Published 2018-05-24

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Planetary Boundaries in interdisciplinary research forefront

The Planetary Boundaries theoretical framework, which was developed at the Stockholm Resilience Centre almost a decade ago, is more topical than ever before. Research groups around the world use the concept and develop it as they explore our future on Earth.

Recently, an article was published in Nature Sustainability entitled ‘A good life for all within planetary boundaries’. It describes the investigation, by researchers linked to Leeds University, of whether it is possible to live with a high degree of social justice while remaining within planetary limits of resource utilisation. The result was disappointing.

‘Unfortunately, it turned out that all rich countries with a high level of social prosperity have it at the cost of staying within the planet’s boundaries. And Sweden didn’t do well on that list, either,’ says Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC).

It was the first time that methodological development had taken a detailed analytical turn that made it possible to explore whether the lower limit of social prosperity is within the framework of the biophysical limits.

It is now nine years since the Planetary Boundaries theory about the planet’s resource-use limits was launched. The theory defines ecological frameworks within which humankind must stay to avoid the risk of destabilising the planet and thus eliminating opportunities for global human welfare.

Planetary Boundaries resonated in the research community and among decision makers, and according to Rockström, this was because the framework had been preceded by decades of research.

‘Decades of scientific progress have shown how human pressure on the planet has increased exponentially, and that Earth is a sensitive, complex system in which all the components like climate, biodiversity and water interact and determine the condition of the whole planetary system,’ he says.

According to Rockström, in the nine years since then, intensive research has been disseminating and deepening the theory, contributing to further precision and knowledge of where the boundaries lie.

‘In purely scientific terms, the concept of Planetary Boundaries is in the forefront of interdisciplinary research design. Research based on these thoughts is under way around the world,’ he says.

Leeds University (mentioned above) is one example. Asked to name others, Rockström starts listing higher education institutions: Oxford, Australian National University, Stanford, Harvard and many other universities.

Theorisation around Planetary Boundaries is the result of intensive thought processes and research efforts at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, driven primarily by Rockström and Will Steffen of the Australian National University. Today, the generic thought model is used in both research and policy work.

For example, the New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law is applying the framework in its research to develop a legal ‘Earth Trusteeship’ for managing the planet’s commons. The German Government used the Planetary Boundaries framework in its background report to the 2015 G7 Summit. The report was entitled A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks.

According to Rockström, one important line of research is to investigate how breaching climate boundaries affects other planetary boundaries. When the temperature rises by one and a half or two degrees Celsius, what happens to the planet’s boundaries for water, biodiversity and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus? What other consequences are there when the permafrost thaws, and if deforestation and global warming push the rainforest over the threshold to a savannah? Or if the seas start to lose their capacity to absorb as much carbon dioxide as today (about a quarter of our emissions)?

‘This is an important scientific track and we have an article under way for the journal PNAS. It’s about the fact that if we lose resilience in one respect, we probably do so in others too,’ Rockström says. In his view, this may result in self-reinforcing global warming shocks.

An important part of the cutting-edge research is therefore to further develop system-based models of the entire Earth system.

‘This is to deepen our understanding of how planetary boundaries interact with one another.’

One step in this direction is to develop all the planetary limit values. This work has already begun, according to Rockström.

The work he describes as the most exciting when it comes to Planetary Boundaries is an international initiative, ‘The World in 2050’. This was launched jointly by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) agency.

‘What we’re doing together is developing scenarios for how the world can be transformed to reach all the UN’s global goals for sustainable development, within the planetary boundaries,’ Rockström says, referring to the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Text: Thomas Heldmark