‘No one can accomplish what needs to be done alone’

The GCA is a coalition of more than 50 organizations that came together with the shared interest of empowering individuals, companies, cities, and even entire countries, to help protect the global commons — that is, resources essential to our survival, including biodiversity, climate, land, ocean and water. Since its formation in 2019, the GCA has initiated several projects that align with its goals, the SBTN being one of these.

Erin Billman, executive director of the SBTN, said the project was born from a collective desire among business leaders to implement changes that would help protect nature, but also an uncertainty about how to do that beyond the curbing of carbon emissions.

“[T]he business community was saying, ‘It’s great that we’ve got this guidance from NGOs on climate science based-targets, but what about beyond climate?’” she told Mongabay in an interview.

Last week, the SBTN launched its first corporate engagement program, inviting companies, as well as their subsidiaries, consultants, and industry coalitions, to work alongside the SBTN as it shaped its tools and strategies.

“[We realized] that rather than just holing away for two and a half years until 2022, and debuting a complete methodology, we need to [use] initial guidance to make sure that we’re bringing people along in the direction that we’re headed, as well as to make sure that we don’t lose two years of ambitious corporate action inadvertently by suggesting that they that they wait until our methodologies are done,” Billman said.

Numerous multinational companies such as Pepsico, L’Oréal, Unilever, and Kering, as well as several consultants and coalitions, have already joined as early signers to work alongside the SBTN as it develops over the next two years.

Rachel Barré, environmental leadership director of L’Oréal, said the cosmetics company has committed to reducing its environmental impact by 2030, and that its involvement with SBTN made “perfect sense.”

“We are convinced that companies must partner with experts to set targets that are relevant and ambitious enough,” Barré told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “Through this new initiative, we will get access to cutting-edge science, work on refining our roadmap and share our own best practices. We hope to foster collective intelligence and action on some of the most pressing environmental issues, as was done for climate change.”

While each company has its own agenda in terms of how and when it will set sustainability targets, the SBTN emphasizes the importance of working together and creating a consolidated approach to protecting nature.

“No one can accomplish what needs to be done alone,” Billman says. “[When you] look at the corporate environmental space, previously, companies were getting pulled in a lot of different directions by different NGOs in terms of, ‘Here’s what you should be doing, and here’s the approach.’ And increasingly, we’re realizing that we need to unite under a common voice to give consensus guidance, so that we’re simplifying and harmonizing what has grown to be a complex space.”

Planetary boundaries

The SBTN may still be in a planning phase, but it is drawing on an established foundation of science. One of the guiding principles for the SBTN is the nine planetary boundaries, a concept developed by 28 international researchers, including Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University, to describe certain thresholds that have the potential to destabilize the world. The concept was introduced in an article in Nature in 2009.

The nine boundaries — climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater use, biogeochemical use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol loading, stratospheric ozone depletion, and chemical pollution and the release of novel entities — identify various Earth system processes, each containing thresholds for safe operating limits. Stay within the thresholds, and life can still thrive; cross the thresholds, and the Earth can shift into a dangerous new state, the research says.

For instance, it suggests that we have already passed the safe threshold for climate change when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels surpassed 390 parts per million (ppm), moving the world into a zone of uncertainty. Thresholds have also been exceeded for land use, the biogeochemical flows of phosphorus and nitrogen, and biosphere integrity due to accelerating rate of biodiversity loss and mass extinctions, according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

“We know if we go beyond that boundary, then we’re walking into a minefield, and we could step on a mine at any point,” Owen Gaffney, director of international media and strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told Mongabay in an interview. “And we have no idea where it is, and that’s the risk we’re taking.”

On the other hand, Earth system processes such as ocean acidity are still within safe operating limits, although they are quickly moving toward the direction of not being safe, according to the study. The nine boundaries are also tightly connected, Gaffney says, meaning that the crossing of one threshold could result in the crossing of more.

“For example, when you start reducing biodiversity of a forest, then you’re reducing its resilience,” he said. “And then, small changes could tip it into a new state — a rain forest could become a savanna-type state. And then that savanna-type state may not store as much carbon, [so there is] more carbon in the atmosphere, so then you’re having a knock-on effect on the climate boundary. Then with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you get more ocean acidification.”

How can the concept of planetary boundaries help businesses? By providing a “priority list” of planetary issues, Gaffney says.

“I think the power of the boundaries is that it provides that list, and secondly provides a quantification,” he said. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Using science as a guiding principle, the SBTN is working to inform companies on how they can set science-based targets that will help protect all parts of nature, and to operate within the realm of planetary limits. For instance, the SBTN is drawing on the work of the Science Based Targets initiative, a partnership between the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), World Resources Institute (WRI) and WWF, to help companies set targets to cut their carbon emissions. So far, over 1,000 have committed to do so.

“Our job is to translate that in ways that can be actionable for companies and cities, so that they can operationalize and set targets that ensure that they’re doing at least enough, or their fair share … to stop the loss of nature, to drive toward the equitable net zero carbon nature-positive future that … is needed in the environmental space,” Billman said.

‘There’s still space for transformation’

Billman says it has been important to involve companies recognized as sustainability leaders, but that it is equally important to engage companies that may not be as far along with their sustainability goals. “We are designing the guidance to meet companies where they’re at in their journey, a lot are more at the beginning,” she said.

But even companies with reputations for sustainability have room to grow, Billman says.

“None of the companies that are ‘sustainability leaders’ today are actually sustainable, they’re not actually doing their part to stop loss of nature,” she said. “And so there’s still opportunity, there’s still space for transformation.”

Following the SBTN’s launch last Thursday, Billman says she’s encouraged by the initial interest.

“In particular, we’re seeing that roughly half of the companies that have reached out indicating interest with us don’t have a climate science-based target yet,” she said. “I think that is a big opportunity because nature may be an entry point to the conversation for companies that have missed the boat on climate targets. But to stop nature loss, addressing climate change is one of the key pressures, and so in that way, I think that engaging a company on nature will naturally lead to them engaging on climate.”

Billman says the SBTN is already making great progress in its development, and that she’s excited about its contribution to building a sustainable future.

“I won’t pretend that we’re ‘the be all and end all’ of what’s going to drive the global economy operating within the planetary boundaries vision that we have,” she said, “but we hope to be a key enabler of that future.”


 Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Persson, A., Chapin III, F. S., Lambin, E. F., Lenton, T. M., … Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472-475. doi:10.1038/461472a

Editor’s note (11/19/2020): This article has been updated to include information about the Science Based Targets initiative, whose work the SBTN is drawing upon to advise companies about carbon emission targets, as well as a response from the company L’Oreal.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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