Commitment, Distraction or Green Fluff? Debating Science-based Corporate Carbon Targets

Commitment, Distraction or Green Fluff? Debating Science-based Corporate Carbon Targets

The environmental movement has always been plagued by the half-a-loaf problem. Is it better to accept a partial solution to an environmental threat with the possibility that the solution will be the sum total of what is achieved? Or should the partial serving be rejected with the opposite possibility that no progress will be made?

This conundrum plays out in a debate in the Journal of Industrial Ecology over science-based carbon targets for business. In “Science-Based Carbon Targets for the Corporate World: The Ultimate Sustainability Commitment, or a Costly Distraction?” two leading voices on corporate sustainability take aim at emerging calls for a move away from arbitrary goals for corporate reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs). In this approach, companies cut their emissions using targets defined based on a global goal, e.g., 350 parts per million concentration of CO2 by a given date. The goal is to define a “fair share” of reductions for a company based on careful scientific quantification of the global requirements.

Trexler and Schendler contend that to “seek to draw an explicit link between individual corporate targets and achievement of a global emissions reduction goal — which is what science-based targets do — is voodoo economics and only distracts us from focusing on the policies and measures that could actually get us to the global goal.” They advance several arguments as to why science-based corporate carbon targets are both insufficient and a distraction. (Read the commentary) No half a loaf of GHG reductions for them.

Gregg Marland, Tammy Kowalczyk and Todd L. Cherry don’t agree. Like Trexler and Schendler they see reduction of corporate carbon emissions as insufficient to meet global requirements, but argue that “in democratic governments, there is the need for grass-roots support in order to develop and implement effective policy. Rather than distractions, individual and corporate efforts are generally necessary prerequisites for implementation of and receptiveness to government action.” You can find their full response here.

This is an important debate because, as Trexler and Schendler point out, funders and NGOs are embracing science-based corporate targets.

It’s important to note that both sides in this debate are in favor of quantitative targets with benchmarking, verification and related mechanisms to ensure their legitimacy. They also both support using science when defining targets. The disagreement is about politics. Trexler and Schendler see these targets as a distraction from the attention that must be focused on establishing good climate policy. Marland and his colleagues see the targets as a way to build the knowledge and consensus that is needed to produce that same good policy.

This is a good debate to have in the Journal of Industrial Ecology. Industrial ecology grapples both with the role of industry in the pursuit of sustainability — thus the name of the field1 — and matters of carbon accounting and decarbonization.2 For a lot more analysis that is not half-baked, but promises at least a half loaf of insight, visit the journal’s homepage.

The Journal of Industrial Ecology is a peer-reviewed, international, bimonthly scientific journal owned by Yale, headquarted at the School of Forestry & Environmental studies and published by Wiley-Blackwell

1 See, for example, one of Auden Schendler’s earlier contributions in the journal, “Applying the principles of industrial ecology to the guest-service sector”: or the special issue on industrial ecology as a source of competitive advantage.

2 Gregg Marland, an authority on on carbon accounting and decarbonization writes a periodic column for the journal. See, for example, “Carbon Accounting: Issues of Scale.”