Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Planetary Boundaries


We begin our discussion of climate change by considering the concept of planetary boundaries. The planetary boundary concept is a new one, originating in research released in 2009, but it is based on some classic concepts, in particular resilience at the global scale. In short, a planetary boundary is a limit to how much the Earth system can be disturbed without sending Earth into a new, unsafe state.

Video Assignment: Planetary Boundaries

The planetary boundary concept was introduced in 2009 by a group of international researchers led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Click for a transcript of Johan Rockstrom: Let the environment guide our development" video.

JOHAN ROCKSTROM: We live on a human dominated planet, putting unprecedented pressure on the systems on earth. This is bad news, but perhaps surprising to you, it's also part of the good news. We're the first generation, thanks to science, to be informed that we may be undermining the stability and the ability of planet Earth to support human development as we know it. It's also good news because the planetary risks we're facing are so large that business as usual is not an option.


In fact, we're in a phase where transformative change is necessary, which opened the window for innovation, for new ideas, and new paradigms. This is a scientific journey on the challenges facing humanity in the global phase of sustainability. On this journey, I'd like to bring, apart from yourselves, a good friend. A stakeholder who's always absent when we deal with the negotiations on environmental issues. A stakeholder who refuses to compromise.

Planet Earth. So I thought I'd bring it with me here today on stage to have her as a witness of a remarkable journey, which humbly reminds us of the period of grace we've had over the past 10,000 years. This is the living conditions on the planet over the last 100,000 years. It's a very important period. It's roughly half the period when we've been fully modern humans on the planet. We've had the same roughly abilities of developed civilizations as we know it. This is the environmental conditions on the planet here used as a proxy temperature variability.

It was jumpy ride. 80,000 years back in a crisis we leave Africa. We colonized Australia in another crisis 60,000 years back. Leave Asia for Europe and another crisis 40,000 years back and then we enter the remarkably stable Holocene phase, the only period in the whole history of the planet that we know of that could support human development. 1,000 years into this period, we abandon our hunting and gather patterns. We go from a couple of million people to the 7 billion people we are today. The mass of time and culture. We invent agriculture. We domesticate animals and plants. You have the Roman the Greek and the story as you know it. The only phase as we know it that can support humanity.

The trouble is, we're putting a quadruple squeeze on this poor planet, a quadruple squeeze which, as it's first squeeze, has population growth, of course. Now, this is not only about numbers. This is not only about the fact that we're 7 billion people committed to 9 billion people. It's an equity issue as well. The majority of environmental impact on the planet have been caused by the rich minority, the 20% that jumped onto the industrial bandwagon in the mid-18th century. The majority of the planet, aspiring for development, having the right for development, are largely aspiring for an unsustainable lifestyle, a momentous pressure.

The second pressure on the planet is, of course, the climate agenda, the big issue where the policy interpretation of science is that it would be enough to stabilize greenhouse gases at 450 ppm to avoid average temperatures exceeding two degrees. To avoid the risk that we may be destabilizing the west Antarctic ice shelf holding six meters level rise. The risk of destabilizing Greenland ice sheet holding another seven meter sea level rise.

Now, you would have wished the climate pressure to hit a strong planet, a resilient planet. But unfortunately, the third pressure is the ecosystem decline. Never have we seen over the past 50 years such a sharp decline of ecosystem functions and services on the planet, one of them being the ability to regulate climate on the long-term in our forest, land, and biodiversity.

The fourth pressure is surprise. The notion and the evidence that we need to abandon our old paradigm that ecosystems behave linearly, predictably, controllably in our, to say, linear systems. And that, in fact, surprise is universal, that systems tip over very rapidly, abruptly, and often irreversibly. This, dear friends, poses a human pressure on the planet of momentous scale. We may, in fact, have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, where humans are the predominant driver of change at a planetary level.

Now as a scientist, what's the evidence for this? Well, the evidence is unfortunately ample. It's not only carbon dioxide that has this hockey stick pattern of accelerated change. You can take virtually any parameter that matters for human well-being-- nitrous oxide, methane, deforestation, overfishing, land degradation, loss of species. They all show the same pattern over the past 200 years. Simultaneously, they branch off in the mid-50s, 10 years after Second World War, showing very clearly that the great acceleration of the human enterprise starts in the mid-50s. We see for the first time an imprint on the global level. And, I can tell you, you enter the disciplinary research in each of these, you find something remarkably important.

