Planetary Boundaries 2.0

Human activity is eating away at our own support systems that will lead the world into a less desirable state. The Planetary Boundaries concept sets a framework for sectors of societies to reduce risk while developing sustainably.

Planetary-Boundaries 2.0The Planetary Boundaries concept was first introduced in 2009 by Stockholm Resilience Centre led by Johan Rockstrom. It identifies nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment.

Six years on, all the nine planetary boundaries remain, though with updated analysis and quantification on several of them.

In essence, the researcher are getting more certain of the planetary boundaries we need to add-hear to.

Four planetary boundaries crossed
Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity. The four are:

  1. Climate change
  2. Loss of biosphere integrity
  3. Land-system change
  4. Altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

Carbon dioxide levels, at 395.5 parts per million, are at historic highs, while loss of biosphere integrity is resulting in species becoming extinct at a rate more than 100 times faster than the previous norm.

Since 1950 urban populations have increased seven-fold along with huge increase in affluence, primary energy use has soared by a factor of five, while the amount of fertiliser used is now eight times higher. The amount of nitrogen entering the oceans has quadrupled.

Two core boundaries
For the past 10,000 years the earth’s temperature has been stable within 1 degree Celsius range. This stable state, called the Holocene, has been ideal for human development. However, since the industrial revolution and particularly since the 1950s human activities have pumped CO2 into the atmosphere, degraded land and freshwater systems and used vast amounts of agricultural chemicals into the environment.

Researchers spent five years identifying these core components of a planet suitable for human life, using the long-term average state of each measure to provide a baseline for the analysis.

Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call “core boundaries”. Significantly altering either of these “core boundaries” would “drive the Earth System into a new state”.

deforestationTransgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries.

Scientists call this epoch the Holocene with reference to the fact that the changes are human induced.

Nine planetary boundaries
The Planetary Boundaries concept identified nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment.

The nine planetary boundaries are:

  1. Climate change
  2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
  3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
  4. Ocean acidification
  5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
  6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
  7. Freshwater use
  8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
  9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics)

In addition to the globally aggregated Planetary Boundaries, regional-level boundaries have now been developed for biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, land-system change and freshwater use. At present only one regional boundary (South Asian Monsoon) can be established for atmospheric aerosol loading.

Do not restrict development
Some may argue that Planetary Boundaries cannot be followed given the world economy is suffering. That is rather a misunderstanding of the concept. The Planetary Boundaries are not set to dictate how human societies should develop.

It is there to aid decision-makers by defining a safe operating space for humanity. 

The researchers have worked closely with policymakers, industry and organisations to explore how the planetary boundaries approach can be used as a framework for sectors of societies to reduce risk while developing sustainably.

With both UN Sustainable Development Goals to be set in September and the COP21 meeting in Paris, the world has a tremendous opportunity this year to address global risks, and do it more equitably. With the right ambition, this could create the conditions for long-term human prosperity within planetary boundaries

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