German Astronaut Alexander Gerst Aboard The International Space Station

Four of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ have now been breached as a result of human activity and not natural variability, says a new research paper published in the journal Science entitled “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet”. The ‘planetary boundaries’ framework was first introduced in 2009 by an international group of scientists led by Will Steffen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Professor at the Stockholm University and the Australian National University in Canberra and with participation of the renowned Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and has now been updated.

The primary objective is to inform decision-making on climate policy. This can be done by identifying and quantifying parameters within which humanity can continue to develop in an environmentally sustainable manner and thrive for generations to come. The keyword here is ‘resilience’, which the Stockholm Resilience Centre defines as “the [long-term] capacity of a system to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical thresholds.”

Note, any breaches of the ‘outer’ boundaries decrease the entire system’s ability to contain damage and reduce any impact what, in extremis, may lead to a complete loss of the system’s ability to recover. Consequently, breaching ‘planetary boundaries’ could generate sudden and/or irreversible environmental changes. “Transgressing 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,” lead author Professor Will Steffen of the Stockholm Resilience Centre stressed. He added that in “this new [updated from 2009] analysis we have improved our quantification of where these risks lie.” The team of scientists elaborates in their 2015 Science research article what that exactly means:

“The planetary boundaries framework defines a safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth System. (…) Several of the boundaries now have a two-tier approach, reflecting the importance of cross-scale interactions and the regional-level heterogeneity of the processes that underpin the boundaries. Two core boundaries – climate change and biosphere integrity – have been identified, each of which has the potential on its own to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.”

The 2015 research paper contends that out of nine global “processes and systems [that] regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System – the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which our societies depend” – four “planetary boundaries” have already been breached as manifested by anthropogenic changes to the environment. While two – climate change and land-system change – are steadily creeping into a so-called “zone of uncertainty” where it is not too late to take action, the other two – biosphere integrity as pertains to genetic diversity and altered biogeochemical cycles as pertains to the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used as fertilizer in agriculture) from the terrestrial biosphere to the ocean – have entered a ‘zone beyond’ characterized by imperfect information on global ramifications of the interplay of varying regional transgressions of ‘safe-operating’ thresholds.

Roman planet1 Planetary Boundaries

Source: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) 

Most notably, just because the above graphic does not indicate a transgression of ‘safe-operating’ thresholds with respect to other planetary boundaries such as freshwater use, does not mean that ‘tolerated’ regional thresholds in many parts of the world have not already been exceeded. To give an example close to home, think of the major drought gripping the Western United States in 2014. “The challenges for society to stay within several planetary boundaries require balanced policies,” advises co-author Dieter Gerten of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He points to inter-linkages among the planetary boundaries with potentially negative repercussions: “For example, if irrigation was reduced to stay below the boundary for freshwater use, cropland may have to be expanded as a compensation measure, leading to further transgression of the boundary for land-system change.”

The following table from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (adapted below) offers scientific specifics on the breaches of some ‘planetary boundaries’:

roman planet2 Planetary Boundaries BreachedSource: Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E.M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S.R., de Vries, W., de Wit, C.A., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G.M., Persson, L.M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B., Sörlin, S. (2015): “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet”, Science via Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) 

To view specifics for all nine ‘planetary boundaries’ – especially the ‘negatively altered’ biogeochemical cycles (global phosphorus cycle: flow from freshwater systems into the ocean; global nitrogen cycle: industrial and intentional biological fixation of nitrogen) – access here (PIK) and for more figures, charts and data for the updated Planetary Boundaries (2015) access here (Stockholm Resilience Centre).

As for the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists have a relatively good understanding of its negative impact on future living conditions on Earth. CO2 insulates the surface of the Earth thereby holding in the heat which, in turn, increases the terrestrial average temperature – heating at a slower pace the oceans and melting glaciers as well as polar ice. As a result, weather changes occur and the sea level rises. Regarding climate change – represented by atmospheric CO2 concentrations – the scientists in the above research paper estimate that humanity has already taken by storm the ‘CO2 zone of uncertainty’ that they placed at CO2 levels in the atmosphere of between 350 and 450 parts per million (ppm).

All those new findings will be presented at the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos, which started on January 21. This is a very fitting venue. Just prior to the annual global ‘get-together’ the World Economic Forum released its annual Global Risks 2015 report – now in its 10th edition – which calls attention to global risks and aims at “providing tools to support decision-makers in their efforts to mitigate or prevent global risks or strengthen resilience against them.” Most importantly, the report makes clear that the world is increasingly interconnected, which precludes assessing global risks in an isolated fashion. Obviously, the same logic applies within single risk categories such as the ‘environment’. According to the Global Risks Perception Survey 2014, three of the top 10 risks in terms of impact over the next 10 years are environmental risks: water crises, failure of climate-change adaptation as well as biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse.

Ten Global Risks in Terms of Likelihood and Impact  roman planet3 Planetary Boundaries Breached

Source: World Economic Forum