Humanity’s consumption comes at a cost to a wide variety of planetary systems that depend on one another for sustainability. Like dominoes, instability in one leans heavily on others in line, creating a set of boundaries that can cause serious problems if breached.
A team of scientists first introduced the concept “planetary boundaries” almost 15 years ago to identify major Earth systems that were at risk of instability because of human activity. They looked at systems including the climate, biodiversity and fresh water to determine the limits of what they called a “safe operating space” for civilization. But they stopped short of analyzing how busting past these limits might harm people, particularly the poor and vulnerable.
A major update, published today in the journal Nature, does just that, describing how much punishment nature can absorb before turning on us. Seven of the eight global boundaries have already been surpassed by humans, the authors find.
The researchers offer their new work in the hope that business and governments will develop tools to align their practices with science-set thresholds.
Planetary boundaries, that humans should not cross if they want the earth to remain hospitable to civilisation are given in the graph [attached].
“Our results are quite concerning. This means that unless a timely transformation occurs, it is most likely that irreversible tipping points and widespread impacts on human well-being will be unavoidable,” said lead author Prof. Johan Rockstrom, Earth Commission Co-Chair.
“Avoiding that scenario is crucial if we want to secure a safe and just future for current and future generations,” added Rockstrom, who is Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
The scientists also delivered the first quantification of safe and just Earth system boundaries on a global and local level for several biophysical processes and systems that regulate the state of the Earth system.
“The Earth system is in danger — many tipping elements are about to cross their tipping points,” said co-author Dahe Qin.