SBTN plans to roll out target validation process in mid-2024 as corporate pilot extended

Few months delay needed as SBTN looks to ensure the 'optimal balance between scientific rigor and practicality', its executive director tells Responsible Investor, while also reflecting on the need for alignment with TNFD.

aeriel view of forest with data points

The Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) has extended its corporate pilot and delayed the roll-out of the target validation process and first version of land targets from the beginning to mid next year, RI can reveal. 

SBTN is a global coalition of environmental NGOs and mission-driven organisations aiming to enable companies and cities to operate in environmentally sustainable ways to restore balance to the Earth’s inter-related systems of freshwater, biodiversity, land and ocean alongside climate.     

In May, the initiative published its first science-based targets (SBTs) for nature to enable firms to assess and prioritise their environmental impacts and prepare to set freshwater and land targets.   

As part of the announcement, SBTN said that 17 companies – including GlaxoSmithKline, H&M, Kering, Nestle and Tesco – would pilot its target validation process as well as the beta land methods.  

At the time, the aim was to have the work wrapped up by the end of the year so SBTN could roll out the target validation process and delivery of the first version of its land targets in early 2024 after incorporating insights from the pilot. 

However, Erin Billman, executive director at SBTN, told RI that SBTN is now expecting to finish the pilot in the spring of 2024, and roll out the process and land targets by the end of the first half of the year. 

“We’ve delayed it by a few months in order to make sure we [make] enough progress on the learnings needed. It’s also been a mutual learning journey as we get questions from companies, and we have to determine answers to them,” she said.

“The goal is to ensure the optimal balance between scientific rigor and practicality,” she added.

Billman told RI that she is encouraged by the reception and that there are already examples of how the experience is providing companies with insight they did not have before which, in some cases, is influencing corporate action. 

“Some companies have raw materials that were previously not considered an issue sustainability-wise as they were only looking at them through a GHG emissions lens, but by doing the pilot they have found they are an issue for nature,” she said. “Another company said explicitly that it is going to ratchet up its zero deforestation commitment to a zero ecosystem conversion one.”  

She added that, in general, companies have also expressed an appreciation that the guidance has been as prescriptive as possible as it allows for standardisation.

Data challenges

Unsurprisingly data has been flagged as a key challenge. In particular, sourcing location-specific data and identifying pathways to solve data issues have been raised. 

“There are tools out there, but there isn’t a one size fits all,” said Billman.  “I think if folks could wave a magic wand to have a single tool that holds their hand they would, but that’s not how it works – it’s a box of tools, none of which are perfect, and all do part of the job.” 

I think as more companies undertake this work some of the barriers on data will start to [disappear] as the needs will become clearer and there will be more technological innovation.” 

Billman also noted that there are “natural growing pains” that come with realising that if firms are going to tackle nature, they need to increase place-based awareness and capabilities of their assets. 

In a recent LinkedIn post, Samuel Sinclair, director at Biodiversify, reflected on being in the “SBTN coal face” as the consultancy is working with Kering and Holcim on their pilot efforts.  

On the lessons learnt so far, Sinclair wrote: “The outputs are not instantly decision relevant. As with any technical work, you need to clearly understand the decision you’re trying to make in order to usefully interpret the analyses. You can’t just throw analyses at a problem and hope that the decision becomes obvious, it’s critical to create the facilitate space for people to come together, understand, digest and make choices.” 

He also warned against thinking “an online tool will solve your challenges at this stage”. 

Next steps

Next year will also see SBTN expand its freshwater targets to include pollution, its ocean hub piloting ocean SBTs – followed by a public consultation – as well as an advancement of its stakeholder engagement guidance. 

However, despite original plans to publish a full outline of its five-step framework next year, Billman said that although there will be progress on it, prescriptive guidance on step four and five is realistically coming in 2025.  

Steps four and five will focus on companies implementing targets using SBTN’s framework and monitoring and reporting publicly on their progress.   

Throughout the process, SBTN has been working with the Taskforce on Nature Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) to ensure alignment in the way nature-related risks are understood, framed and addressed. 

Billman said the partnership has shown there is a mutually reinforcing need and value for companies to use both TNFD and SBTN. 

SBTN equips them with the guidance to set science-based targets for nature and TNFD, in turn, provides a framework for companies to manage and disclose their nature-related risks.  

“In the worst-case scenario, on its own TNFD is a box ticking exercise, and with SBTN, although it has prescriptive guidance and rigorous target settings methods, if there is no mechanism to disclose them in a consistent way, then the ability to drive demand for and accountability against those targets wouldn’t exist.” 

Sinclair also touched on the interconnectedness between the two, as well as the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). 

“The CSRD text points you in the direction of TNFD, which in turn steers you towards SBTN. These frameworks are like Russian dolls because sooner or later you have to get to grips with the impacts of your supply chain, and SBTN is trying to do this in earnest.”