero Science-based targets (as defined by SBTi)
Primary goal Achieve a balance between emissions and removals by 2050 at the latest to limit global temperature rise beyond 1.5°C
Emissions scopes Includes scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions Targets can be specific to scopes 1 and 2 or include scope 3.
– Near-term SBTs must include scope 3 if 40% or more of emissions.
– Long-term SBTs must include scope 3.
Target timeline 2050 Emissions halved by 2030, net-zero by 2050
Guiding standard UN Net Zero Recommendations
ISO Net Zero Guidance
SBTi Corporate Net-Zero Standard
SBTi Corporate Net-Zero Standard
Monitoring and reporting Less standardized, depends on individual pledges and select framework Verified by SBTi

Tracking your emissions with Sustain.Life

To limit global warming below 1.5°C, businesses are navigating the complicated process of assessing their environmental impact and creating strategy to minimize it. Prior climate science established that reaching a net-zero world by 2050 would prevent the worst impacts of climate change, and the criteria provided by Science Based Targets Initiative allows companies to confirm that their targets align with these conclusions. 

Ultimately, reaching any target will involve measuring, managing, and reporting your emissions output. 

Sustain.Life’s comprehensive sustainability management software provides carbon emissions measurement capabilities top companies can leverage and actualize their commitment to combat the climate crisis.

What does a path to net-zero look like? 

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1. World Economic Forum, “What does net-zero emissions mean and how can we get there?,”

2. IPCC, “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report,”

3. Science Based Targets Initiative, “CDP, WRI, UN Global Impact and WWF Join Forces to Help Companies Reduce CO2,”

4. Science Based Targets Initiative,“SBTi CORPORATE NET ZERO STANDARD CRITERIA,”

5. UN, “Net-Zero Pledges Grow,”

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Sustain.Life Team
Sustain.Life’s teams of sustainability practitioners and experts often collaborate on articles, videos, and other content.
Hannah Asofsky
Hannah Asofsky is a sustainability data analyst at Sustain.Life.
The takeaway

– Net-zero is “A situation where global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are in balance with emissions reductions. At net-zero, carbon dioxide emissions are still generated, but an equal amount of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere as it is released into it, resulting in zero increase in net emissions.”

– To set a science-based target, as defined by SBTi, businesses must aim to reduce emissions at the rate necessary to reach net-zero before 2050.