The planetary boundaries concept, first published in 2009, identifies nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. Research shows that these nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System – the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which human societies depend.

Source: Steffen, Science, 16 januari 2015.
Source: Steffen, Science, 16 januari 2015.

New research published in the scientific journal Science shows that four boundaries have now been crossed: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).To exceed the planet's limits is of major concern for current and future societies. For example, marine ecosystems would change dramatically as a result of acidification and eutrophication and the continued loss of biodiversity is likely to undermine the provision of ecosystem services on which human societies depend. Another scenario is that the temperatures rise so much that it threatens agricultural production, infrastructure and human health.

Lead author, Professor Will Steffen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and the Australian National University, Canberra, says: “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. In this new analysis we have improved our quantification of where these risks lie.”

Crossing the Planetary Boundaries produces a great risk that the entire Earth system, the complex interactions between land, oceans, atmosphere, ice sheets, biodiversity and humans, becomes destabilised. Ultimately this can push the Earth system into a new state.

The research team, with 18 researchers from Sweden, Australia, Denmark, USA, England, Canada, Germany and Holland, call two of the boundaries "core boundaries": climate change and biodiversity loss – to significantly change or exceed any of these risks driving the Earth system into a new state.

“Past a certain threshold, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, or land-use change, for example, may not reverse or even slow the trends of Earth System degradation, with potentially catastrophic consequences,” says Professor Steffen.

Professor Johan Rockström, co-author and director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, will present the new findings at the World Economic Forum, 21 to 24 January.

“In the last four years we 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,” says Johan Rockström.

“It is obvious that different societies over time have contributed very differently to the current state of the earth. The world has a tremendous opportunity this year to address global risks, and do it more equitably. In September, nations will agree the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. With the right ambition, this could create the conditions for long-term human prosperity within planetary boundaries,” he says.

The nine planetary boundaries

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).