Who, what, why? Q&A on land science-based targets for companies

23/05/2023 News Blog

Who, what, why? Q&A on land science-based targets for companies

Craig Beatty
Marco Daldoss Pirri
Scarlett Benson

Craig Beatty (WWF), Marco Daldoss Pirri (Systemiq) and Scarlett Benson (Food and Land Use Coalition) from the Science Based Targets Network’s (SBTN) Land Hub, address some of the common questions about land science-based targets for companies, to be released as part of the first science-based targets for nature on May 24, 2023.

The Land Hub is led by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International with partners including Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), Systemiq Ltd., The Nature Conservancy and World Resources Institute. 

Tell us a little bit about these first land science-based targets for companies? 

Land science-based targets will give leading companies a unified framework that aligns their commitment and actions with what nature needs in land systems, backed by what science says is required. Specifically, these targets will help companies protect existing natural ecosystems, free up agricultural land and reduce its pressure on nature and will drive corporate engagement in delivering positive outcomes for nature across landscapes and especially in working lands. 

The land targets are relevant for any company that has material impacts on nature through their impact on land use or change and through the management of land linked to a company’s operations or upstream supply chain (downstream activities are not covered in the first version). Depending on their material impact, sector, size and other factors, companies in, or sourcing from, a range of sectors can set land targets including (but not limited to): food, beverage and agriculture, forestry, fishing and aquaculture, bioenergy, mining, infrastructure, construction. 

There are three complementary and linked SBTN land targets: 

  • Target 1: No Conversion of Natural Ecosystems which avoids the loss of nature in land systems by addressing land conversion— the dominant driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss.  
  • Target 2: Land Footprint Reduction which reduces the land use pressure of large agricultural areas whose expansion and ongoing impact has far exceeded the resilient capacity of the natural ecosystems on which these human systems rely.  
  • Target 3: Landscape Engagement which puts company action and effort within the context of collaborative multi-stakeholder processes at the landscape scale to regenerate working lands, restore degraded or converted ecosystems, and transform the ways that they act in, and source from, landscapes. 

Land targets mitigate biodiversity loss through reduction of land use and conversion pressures as well as ecosystem conservation and restoration.

For example, the dominant drivers of biodiversity loss are land use change and habitat loss. SBTN’s land methods focus specifically on these drivers, including reducing pressures of natural ecosystem conversion and emphasizing sustainable management approaches and ecosystem restoration.  

These targets are currently in beta and are being piloted by an initial group of companies in 2023. Based on the insights from the pilot, the details of the targets may be updated. Following this, SBTN will publish a version 1 of these targets for all companies to use, anticipated in early 2024. 

Why are these targets needed? 

Terrestrial ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, savannahs and peatlands are critical to planetary and human health. They provide protection, livelihoods, materials, food, fresh water, and a sense of cultural identity to billions of people, especially Indigenous peoples and local communities. They store vast quantities of carbon. Forests alone provide habitats for about 80% of amphibian species, 75% of bird species, and 68% of mammal species.   

Yet humans have converted almost a third of the global land area in just six decades for crop and livestock production, forestry, and other human land uses such as mining and infrastructure.

Land conversion and degradation undermines the critical ecosystem services on which people and nature rely, drives escalating climate change, and are the primary drivers of biodiversity loss on land. 

We need to transform our land systems away from business as usual. This transformation underpins the delivery of nature, climate and sustainable development goals and these land targets align with the scale of transformation required. We must halt conversion of natural lands while restoring hundreds of millions of hectares of land. This will require more efficient and sustainable use of land, driven primarily by shifts towards healthier, more sustainable and less land-intensive diets, increased productivity of production practices which regenerate rather than deplete land, reduced food loss and waste across value chains, and more circular use of natural resources. 

How do the land targets relate to other corporate sustainability initiatives and frameworks? 

Land science-based targets are designed to increase the clarity, ambition, and/or scope of existing initiatives that, despite intent, have not led to the transformational changes required to address climate change and nature loss. They link to and build upon existing and emerging initiatives and frameworks and are not intended to lead to parallel or asynchronous processes that confuse or undermine existing, quality work on corporate sustainability.  

