What’s in a commitment?

1st Mar 2024

What is a commitment?

Commitments fill many important purposes in everyday life. A commitment is a precursor to action - a promise to fulfill and a galvanizing principle for change. It’s a signifier of intentions associated with honesty.

Commitments help establish a sense of accountability. When one makes a commitment, they are essentially taking responsibility for a certain action or outcome. This accountability fosters a culture of responsibility and integrity, qualities that are necessary in the fight against the worsening effects of climate change. As the John Hopkins Center for Communications Programs states: “Behavioral economics posits that people make decisions automatically, by using mental shortcuts. Commitment devices and reminders can help decrease the cognitive burden required to sequence or complete a complex task. Pre-committing to a particular decision can help people align their actions with their preferences.”

How does the SBTi utilize commitments and how do they differ from targets?

The SBTi gives companies and financial institutions the opportunity to publicly state their intention to set near-term or net-zero science-based targets in the next 24 months by completing and submitting a commitment letter. Signing the commitment letter means that they are publicly listed on the SBTi website as having committed to set targets.

After an organization has officially committed to setting science-based targets, it has 24 months to develop those targets and book a slot with the SBTi to have them validated. The development process includes the identification of a baseline (the amount of emissions the company is emitting) and the creation of carbon reduction plans aligned with a 1.5℃ trajectory.

It’s important to clarify that organizations issuing commitments do not yet have validated science-based targets. They have only committed to develop and submit targets for validation. Companies do not need to make a commitment before setting targets - and growing numbers are choosing to go straight into setting targets.

Why does the SBTi propose companies start with a commitment?

Urgent climate action is needed across all sectors and regions, and the number of companies with science-based targets is growing fast. However, since it can take several months or more for businesses to develop their targets and have them validated, there’s a demand for some companies to be able to show that they’re committed to taking action even if they’re not quite at the stage of having their targets validated.

For many organizations, commitments are a helpful tool in gathering momentum internally, allowing teams to rally the stakeholders and collect the data needed to successfully submit targets.

Commitments also showcase necessary leadership in the climate agenda. They can have a ripple effect across sectors and supply chains, with the potential to galvanize other companies into taking action. When companies see their peers or competitors committing to set targets, they may be more likely to do so themselves. It is especially important for larger companies in the global South to showcase this kind of leadership early on in the decarbonization process so as to help further accelerate the uptake of science-based targets.

Commitments also serve as a leading indicator (or predictive measurement) towards eventual target setting, allowing the SBTi and wider stakeholders to anticipate and monitor the broader growth in science-based targets.

The commitment model is prevalent in the climate space, used by others including Climate Pledge and the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC).

What happens when an organization is unable to submit its targets after committing?

The SBTi recognizes that commitments without action could amount to empty promises, and has taken steps to ensure accountability and transparency for companies that do not translate commitments into targets.

On January 31 2023, the SBTi’s new Commitment Compliance Policy came into effect. Previously, any organizations which did not submit targets within the allotted time frame after committing were simply removed from our target dashboard. In this new policy, their commitments are marked as "Commitment Removed" on the dashboard. With these changes, the SBTi aims to increase transparency and accountability around commitments and eventual validation. We believe this will act as a disincentive for companies to make commitments if they don’t genuinely intend to submit targets for validation.

Having a commitment removed signifies the expiry of a deadline for commitments - it has no impact on a company’s ability to submit targets for validation. Companies that have commitments removed are welcome and indeed encouraged to re-engage with the process to set science-based targets for validation as soon as possible. Their status in the target dashboard is updated accordingly, with ‘Commitment’ removed’ replaced by ‘Targets set’.

Commitments can have value if they can lead to target setting, just as validated targets have value when they lead to credible science-based climate action. Empty promises cannot deliver humanity from the worst effects of climate change, which is why we call on companies to set ambitious emissions reductions targets without delay, whether or not they commit to doing so in advance.

Interested in learning more about commitments and the target-setting process? Start your decarbonization journey today.