Let’s talk about Planetary Boundaries
I want to deep dive a little bit on a framework suggested by Rockström, et al. (2009) called the Planetary Boundaries Framework. It defines 9 boundaries that we as humans should stay under in order to ensure Earth can continue to regulate itself and therefore provide humanity a “safe operating space”. In this article we will discuss why the Planetary Boundaries Framework is important, its origin and what the outcomes of this research mean for sustainable development.
The planetary boundaries concept presents a set of 9 limits as seen in the image below, within which humanity can continue to develop. They help us know how to meet our own needs without compromising the needs of future generations and so far, we have exceeded 5 out of the 9 boundaries. However, we currently don’t have enough information to quantify the boundaries for two of them.
Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre
The boundaries are not equivalent to a global threshold or tipping point. Meaning that overshooting one boundary does not automatically mean an unwanted consequence. But the further these boundaries are crossed the higher the risk of creating irreversible changes and fewer the opportunities to prepare for these changes.
Origin of the Framework
In 2009, the director at the time of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Johan Rockström led a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists to identify the nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth systems.
The scientists proposed quantitative planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale or irreversible environmental changes. Since then the planetary boundaries framework has generated enormous interest within science, policy, and practice.
This year alone…
Researchers were able to quantify the “novel entities” boundary (which is just a fancy term for chemical pollution). Not only did they quantify it, but in January 2022, scientists concluded in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology that we have already exceeded the safe operating space for it. This chemical pollution includes plastics and other manufactured chemicals, as well as naturally occurring elements that are mobilized by human activities. Novel entities can be extremely persistent and have negative effects on planetary health, like disruption of biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity.
Then in April 2022, a reassessment of the planetary boundary for freshwater indicated that it has now been transgressed. The assessment, published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, is based on evidence of widespread changes in soil moisture relative to pre-industrial conditions and green-water driven destabilization of ecological, atmospheric, and biogeochemical processes.
Why are Planetary Boundaries Important?
The boundaries are interconnected, meaning overshooting one makes it more likely to overshoot other boundaries too. The framework can be used to prioritize efforts to reduce impacts over time and to make informed plans for sustainable development and climate justice.
One thing is clear… we need actions NOW to avoid overshooting any more boundaries. But most importantly rapid actions are needed to mitigate the sectors we have already exceeded, such as changes to the nitrogen cycle, biodiversity loss, climate change and chemical pollution.
Although we have surpassed more than half of the boundaries, there is still hope. When we transgressed the ozone-depletion boundary, we saw how the collaboration between important decision-making entities can make an actual change. We managed to return the process back to within the boundary and repair the ozone hole! Let’s hope humanity can work together once more and fix these boundaries. So we can live in harmony with our fellow species and ecosystems.
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