Science-based targets have quickly become de rigueur for companies with aspirations to be leaders on climate change. And quite right too. The idea that corporate targets should be based on what’s required, rather than what feels achievable, is something Forum for the Future has been advocating for some time.

But I’m becoming increasingly cynical about how science-based targets are playing out in practice.

Firstly, the targets that are emerging through the official process aren’t quite as ambitious as they might be. This is partly because the official process is aligned with giving ourselves a 66% chance of staying within 2°C. I’d like better odds than that and, until we actually cross the 1.5°C threshold, I still think that’s what we should be fighting for.

But to have any chance of 1.5°C (and to have a better than two-thirds chance of 2°C) the ‘science’ now essentially translates as “we need to decarbonise everything immediately”.

While the challenges around this are enormous, the message at least, is simple and clear – and powerful!

I fear that the ‘rigour’ of the science-based targets approach actually confuses this simple reality; and that we are losing precious time as companies spend time working out what their contribution should be – rather than accepting that their ambition must be to become ‘net zero’, ‘carbon positive’ or ‘regenerative’ and driving forwards rapidly with that not-inconsequential task.

Most fundamentally, however, the egalitarian approach embraced under science-based targets assumes that every sector/company will do its bit to tackle climate change. Yet there a number of laggards that clearly aren’t going to play ball, whether fossil fuel hold-outs or technologically ‘stuck’ sectors such as aviation. Knowing this, it therefore no longer counts as leadership for a company to only make its ‘fair’ contribution – it is leadership to do much more than that. There will be no awards and little solace for those companies that did their bit if we cross thresholds that threaten agricultural and societal stability.

The urgency and magnitude of the climate challenge now requires companies to become vocal and effective advocates for (and agents of) widespread, societal decarbonisation, in addition to embracing radical targets for their 'own' emissions. By keeping the focus on operational and supply-chain emissions, rather than the role companies could and should play in driving a rapid global transition to a zero-carbon society, the science-based targets process misses a key component of corporate leadership.

At Forum for the Future we’re starting to see some signs that science-based targets in their current form are limiting corporate ambition. When we advise/pester our corporate partners that they must aspire to be carbon positive, we’re starting to see pockets of science-based push-back; “but if we have a science-based target, then surely that’s enough? Why should we commit to do more?”

This, of course, is not the intention of science-based targets, or the organisations behind them. We need true corporate leaders to embrace the spirit, as well as the letter of the, concept – such that it truly galvanizes corporate action commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face.