“Science-based targets”: sounds good, means very little

WHEN I FIRST heard the term science-based target (SBT) bandied around in the public arena I thought “oh good – they are advocating a rational approach to energy management”. I thought they were promoting the idea that I always push, which is to compare your actual energy consumption against an expected quantity calculated, on a scientific basis, from the prevailing conditions of weather, production activity, or whatever other measurable factors drive variation in consumption.

How wrong I was. Firstly, SBTs are targets for emissions, not energy consumption;  and secondly a target is defined as ‘science-based’ if, to quote the Carbon Trust, “it is in line with the level of decarbonisation required to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures”. I have three problems with all of this.

Firstly I have a problem with climate change. I believe it is real, of course; and I am sure that human activity, fuel use in particular, is the major cause. What I don’t agree with is using it as a motivator or to define goals. It is too remote, too big, and too abstract to be relevant to the individual enterprise. And it is too contentious. To mention climate change is to invite debate: to debate is to delay.

Secondly, global targets cannot be transcribed directly into local ones. If your global target is a reduction of x% and you set x% as the target for every user, you will fail because some people will be unable or unwilling to achieve a cut of x% while those who do achieve x% will stop when they have done so. In short there will be too few over-achievers to compensate for the laggards.

Finally I object to the focus on decarbonisation. Not that decarbonisation itself is valueless; quite the opposite. It is the risk that people prioritise decarbonisation of supply, rather than reduction of demand. If you decarbonise the supply to a wasteful operation, you have denied low-carbon energy to somebody somewhere who needed it for a useful purpose. We should always put energy saving first, and that is where effective monitoring and targeting, including rational comparisons of actual and expected consumption, has an essential part to play.