Countries, regions, cities, as well as businesses, have all set ambitious climate targets in the past few years, with net-zero targets increasingly taking centre stage. According to NewClimate Institute, 826 cities, 103 regions and 1,565 companies across every continent have made net-zero commitments. The phenomena has been magnified with some of the world’s largest economies, such as China and the US, announcing their ‘sustainability North Stars’, net-zero 2060 and 2050.
Whether a country, city or business makes such a commitment, it’s inevitably met with a mixture of applause and skepticism. And understandably so, because there are many ways one can commit to net-zero in without really committing. As always, the devil is in the detail, and the detail is sometimes lacking, or revealing of what the target actually covers and how it defines net-zero. The issues range from a heavy reliance upon carbon offsetting, often through problematic external programmes, to ignoring a large part or scope of one’s emissions. Sometimes it is simply setting an ambitious target but not having a credible plan to deliver it.
In the specific context of countries, cities and regions, while ambitious area-based net-zero targets are most often celebrated, they are also sometimes called out for their lack of evidence and concrete sub-targets.
There has been quite a fixation upon the declaration of a target type and date, without the focus being on plans coupled to trajectories that prevent cumulative emissions exceeding a fair share of the global quota known as a carbon budget - this is the science basis by which we should evaluate commitments, as this is what will gives us the best chance of avoiding more dangerous climate change.
So how can we build good foundations for our climate transition through better quality climate targets? Targets that will increase confidence in climate plans, and most importantly, get all climate plans successfully through to the finish line.
Key attributes of quality targets
A strong net-zero target requires an ambitious timeline, with a clear decarbonisation pathway, made up of interim targets and sub-targets all built around a known cap on cumulative emissions, and how to deal with any residual emissions.
Setting quality targets will make all the difference in creating deliverable plans that have the impact we all need. They will also help in keeping a plan on track, and increasing confidence in its achievability. Here are 7 fundamentals for setting targets that will meaningfully contribute to the overall goal:
Countries, cities, regions and companies can choose how ambitious they want to be with their overall net-zero target. Obviously, the closer in time the target, the better, but needless to say, ambition needs to be balanced with actual capacities. The true determining factor when it comes to setting a target is whether it fits within the bounds of the Paris Agreement, to keep us well below a 2 degree global temperature increase over pre-industrial levels and in pursuit of 1.5C. In December 2020, just over 50 cities were confirmed by C40 to have science-based targets consistent with the Paris Agreement.
The Science-based targets (SBTs) initiative provides cities with several methodologies to choose from to ensure that targets ‘allow cities to align their actions with societal sustainability goals and the biophysical limits that define the safety and stability of earth systems’. There are three dimensions to the SBTI approach: Science Driven, Equity and Completeness. This involves considering a fair carbon budget, having a clear trajectory, covering wider greenhouse gases and sectors and scopes of emissions.
Just like every overall net-zero target must be compliant, it goes without saying that so does every single sub-target. And because every target is mission-critical, this significantly raises the bar for target setting. Targets need to be as ambitious as the overall mission, if we are to reach it.
2. Small and focused
While sub-targets should aim high, they don’t necessarily need to tackle a huge portion of emissions at once. A target is better when highly focused.
In fact, a challenge as complex and overwhelming as climate change desperately requires a different approach. In a similar way to the moonshot, what we need is a multiplicity of small, discrete and incremental targets that are focused enough to bring results that quickly add up!
An ideal way for cities to do this is to look at their city emissions inventories and at the activities that emit emissions. Cities can then begin thinking bottom-up, connecting one high-carbon emitting activity, like commuting by car to a target such as increasing the amount of walking and cycling which would decrease emissions. Then, one can add multiple other small targets, such as increasing the amount of commuting by electric bus, and/or transferring from car to remote working. When summed, all these small sub-targets can lead the transportation sector to become low-carbon.
3. Measurable and time-based
Connecting a high-carbon emitting activity to a target that decreases emissions is the foundation of reasoning when it comes to target-setting but this reasoning isn’t complete until concrete data points are attached. Robust targets need to feature scenario modelling of carbon reduction pathways, including a business-as-usual scenario, or current state and a desired, or target state some years into the future. We must be able to calculate the effect from committing to such a target at a certain point in time, and at the end date, to know how it can get us closer to our net-zero target.
