Imperial College London

Scientists need to be smart about environmental targets


Target painted on a tree

Creating environmental targets that countries will stick to requires that scientists actively engage with those who use their research.

They can then contribute to real progress in tackling big issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss, say a group of researchers in a new study published in Science.

Typically, scientists’ research is used as a foundation for recommendations on environmental targets, such as those aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or reduce habitat degradation. However, the science can often be overlooked when stakeholders clash over the implications of environmental policies.

The researchers behind the new study believe that scientists need to play a much more active role and work with those drafting environmental accords to help them set targets that are workable in the real world.

“Scientists can do so much more than just provide information to policy-makers" said study co-author Professor Milner-Gulland from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. "Agreeing on science-based targets also requires scientists to take responsibility for ensuring that information is understood and constructively used.”

SMART targets

The gold standard for internationally-agreed targets is that they are ‘SMART’: specific, measurable, ambitious, realistic, and time-bound, for example: ‘by 2030 reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births’. This helps ensure there is accountability when targets are not met.

However, lead author Sean Maxwell from the University of Queensland said clever decision making requires more than setting SMART targets. “They have proven effective, for example, in guiding the successful phase-out of ozone layer- depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. However, it is difficult to set and meet SMART targets when signatories dispute the social and environmental benefits of reaching a target.”

Greater scientific engagement ... could help to achieve better global environmental outcomes.

– E. J. Milner-Gulland

When issues are contentious and stakeholders have differing values, SMART targets can end up being vague or unachievable. For example, inability to reach consensus on  how to manage international fishing led to targets such as: ‘to minimize bycatch to the extent practicable’ in the 1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement. Without a quantifiable goal, achievement of the target is difficult to measure and police.

To make clearer targets, the researchers suggest that it would be better to focus on the negotiation process of target-making rather than emphasising the target itself. Professor Millner-Gulland said promoting collaboration, trust, and innovation between stakeholders should be a primary focus of international environmental accords.

“Greater scientific engagement in improving the process of target-setting could help to achieve better global environmental outcomes,” she said.

By focusing on smooth negotiations, the researchers believe scientists can help create meaningful targets in areas that have faced roadblocks, such as in climate change accords. For example, initially high demands for greenhouse gas emissions reductions by some countries may cause negotiations to quickly break down. Instead, pre-negotiations between heavy emitters, such as the USA and China, could help set the tone for consensus-based reduction targets.


Being smart about SMART environmental targets’ by S. L. Maxwell, E. J. Milner-Gulland, J. P. G. Jones, A. T. Knight, N. Bunnefeld, A. Nuno, P. Bal, S. Earle, J. E. M. Watson, and J. R. Rhodes is published in Science.


Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
Communications Division

Click to expand or contract

Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 2412

Show all stories by this author


Environment, Climate-change
See more tags

Leave a comment

Your comment may be published, displaying your name as you provide it, unless you request otherwise. Your contact details will never be published.