Can science-based targets be applied to infrastructure projects?

Since the Paris agreement, there’s been a lot of discussion of the need for organisations of all kinds – from Governments to private companies large and small – to set carbon emissions targets that align with what science says is required to limit global warming to no more than 2°C. To date, while politicians have moved rather more slowly, businesses have rapidly taken up the challenge, with just shy of 500 companies having set, or officially committed to setting Science Based Targets (SBTs) and many more taking equivalent steps behind closed doors.The urgency to act was strengthened even further in the recent IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC urged for strengthening of the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

But how can science-based targets be defined in an infrastructure setting? With transport and mining alone responsible for about 20% of Australia’s emissions, and with infrastructure assets typically having lifetimes of many decades, there’s a very clear case for action. How do we make sure that infrastructure is playing its part in Australia’s mitigation efforts?

As the focal point of action on sustainability, the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) was keen to find out the answer, and in particular whether SBTs could be incorporated into the Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) rating tool. A scoping study was carried out by EDGE and leading international energy and climate consultancy Ecofys, bringing together one of Australia’s top infrastructure sustainability consultancies with a global expert in SBT methodology setting.

The short answer to the question of whether SBTs can be applied to infrastructure project, as it turns out, is no. SBTs rely on the ability of companies to address the impacts of their activities over time in line with a 2°C scenario. But infrastructure projects are more static in nature, and the SBT methodology is not granular enough to determine whether a specific project is aligned or not with the 2-degree pathway, making this approach less applicable.

However, that’s not the end of the story. Application of SBTs can apply in other ways:

  • Approval of SBTs at the company level

If the company or companies that build and operate the asset have approved SBTs, it should imply that as part of their portfolio the asset fits with a 2°C mitigation pathway. This is because the company’s performance should be the sum of its projects. From an IS rating perspective, activities to mitigate energy use-related emissions are rewarded through categories such as Ene-2 (Renewable Energy) and Ene-3 (Carbon offsetting). One further option to consider for both ISCA and client organisations (government departments and the like) is whether they might wish to go further and offer credit in the IS tool and in procurement to those companies who have SBTs (or equivalently ambitious targets).

  • Consideration of the “2°C readiness” of a project qualitatively

Alignment to a 1.5°Cor 2°C scenario requires substantial analytical assessment; however,prior to project implementation, the 2°C readiness of a project could be assessed qualitatively. Have the carbon impacts of the Operation phase been considered over the coming 15 years? What about the carbon impacts of the Design and As Built phase? Are there ways / alternatives to limit the carbon impact? While this method does not ensure direct alignment to the desired pathway, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

There are likely many cost-positive / cost-effective carbon reduction measures that can be implemented across all stages of a project. Not only do these measures aid in the alignment of a project to a 2°C scenario, but they can also aid in achieving the requirements of the ISv2.0 Energy and Carbon category.

  • Source materials from SBT-approved companies

Those building and operating assets could look to source, where available, materials from companies that have SBTs, or who sell products that meet SBT criteria in their own right. This approach could achieve points under the ISv2.0 Materials category, ISv2.0Sustainable Procurement category and the ISv2.0 Leadership category if energy and carbon emissions are material to the project or asset. This approach would also contribute to the company’s own SBT – if they have one – as the initiative requires organisation to address their Scope 3 emissions (i.e. including those associated with purchased goods and services).Whatever route is taken to get there, there is little doubt that we need to see a rapid incorporation of emissions reductions into the construction and operation of infrastructure assets that align with the 1.5- or 2-degrees level of global ambition. This is all the more important in Australia during what is an unprecedented boom in infrastructure investment.

To read the full report, click here. ISCA is committed to further investigating the carbon emissions mitigation potential across infrastructure assets both current and planned, and will soon be convening experts to help develop a trajectory for the sector. For more information contact Maisie at

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