For this, measuring what matters is important. The data that we seek, such as emissions data, is actually leaving us constantly one step behind because it focuses on the near-term problem and not the way forward. That is not to say that we do not need GHG emissions and top-down data at all. In fact, GHG inventories are necessary for knowing on which sector to prioritize our efforts; however, they are not helpful when measuring the emissions from a specific city activity and its rate of change. Instead of working with emissions data, we need to understand and clearly map out all the activities happening in our city. Only then are we able to extrapolate exactly how much is emitted and make informed target setting decisions.
And to further be able to measure, and account for the rate of change of emissions from a certain activity, we need to shift from working with lagging indicators to leading indicators. This comes down to pushing aside an indicator showing ‘the proportion of vehicle km driven by electric vehicles’ and prioritizing instead ‘the charging infrastructure density’ in a city. This way, it becomes not simply about correcting course, but about predicting, proactively planning and implementing the shifts to make carbon neutrality a reality.
Of course, targets need to aim high, and be as ambitious as possible. But we need to be realistic about the fact that some aspects of our lives will not change, and that we will continue to need to cater to those needs.
As such a target shouldn’t be set in a vacuum and simply measure and trace the decrease in personal vehicle use for instance. For a healthy city, a target should be relative to another activity, for instance, the number of car journeys replaced by bus commutes. A target should always represent a transition, from one point to another, so as not to sacrifice the function of an activity, and preserve the city’s quality of life and economy.
5. Inspirational, clear and transparent
All the fundamentals cited above will be worth little if targets are not well-formulated and communicated.
Relative, measurable, local effects allow compelling stories to be easily created, shared and embraced. A good target includes a “current state” to the “target state” journey. When setting targets related to behavioral change, it is important to provide meaningful descriptions of the targets so that they are easy to understand and communicate. For example, a target describing a relative change in absolute numbers, such as halving or doubling is easier to relate to than a percentage change.
In fact, there is an inherent power in a halving Mission that is inspiring. Shooting for a 100% change in a single step is generally perceived as unrealistic and demotivating. But a completed half-marathon will provide inspiration for a longer race.
As such, targets need to be handled and crafted thoughtfully and with care, to provide the wherewithal and support needed to reach completion. Well-communicated, inspirational targets will be worthwhile as they enable to bring together the right stakeholders who will strive together to attain the target.
A good target is one that is just that: a target. A target needs to be separated from an action. Targets and actions, or policies, answer different questions, despite their interrelation. Targets answer: ‘what do we need to do?’ whereas actions answer: ‘how do we do it?’. This means that when setting a strategic plan, it’s essential to separate these discussions, while at the same time recall connections between targets and actions, in order to be able to see both the interdependencies and the bigger picture. Adopting a visual strategic plan is a best practice for this.
As a result, while actions and policies can be kept in the back of one’s mind when setting targets, they shouldn’t be on the front page as they risk diminishing the target’s potential. Instead, action and policy planning can come at a later stage, to meet ambitious targets with all the flexibility and creativity characteristic of the local level.
Just like it's important to nuance and separate targets from actions, it’s also crucial to separate certain targets. Recently, many net-zero ambitions and their plans are questioned because they merge carbon offsetting and carbon reduction activities, thereby importantly decreasing their potential for real ‘zero’ ambition and providing a blurry picture of the plan’s true impact. To raise confidence and transparency in your plan, carbon offsetting targets should be set aside, and not be considered an integral part of the plan, but rather, an add-on.
When shifting one’s thinking from top-down to bottom-up, setting a target necessarily entails an understanding of what causes emissions, how to change activities so that they cause less emissions, and how to measure their transition impact.
Setting targets based on activities therefore is not anodyne. Quite the contrary, it is a loaded action. It means that one identifies a decision space for one’s city and decides to take responsibility for it.
A good target is therefore responsibility-based and entails a shift in thinking from top-down to bottom-up, taking responsibility for emissions driven by certain city activities, regardless of boundaries.
Confidence in your plan
With previsions and scenario modelling that extend well into the future, and track each step closer to net-zero, all these target fundamentals will give you the basis for a strong strategic plan that is comprehendible, credible and reliable for all viewers. Strong and well-documented targets will also lay the ground for action and policy planning, as well as rigorous monitoring and follow-up.
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