For the first time, guidance is available for companies seeking to set freshwater science-based targets to limit the use of freshwater resources and ensure a sustainable future. Whether it’s part of a broader nature approach, incorporating policies into value chains or paying attention to impacts on a specific location, the guidance provides the steps and methodologies businesses can follow to mitigate any harm to freshwater sources around the world.

The water a business uses in its processes and products can jeopardize water availability for people, industry and nature, or hurt water quality. Science-based targets are not only critical to balance and protect the world’s water resources but can also drive long-term resilience for businesses.

With the recent release of these new freshwater science-based targets from the Science Based Targets Network, companies can ensure their activities are aligned with environmental water limits. Setting science-based goals is a relatively new approach that was created in 2016 by the Science Based Targets Initiative after WRI began working with Mars Inc., to assess how its operations and entire value chain could stay within environmental climate and water limits.

A farmer tends to alfalfa crops with large rock formations in the background in the Al-Ula Valley of Saudi Arabia.
A farmer manages his alfalfa crop in Al-Ula valley in Saudi Arabia. All crops rely on water, meaning nutrient pollution poses a significant challenge to agriculture. Photo by JohnnyGrieg/iStock 

The nascent work with Mars, which ushered in a new generation of corporate water targets, flagged several challenges that still remain.

Most notably that while greenhouse gas emissions have global implications, and therefore can be managed with global targets, water is a localized resource, so water challenges must be locally managed. However, the data and information to do so properly is not available in every water basin throughout the world. Moreover, water challenges come in many forms: water scarcity, poor water quality, lack of access, droughts, flooding and more. So, water targets need to address a wide array of specific challenges.

Despite these challenges, the Science Based Targets Network’s Freshwater Hub — which includes WRI, World Wildlife Fund, CDP, The Nature Conservancy and the Pacific Institute — developed the first methodology for companies to voluntarily set targets that reflect the most recent hydrologic science and meet the sustainable freshwater quantity and quality thresholds of the water resources where the company and their value chain operate.

Drawing from best available data, including WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, and building on lessons learned from the growing numbers of corporate water targets the Freshwater Hub aligned on a methodology that is both robust and practical, so companies can be confident in what it takes to do enough.  

Things to Consider When Setting Freshwater Targets

As the first companies begin setting their own science-based targets, here are five key takeaways from the new guidance.

1) Assess Impacts on Nature

This first release of freshwater targets is part of a broader guidance across nature, including freshwater, land, ocean, biodiversity and climate. Companies depend on and impact nature to various extents and in various ways, from irrigating crop fields to withdrawing water to cool data centers. Companies that use this guidance will first need to assess their impacts across these issues and prioritize which areas they should focus on reducing their negative impacts.

2) Assess Impacts Across Value Chains

Historically, companies have focused on reducing water impacts and mitigating risks within their direct operations, for example by investing in more water-efficient technologies. But companies are now realizing that impacts on water may occur across their value chain, including upstream in the supply chain or downstream during product use and disposal. The first release of science-based targets for nature prompts companies to assess impacts in both direct operations and upstream.

Future versions may also include downstream guidance, which is still a nascent area in the corporate water stewardship space. In the meantime, WRI’s work with Procter & Gamble provides an example of how companies can commit to replenishing their downstream impacts by estimating water consumed by consumers using their products.

3) Set Location-Specific Targets

Companies must consider setting targets across its entire geographical reach, while also being aware that some water basins may have water availability challenges, while others may experience nutrient pollution. Therefore, setting one target for a company’s entire geographic reach will not lead to the right actions in the right places at the right time.

Water is local, so freshwater science-based targets need to be, too. Companies will need to set individual freshwater targets for every priority basin. To balance scientific rigor with practicality, the methodology includes pathways for doing this with global and/or local models.

A cow grazes on the polluted banks of Nepal’s Bagmati River.
A cow grazes on the polluted banks of Nepal’s Bagmati River. Water impacts occur across the value chain, from upstream in the supply chain to downstream during product use and disposal. Photo by asiaphoto/iStock.

4) Water Quality Methods Are Limited to Nutrient Impacts

Since nutrient pollution is a widespread challenge applicable to many sectors, particularly agriculture, many companies are considering how to assess and limit it. Access to high-quality water data is required to address water quality challenges meaningfully and scientifically.

The first release of science-based targets for nature freshwater methods only addresses nutrient impacts on water, in part due to lack of data on other water quality concerns. Future versions of these freshwater methods will include additional water quality challenges.

5) Contextual Water Targets Are Not Obsolete

The freshwater science-based targets methodology was borne out of contextual water target guidance, which was designed for companies to align their water goals with local water challenges and their contributions to those challenges.

Freshwater science-based targets are more prescriptive, particularly in dictating the desired conditions necessary to solve the challenges. This additional rigor ensures that targets quantitatively focus on water quality and quantity thresholds based on the best available hydrological science. However, contextual water targets still represent a viable option for many companies and scenarios, such as when:

  • A company wants to address the downstream portion of its value chain.
  • A company wants to set targets around access to water or other water quality challenges beyond nutrients.
  • A company has limited resources.
  • A company is just getting started on its sustainability journey.

This Is Only the Beginning for Freshwater Targets

This first iteration of freshwater science-based targets is both complex and constrained, and prescriptive and pragmatic. It represents the best professional judgment of five leading environmental organizations all striving to achieve a water-secure future for the planet and input from scientists, industry practitioners, consultants and many other experts who served as advisors and reviewers. But we know it’s not perfect. While Science Based Targets Initiative is on its fifth iteration of corporate climate targets, Science Based Targets Network has just released its first iteration of corporate science-based targets for nature.

WRI and its partners in the Freshwater Hub are already working to enhance the methods, including expanding water quality and groundwater methods, for the next version. In the meantime, companies can and should get started on their science-based target journeys. WRI and the Science Based Targets Network can support the private sector in understanding and implementing the methods. As we develop the next version, we will be closely watching and listening to those pioneering companies who are leading the charge.