The conclusion that we may have come to a point where we have to bend the curves. That we may have entered the most challenging and most exciting decade in the history of humanity on the planet, the decade when we have to bend the curves. Now, as if this was not enough to just bend the curves and understanding the accelerated depression on the planet, we also have to recognize the fact that systems do have multiple stable states, separated by thresholds illustrated here by this ball-and-cup diagram where the depth of the cup is the resilience of the system.

Now, the system may gradually on the pressure of climate change erosion by the rest of loss lose the depth of the cup the resilience but appear to be healthy and appear to suddenly under a threshold be tipping over. Sorry. Changing state and literally ending up in an undesired situation, where a new biophysical logic takes over, new species take over, and the system gets locked.

Do we have evidence of this? Yes. Coral reef systems. Biodiverse low nutrient, hard coral systems under multiple pressures of overfishing, unstable tourism, climate change. A trigger, and the system tips over, loses its resilience. Soft coral take over, and we get undesired systems that cannot support economic and social development.

The Arctic. A beautiful system, a regulating biome at the planetary level, taking the knock after knock on climate change, appearing to be in a good state. No scientist could predict that in 2007, suddenly what could be crossing a threshold, the system suddenly very surprisingly loses 30% to 40% of its summer ice cover. And the drama is, of course, that when the system does this, the logic may change.

It may get locked in an undesired state because it changes color, absorbs more energy, and the system may get stuck, in my mind, the largest red flag warning for humanity that we are in a precarious situation. As a sideline, you know that the only red flag that popped up here was a submarine from an unnamed country that planted a red flag at the bottom of the Arctic to be able to control the oil resources.

Now if we have evidence, which we now have, that wetlands, forest, parts of the monsoon system, the rainforest behave in this non-linear way. 30 or so scientists around the world gathered and asked the question for the first time-- do we have to put the planet into the pot? Do we have to ask ourselves, are we threatening this extraordinarily stable Holocene state? Are we in fact, putting ourselves in a situation where we're coming too close to thresholds that could lead to [? deletirisian, ?] very undesired, if not catastrophic change for human development?

You know, you don't want to stand there. In fact, you're not even allowed to stand where this gentleman is standing at the foaming, slippery waters at the threshold. In fact, there is a fence quite upstream of this threshold, beyond which you are in a danger zone. And this is the new paradigm, which we gather two or three years back, recognizing that our old paradigm of just analyzing and pushing and predicting parameters into the future, aiming at the environment, minimizing environmental impacts is of the past.

Now we have to ask ourselves, which are the large environmental processes that we have to be stewards of to keep ourselves safe in the Holocene? And could we even, thanks to major advancements in earth system science, identify the thresholds, the points where we may expect non-linear change? And could we even define a planetary boundary, a fence, within which we then have a safe operating space for humanity?

This work, which was published in Nature late 2009, after a number of years of analysis led to the final proposition that we can only find nine planetary boundaries with which, under active stewardship, would allow ourselves to have a safe operating space. These include, of course, climate. It may surprise you that it's not only climate.

But it shows that we are interconnected among many systems on the planet with the three big systems, climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and ocean acidification, being the three big systems where there's scientific evidence of large-scale thresholds in the paleo-record Of the history on the planet. But we also include what we call the slow variables, the system that under the hood, regulate and buffer the capacity of the resilience of the planet.

The interference of the big nitrogen and phosphorus cycles on the planet, land use change, rate of biodiversity loss, freshwater use, functions which regulate biomass on the planet, carbon sequestration, diversity. And then we have two parameters, which we are not able to quantify, air pollution, including both warming gases and air polluting sulfates and nitrates, but also chemical pollution.

Together, these form an integrated whole for guiding human development in Anthropocene, understanding that the planet is a complex self-regulating system. In fact, most evidence indicates that these nine, may behave as three musketeers, one for all, all for one. You degrade forests, you go beyond the boundary on land, you undermine the ability of the climate system to stay stable.