This version of land targets is built upon and written in collaboration with the experts and institutions that developed key existing data and environmental initiatives that cover land related impacts, namely: The Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s draft Land Sector and Removals Guidance, Science Based Targets initiative’s Forest, Land and Agriculture (FLAG) Guidance and The Accountability Framework Initiative (AFi). 

The development of the land targets in connection with the initiatives listed above helps ensure alignment, strengthens the target approaches, and reduces the burden for companies, who are already working or will work with these initiatives. 

What is the overlap with the Science Based Targets initiative’s FLAG Guidance?  

The Science Based Targets initiative’s Forest, Land and Agriculture (FLAG) Science Based Target Setting Guidance  gives FLAG companies a clear understanding of the action they must take in land systems to limit global warming to 1.5°C (see blog here). For example, companies setting FLAG SBTs must also make a  zero-deforestation  commitment given the contribution of deforestation to global warming. 

SBTN’s land targets are designed to address environmental impacts which SBTi’s FLAG methods cannot, by incentivizing activities related to wider, non-GHG impacts on land, for example the reduction and treatment of nutrient pollution and effluents, reduced pesticide use, erosion control and other actions which promote biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. 

SBTN land targets also go beyond the SBTi’s recommendation to set a ‘no conversion of nature ecosystems’ target and make it a requirement, addressing the loss of critical non-forest ecosystems such as grasslands, wetlands, shrublands.  

There is a significant overlap in terms of the actions on land that companies would take to deliver against their SBTi FLAG and SBTN land targets. For example, they both incentivise actions within company value chains to protect natural ecosystems and improve management practices on production lands. However, SBTN land targets also incentivize companies to deliver on regenerative, restorative, and transformative actions in land systems beyond the scope of their direct value chains and at the landscape level. 

The complementary set of climate and nature targets developed by SBTi and SBTN enables companies to develop integrated solutions which allow them to better manage compounding risks and to align their strategies with a nature-positive and net-zero future. 

Will the SBTN Land hub be releasing subsequent versions of the land targets?  

The current version of the land targets is in beta for piloting in 2023. Once learnings from the pilot have been captured and optimizations made, a version 1 of the land targets will be released (anticipated for early 2024.) 

Beyond version 1, as land system science and methods for accounting for impacts and dependencies on nature progress, we are anticipating version 2.0 of the land targets to be published within a couple of years. The ambition of the SBTN Land Hub is for the next iteration of targets to reflect what nature needs at a local level, based on regionally defined and spatially explicit thresholds. They will also cover a broader range of material pressures on land. 

However, companies should not wait. We encourage all companies to use the first version of land targets when available for full roll-out in early 2024 as they enable corporate action on nature at scale and act as a natural stepping-stone to the subsequent land targets.  

Any final words? 

The scale of the challenge ahead means that all three targets are needed to avoid unintended consequences and to manage potential trade-offs between nature, climate and sustainable development goals. For example, the need to free up land for natural ecosystem restoration to achieve biodiversity and climate goals could either put local (or even global) food security at risk, or lead to unsustainable forms of agricultural intensification that further degrade land in the long-term e.g. through overuse of fertilizers and chemical inputs.

As Janez Potočnik (the former European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries who authored the foreword of the guidance) states, the transition must therefore be underpinned by social and environmental safeguards and strong global and local governance. 

The first land SBTs have been designed to guide leading companies as they embark upon this critical transformation journey.

Through the piloting of these beta methods we will improve our understanding of how potential trade-offs can be managed and this will be reflected in future versions of the targets. 

Finally, we would like to thank the great number of individuals and organizations who provided input into the development of these targets who are referenced in the acknowledgements section of the guidance, as well as the numerous companies and experts who provided input during the expert and public consultation. 

The technical methods for the first land science-based targets will be published on May 24, 2023 as part of the new science-based targets for nature. Join our launch webinar for an overview.