SBTi needs tighter rules on companies’ indirect emissions

Comment: Businesses are not required to cut all their value chain emissions in line with a 1.5C warming limit – and allowing offsetting could weaken efforts further

SBTi needs tighter rules on companies' indirect emissions

Greenpeace activist protest at a pension fund in Luxembourg (Photo: Sara Poza Alvarez/Flickr)


Silke Mooldijk works at the NewClimate Institute and is part of the core team behind the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor.

A decade ago, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) was launched with the goal of mobilising the private sector for climate action.

Today, it stands as the largest and most influential validator of corporate climate targets, having confirmed the 2030 goals of around 5,000 companies.

Yet new analysis reveals a leniency within the initiative. According to the 2024 Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor (CCRM), the emissions reduction commitments of 51 major global corporates are falling short of what’s needed at the global level.

Surprisingly, most of these companies received SBTi validation for their targets to be aligned with the 1.5ºC warming limit backed by governments in the Paris climate agreement. 

What explains this discrepancy?  

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Currently, the SBTi’s 2030 target validations often overlook substantial shares of companies’ full value chain emissions by excluding upstream and downstream value chain emissions, known as “scope 3”. Scope 3 emissions account for the majority of corporate greenhouse gas footprints, sometimes exceeding 95%.  

The SBTi requires companies to set a near-term target for scope 3 emissions, but only when those emissions account for more than 40% of their greenhouse gas footprint. However, these targets do not have to cover all scope 3 emissions and only need to be aligned with global warming of 2ºC or well below 2ºC, not 1.5ºC.  

While the SBTi checks whether companies have set a scope 3 target, the initiative does not provide a temperature classification for these scope 3 targets – only for companies’ scope 1 and 2 targets, which apply to direct operations and their energy use.

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This important nuance is often missed by the public, as many companies nonetheless prominently advertise their scope 3 climate targets as science-based.  

Take Fast Retailing, owner of clothing chain Uniqlo, for example. The company pledges to reduce its operational emissions (scope 1 and 2) by 90% by 2030, which represent just 5% of its total emissions.

It also commits to reduce its emissions from procured goods and materials (scope 3) by 20% by the end of this decade. However, upstream emissions in the fashion sector need to be reduced by around 40% to be aligned with global warming of 1.5ºC.

Whereas the SBTi validated the target for operational emissions as “1.5ºC temperature aligned”, the initiative did not provide a temperature classification for the scope 3 target.

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Yet Fast Retailing also describes this target as “science-based”. This pattern is not unique to Fast Retailing but common across companies validated by the SBTi. 

As a voluntary organisation primarily funded by third parties, the SBTi relies on the voluntary participation of companies. Its methodologies need to accommodate the perspectives of various stakeholders.

This may explain why the SBTi’s methodologies for 2030 targets are not necessarily always aligned with the scientific consensus on limiting global warming to 1.5ºC.

However, addressing the lack of stringency in scope 3 targets is key to ensuring that the SBTi can effectively drive corporate climate ambition. 

Offsetting controversy 

Despite the large degree of leniency that already exists in scope 3 standards today, there is a significant risk that the rules will be loosened even further.

Just this week, the SBTi Board of Trustees issued a unilateral and possibly illegitimate decision to revise scope 3 standards to allow for carbon offsetting.

This decision is not based on scientific insights but comes after a lot of pressure on the SBTi from supporters of carbon markets. SBTi staff have already reacted strongly to voice their discontent with the decision and the process. 

Introducing offsetting in the SBTi scope 3 standards could effectively nullify already insufficient targets, reversing years of incremental progress that SBTi and its member companies have fought so hard to achieve. 

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Allowing companies to offset their emissions could also deprive their suppliers – who are often located in the Global South – of much needed financial and technical support for their own emissions reduction efforts. 

Climate target-setting has become standard practice in the corporate world – progress the SBTi helped foster over the past decade. But the recent decision by the SBTi Board of Trustees on offsetting could bring any further advances to a halt.

Reversing this decision and tightening the rules for scope 3 targets would be the next step to propel corporate climate ambition forward. 

This article argues that the SBTI’s rules are too lax. We have also published a comment piece arguing they are too stringent.

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