The drama here is, in fact, that it may show that the climate challenge is the easy one, if you consider the whole challenge of sustainable development. Now this is the big bang equivalent, then, of human development within the safe operating space of the planetary boundaries. What you see here in black line is the safe operating space, the quantified boundaries, as suggested by this analysis.

The yellow dot in the middle here is our starting point, the preindustrial point, where we're very safely in the safe operating space. In the '50s, we start branching out. In the '60s already through the green revolution, and the Haber-Bosch process of fixing nitrogen for the atmosphere, you know, humans today take out more nitrogen from the atmosphere than the whole biosphere does naturally, as a whole.

We don't transgress the climate bound until the early '90s, actually, right after Rio. And today, we are in a situation where we estimate that we've transgressed three boundaries, the rate of biodiversity loss, which is the sixth extinction period in the history of humanity-- one of them being the extinctions of the dinosaurs, nitrogen, and climate change.

But we still have some degrees of freedom on the others, but we are approaching fast on land, water, phosphorous, and oceans. But this gives a new paradigm to guide humanity to put on the light on our, so far, overpowered industrial vehicle, which operates as if we're only on a dark straight highway.

Now the question then is how gloomy is this? Is then, sustainable development utopia? Well, there's no science to suggest-- in fact, there is ample science to indicate that we can do this transformative change, that we have the ability to now move into a new innovative, a transformative gear across scales. The drama is, of course, that 200 countries on this planet have to simultaneously start moving in the same direction.

But it changes fundamentally, our governance and management paradigm, from the current linear command and control thinking, looking at efficiencies and optimization towards a much more flexible, a much more adaptive approach where we recognize that redundancy, both in social and environmental systems is key to be able to deal with a turbulent era of global change. We have to invest in persistence, in the ability of social systems and ecological systems to withstand shocks, and still remain in that desired cup.

We have to invest in transformations capability, moving from crisis into innovation, and the ability to rise after a crisis, and of course, also to adapt to unavoidable change. This is a new paradigm. We're not doing that at any scale on governance. But is it happening anywhere? Do we have any examples of success on this mind-shift being applied at the local level? Well, yes, in fact, we do. And the list can start becoming and or longer. There is good news here.

For example, from Latin America where plow-based farming systems of the '50s and '60s led farming, basically, to a dead end with lower and lower yields, degrading of organic matter and fundamental problems at the livelihood levels in Paraguay, Uruguay, a number of countries, Brazil-- leading to innovation and entrepreneurship among farmers in partnership with scientists into an agricultural revolution of zero-tillage systems combined with mulch farming with locally adapted technologies, which today, for example, in some countries have led to a tremendous increase in area under mulch zero-till farming, which not only produces more food, but also sequesters carbon.

The Australian Great Barrier Reef is another success story. Under the realization from tourist operators, fishermen, the Australian Great Barrier Reef Authority, and scientists that the Great Barrier Reef is doomed under the current governance regime, global change, eutrophication of agriculture, overfishing, and unsustainable tourism, altogether placing the system in the realization of crisis.

But the window of opportunity was innovation new mindset, which today has led to a completely new governance strategy to build resilience, acknowledge redundancy and invest in the whole system as an integrated whole, and then allow for much more redundancy in the system.

Sweden, the country I come from, has other examples where wetlands in southern Sweden were seen as, as in many countries, as flood-prone polluted nuisance in the peri-urban regions. But again, a crisis, new partnerships, actors locally, transforming these into a key component of sustainable urban planning. So crisis leading into opportunities.

Now what about the future? Well, the future, of course, has one massive challenge, which is feeding a world of 9 billion people. We need nothing less than a new green revolution. And the planetary boundaries analysis shows that our culture has to go from a source of greenhouse gases to a sink. It has to basically do this on current land. We cannot expand anymore because it erodes the planetary boundaries. We cannot continue consuming water as we do today with 25% of world rivers not even reaching the ocean, and we need a transformation.

Well, interestingly, and based on my work and others in Africa, for example, we've shown that even the most vulnerable small-scale rainfed farming systems with innovations and supplementary irrigation to bridge dry spells and droughts, sustainable sanitation systems to close the loop on nutrients from toilets back to farmers fields, and innovations and tillage systems, we can triple, quadruple yield levels on current land.

