This article looks into whether we are being ambitious enough with regards to sustainability. Are we setting the right targets, are we flying high enough? This will be looked at through the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.
Icarus was the son of Daedalus who dared to fly too near the sun on wings made of feathers and wax. Daedalus cautioned Icarus that flying too near the sun would cause the wax to melt. Icarus ignored this warning, the feathers came loose and he plunged to his death in the sea. The myth is taught to children to warn them of the dangers of flying too high.
But, in addition to telling Icarus not to fly too high, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too low. Flying too close to the sea would mean that the salty water and updraughts would ruin his wings.
Over time the myth has been altered. All of the focus is placed on the warning of flying too high and little emphasis is placed on the dangers of flying too low.
The question is, for sustainability as a movement, are we settling for too little, are we flying high enough?
It is now that I would like to take the time to pivot to the substantive point that I aim to make with this article. This regards the setting of science based targets.
What is a Science based target?
Targets that companies adopt to to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are considered to be science based if they are set in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increases below 2°C compared to preindustrial temperatures.
By setting science based targets businesses stand to gain from a number of advantages. These include increased innovation, pre-empting future policies and regulations, improving competitiveness and improved investor relations.
It is promising that 336 companies have signed up to this initiative thus far. Many of these are major transnational corporations with footprints larger than some countries.
For more information please visit the Science Based Targets Initiative website.
What is the problem?
In corporate sustainability, you have three different types of businesses. Sustainability leaders, sustainability averages and sustainability laggards.
The issue I see, is that science based targets are currently the preserve of sustainability leaders. The real question is, why is this not more mainstream and why are these decisions only being taken now?
Sustainability isn’t a result, it is a journey. But are the targets we are setting ambitious enough, are they meaningful? Is is not possible that we have been flying too low?
The truth is, is that without a majority of businesses having an average, or above average position on sustainability, there can be no real transition towards sustainable development. But despite efforts by governments greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase.
The real question is, should companies who adopt a science based approach be lauded as sustainability leaders, or should companies who fail to adopt a science based approach be derided as sustainability laggards?
The science based method guides the way forward, but I think it should be seen as the safe middle, for sustainability averages as opposed to a mark of outstanding leadership.
Myths are powerful. They can change the way we think, the way we act and the way we behave. They can change our ambitious and our dreams for the future. I think we can learn a lot from the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.
We can learn a lot from going back to the original intention of the myth. This was a warning against flying too high and flying too low. They both carry danger.
We need to honour the opportunities which sustainability presents and meet the threats which an unstable climate presents with bold targets and bold actions. We need to avoid selling ourselves too short, by rewarding what is best practice as something that is remarkable. Are we flying high enough?
We have the technology to make sustainability happen. But are businesses really committed?
Too many are resting in their comfort zone. They are flying too low.
We can only hope that the science based targets movement makes a swift transition from niche to mainstream. I think this could happen in a relatively short period of time.
What you need to know
This article looks into whether sustainability has the right ambitions through the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.
We looked at how over time the myth had been edited so as to place less emphasis on the dangers of flying too low.
We pivoted towards an analysis of science based targets, what they are and how they can help businesses.
We then moved on to a discussion of whether science based targets should be the preserve of sustainability leaders or whether companies who do not adopt this approach should be seen as sustainability laggards.
It is my belief that science based targets need to become the new mainstream of greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. I believe sustainability leaders should have to do much more remarkable things to stand out from the crowd.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think of science based targets and how high will you fly?
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I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby
Inspiration for this book was drawn from the simply phenomenal book The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. If you haven’t already, buy this book now.
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