Science-Based Targets for Water: Why you may still be a few steps away

7 min readAug 22, 2019


By Rylan Dobson, Water Stewardship Manager, WWF Germany & Alexis Morgan, WWF Global Water Stewardship Lead

Businesses will need to transform their approach to water © WWF / Greg Funnell

During the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year an ambitious initiative called the New Deal for Nature and People was announced by David Attenborough. The vision of ND4NP is to reverse the loss of nature and protect and restore key ecosystems by 2030 for the benefit of people and the planet.

The Business community is one of many stakeholders that are being called upon to contribute to make the vision of the ND4NP a reality. Many of us are all too familiar with the global freshwater statistics such as the dramatic declines in freshwater species, growing global water scarcity and increases in the occurrences of water-related events — just to name a few. These freshwater trends are not showing any signs of reversing and serve as confirmation that we are already exceeding the sustainable boundaries of freshwater systems.

Freshwater species populations have declined 83% on average since 1970 (LPI)

These trends are creating an unprecedented operating environment for businesses. Corporate sustainability, as we know it, was born out of a need to protect and enhance corporate reputation and was (and in places still is) seen as a “nice-to-have” value add. However, we are quickly moving into a new era of corporate sustainability — one which moves sustainability from the fringes of public relations and into the heart of the corporate strategy, value creation and defining competitive advantage. The vision set out by the ND4NP is radical (let us not underestimate this) but if achieved, the resiliency it will deliver to both the planet and all stakeholders will be invaluable, and for those companies who embrace it fully, highly profitable.

The vision for the ND4NP challenges the current dominate corporate sustainability narrative (i.e. what can we do) and puts forward a more meaningful and ambitious one: What do we need to do for nature and people? The needs of nature needs won’t be collectively delivered simply by implementing more ambitious internal efficiencies that are designed only to compete with its peers. Rather, the needs of nature will be met when all business (large and small) make transformational changes to their business models out of recognition that their long-term resiliency is intertwined with that of nature’s resiliency.

For a business, contributing to the call from the ND4NP means challenging the status quo and going beyond just “doing the right thing” or because “my competitors are doing it” — it will be the new corner stone for establishing competitive advantages within markets.

Businesses need to ask what do they need to do for nature and people © Global Warming Images / WWF

How do we determine what nature needs?

The ND4NP identifies “science” as a mechanism that can be used to define what nature needs by creating a compelling, science-based economic case. Science is already being used by the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) to support businesses answer the question “what nature needs” — to limit global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Since 2016, WWF has been exploring how the business community might answer the question of “what nature needs” with respect to water. We initiated a collaboration with CDP, CEO Water Mandate, The Nature Conservancy, Pacific Institute and WRI — resulting in a co-published the paper “Exploring the case for Corporate Context-Based Water Targets”.

Concurrent to the above, general momentum has been growing with respect to the use of science and situational context as an approach for setting more meaningful corporate performance targets.

More recently, 2018 saw the establishment of the Earth Targets Platform.This platform is comprised of two pieces, namely: The “Earth Commission”which would provide a synthesis of exiting science to inform the establishment of planetary-level scientific targets, and the “Science-Based Targets Network” (SBTN) that will develop specific science-based targets for companies across relevant boundaries. To align with these new conversations, we opted to shift terminology related to these targets, which explains why we are no longer talk about Context-Based Water Targets but rather Science-Based Targets for Water.

In the case of freshwater, all too often we read declarations in corporate literature that acknowledges that “water is local” because this is how the science of water works. However, it is not uncommon that this is where the sentiment of this statement ends. While the water risk narrative has helped businesses better understand that “water is local” and that different water issues (since water is multidimensional) but translating these into “setting and aggregating local water targets” is complicated. As a result, water stewardship mitigation actions and targets often remain largely devoid of “local” freshwater context.

Water risks are increasing but so are opportunities © James Suter/Black Bean Productions / WWF-US

The nature of corporate strategy and targets

In 2016, Bain published a report on the effectiveness of corporate transformation programmes and targets. The report noted that for more general corporate transformation programmes and targets included in the study, only 12% either achieved or exceeded their aims. For corporate sustainability programmes and targets this figure dropped to just 2%.

Taking a step back from the narrow angle of target setting, it is worth reiterating that the purpose of a corporate strategy fundamentally aims to steward scarce internal resources (time, money, people etc.) and focus these on creating value — both internally and externally. Even the advice of the UN Global Compact is that corporate goals/targets must focus on issues that are strategically important to the business and are connected to its strategy. In order words — strategy comes before targets, not the other way around. Therefore, having a conversation about Science-Based Targets for Water (SBTW) can’t meaningfully happen if a business has not yet embedded similar science-base (and often radical compared to business-as-usual) principles into its strategy.

To contribute meaningful to the vision set out by the ND4NP, a business’ commitment to implementing a SBTW needs to done alongside a conscious decision to integrate principles of the ND4NP’s vision and science-based thinking into the core of its water stewardship purpose and strategy — not by a desire to react to the latest “trend” in corporate sustainability.

Businesses are traditionally better at achieving incremental stretched targets, however what nature needs from us is the adoption and delivery of more radical moonshot water targets. Without a strategic foundation built on answering the needs of nature, the probability of a business meeting these radical moonshot what-nature-needs targets (and in doing so creating value for nature) are likely to be severely diminished.

Nature needs businesses to adopt radical, moon shot targets for water © Jaime Rojo / WWF-US

Less and local is more

In places, the needs of nature will far exceed the scarce corporate resources that might be available from even an individual business. We can’t let this paralyse individual action, but we should rather frame it as an opportunity to relentlessly focus on the strategic intersections between water and the value chain. Strategically directing scarce internal resources into those parts of the value chain that ultimately creates more value — both internal business value and external value for nature and people.

As a global community we need to be better at celebrating this more strategic less and local is more mindset rather than labelling it as unambitious. Where the needs of nature exceed the ability of any given individual business to single-handedly tackle the challenge, collective action becomes the only truly viable solution. In this context, the “less and local is more”narrative may sound counter-intuitive. However, when collective actions are born out of a strong connection between the needs of nature, local communities and business it has the potential to be far more sustainable as it has local ownership.

We are in an era of rapid and significant change. Systems are at the brink and there is little question that we indeed do need a ND4NP. But if we place targets before strategy, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We need business to bring its ability to focus in a laser-like fashion to see that a ND4NP can complement the core part of a businesses strategy and purpose, and through that process engage key aspects of the value chain to mobilize local solutions to the global challenges facing our planet.

There is gold at the end of a Science-based targets approach to water © Staffan Widstrand / WWF




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