Elinor Ostrum, the latest Nobel Laureates of economics clearly shows, empirically, across the world that we can govern the commons if we invest in trust, local, action-based partnerships and cross-scale institutional innovations where local actors together can deal with the global commons at a large scale. But even on the hard policy area we have innovations. We know we have to move from our fossil dependence very quickly into a low-carbon economy in a record time.

And what shall we do? Everybody talks about carbon taxes, it won't work, emission trading schemes. But for example, one policy measure feed-in tariffs on the energy system, which is applied from China doing it on offshore wind systems all the way to the US, where you give a guaranteed price for investment in renewable energy, but you can subsidize electricity to poor people.

You get people out of poverty, you solve the climate issue with regard to the energy sector, while at the same time stimulating innovation-- examples of things that can be out-scaled quickly at the planetary level. So there is no doubt opportunity here, and we can list many, many examples of transformative opportunities around the planet. The key though, in all of these, the red thread is the shift in mindset.

Moving away from a situation where we simply are pushing ourselves into a dark future, where we instead backcast our future, and we say, what is the playing field on the planet? What are the planetary boundaries within which we can safely operate, and then backtrack innovations within that.

But of course the drama is it clearly shows that incremental change is not an option. So there is scientific evidence, the so to say, the harsh news that we are facing the largest transformative development since the industrialization. In fact, what we have to do over the next 40 years is much more dramatic and more exciting than what we did when we moved into the situation we're in today.

Now science indicates that yes, we can achieve a prosperous future within the safe operating space if we move simultaneously, collaborating on a global level, from local to global scale, in transformative options which build resilience on a finite planet. Thank you.


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As you watch the video please think about the following questions:

  • What is the Holocene, and why does it matter to development/civilization?
  • Note that the Holocene began about 12,000 years ago. Why is this time significant?
  • What is the boundary for climate change?
  • So, humanity is pulling nitrogen from the atmosphere and converting it to other forms. How are we doing this? With what process? Why are we doing this?
  • Are the boundaries isolated issues or are they interrelated?

Details of the research project can be found at the Stockholm Resilience Centre website. Pay particular attention to recent updates to the Planetary Boundaries model.

As discussed in the video, the Holocene is the most recent epoch of Earth’s history. For the last 12,000 years or so, conditions on Earth have been relatively stable. This can be seen in data from ice cores in Antarctica and Greenland:

Graph of Data Points from Ice Cores taken in Antarctica and Greenland. Important information discussed in paragraph below.
Figure 9.1 Isotope Data for Antarctica and Greenland Ice Cores
Credit: Work found at Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Note that in this graph, time proceeds to the left, meaning that today is at the left edge of the graph and points further to the right are further into the past. The graph shows concentrations of isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen at different times. Ice sheets build gradually over time; the chemical composition of a layer of the ice depends on the chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere at the time. An ice core is a long cylinder that we remove from the ice sheet, giving us a sample of information about Earth’s atmosphere over long times. Ice cores are valuable sources of information about Earth’s history, which helps us understand how the Earth system works and, in turn, what Earth may be like in the future.

The important point to understand from the ice core graph is that the last 12,000 years or so have been relatively stable on Earth. It is during this period of stability that human civilization emerged. No one knows for sure whether civilization would have emerged without this period of stability, but we have strong reason to believe that the stability played an important role. Stable conditions made developing agriculture much easier since our ancestors could breed plants customized for stable local growing conditions. This may explain why – as we saw in Module 5 – agriculture emerged in several parts of the world within the last 12,000 years, but had not emerged anywhere else prior to then. For those of you interested in religion and its history, you might even ask whether it is a coincidence that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the world (and everything else) was created about 6,000 years ago… and that this tradition originated in the Fertile Crescent.

So, what does this all have to do with climate change? Simply put, climate change threatens to cross a planetary boundary, to put the Earth system into a new state, a state different from that in which civilization emerged. Our civilization remains highly customized to Holocene Earth. Climate change may force us to make major adaptations. At this time, it is uncertain whether civilization can survive climate change intact.

Intellectually, we’re going to need a lot of resources to understand climate change and what to do about it. That’s what the rest of this module is about.

The recycling decisions of the Xerox corporation could be either thought of as a common pool resource or as a private property resource. It depends on where and how these decisions are implemented.