Stockholm university logo, link to start page

Sarah CornellDocent

About me

My research focuses on global sustainability, currently exploring better ways to understand Earth resilience. I work as part of a transdisciplinary team of researchers who aim to characterize the global ‘safe operating space for humanity’ in applicable ways. I am active in the growing international community of researchers advancing planetary boundaries science together with policymakers and practitioners who use the framework.

My research background is in marine and atmospheric chemistry (PhD 1996 from University of East Anglia, UK). I started out researching the global nitrogen cycle before moving into transdisciplinary sustainability science. I have worked and taught at the Stockholm Resilience Centre since 2011.

Research projects


A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • Management Education and Earth System Science

    2021. Mark G. Edwards, Jose M. Alcaraz, Sarah E. Cornell. Business & society 60 (1), 26-56


    Earth system science (ESS) has identified worrying trends in the human impact on fundamental planetary systems. In this conceptual article, we discuss the implications of this research for business schools and management education (ME). We argue that ESS findings raise significant concerns about the relationship between business and nature and, consequently, a radical reframing is required to embed economic and social activity within the global sustainability of natural systems. This has transformative implications for ME. To illustrate this reframing, we apply the ESS lenses of social-ecological interdependence, multiscalar relations, environmental governance, and environmental values to the ME functional domains of institutional purpose, social context and engagement, pedagogical practice, curricular design, and research focus. Our work contributes to the literature on business education for sustainability and the business-society-nature nexus. We explore and apply key ESS findings and concepts, discuss normative implications of these ideas, and offer guidance on transformational pathways for business schools and ME.

    Read more about Management Education and Earth System Science
  • Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy

    2020. David Leclere (et al.). Nature 585 (7826), 551-556


    Increased efforts are required to prevent further losses to terrestrial biodiversity and the ecosystem services that it provides(1,2). Ambitious targets have been proposed, such as reversing the declining trends in biodiversity(3); however, just feeding the growing human population will make this a challenge(4). Here we use an ensemble of land-use and biodiversity models to assess whether-and how-humanity can reverse the declines in terrestrial biodiversity caused by habitat conversion, which is a major threat to biodiversity(5). We show that immediate efforts, consistent with the broader sustainability agenda but of unprecedented ambition and coordination, could enable the provision of food for the growing human population while reversing the global terrestrial biodiversity trends caused by habitat conversion. If we decide to increase the extent of land under conservation management, restore degraded land and generalize landscape-level conservation planning, biodiversity trends from habitat conversion could become positive by the mid-twenty-first century on average across models (confidence interval, 2042-2061), but this was not the case for all models. Food prices could increase and, on average across models, almost half (confidence interval, 34-50%) of the future biodiversity losses could not be avoided. However, additionally tackling the drivers of land-use change could avoid conflict with affordable food provision and reduces the environmental effects of the food-provision system. Through further sustainable intensification and trade, reduced food waste and more plant-based human diets, more than two thirds of future biodiversity losses are avoided and the biodiversity trends from habitat conversion are reversed by 2050 for almost all of the models. Although limiting further loss will remain challenging in several biodiversity-rich regions, and other threats-such as climate change-must be addressed to truly reverse the declines in biodiversity, our results show that ambitious conservation efforts and food system transformation are central to an effective post-2020 biodiversity strategy. To promote the recovery of the currently declining global trends in terrestrial biodiversity, increases in both the extent of land under conservation management and the sustainability of the global food system from farm to fork are required.

    Read more about Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy
  • Earth system data cubes unravel global multivariate dynamics

    2020. Miguel D. Mahecha (et al.). Earth System Dynamics 11 (1), 201-234


    Understanding Earth system dynamics in light of ongoing human intervention and dependency remains a major scientific challenge. The unprecedented availability of data streams describing different facets of the Earth now offers fundamentally new avenues to address this quest. However, several practical hurdles, especially the lack of data interoperability, limit the joint potential of these data streams. Today, many initiatives within and beyond the Earth system sciences are exploring new approaches to overcome these hurdles and meet the growing interdisciplinary need for data-intensive research; using data cubes is one promising avenue. Here, we introduce the concept of Earth system data cubes and how to operate on them in a formal way. The idea is that treating multiple data dimensions, such as spatial, temporal, variable, frequency, and other grids alike, allows effective application of user-defined functions to co-interpret Earth observations and/or model- data integration. An implementation of this concept combines analysis-ready data cubes with a suitable analytic interface. In three case studies, we demonstrate how the concept and its implementation facilitate the execution of complex workflows for research across multiple variables, and spatial and temporal scales: (1) summary statistics for ecosystem and climate dynamics; (2) intrinsic dimensionality analysis on multiple timescales; and (3) model-data integration. We discuss the emerging perspectives for investigating global interacting and coupled phenomena in observed or simulated data. In particular, we see many emerging perspectives of this approach for interpreting large-scale model ensembles. The latest developments in machine learning, causal inference, and model-data integration can be seamlessly implemented in the proposed framework, supporting rapid progress in data-intensive research across disciplinary boundaries.

    Read more about Earth system data cubes unravel global multivariate dynamics
  • Illuminating water cycle modifications and Earth system resilience in the Anthropocene

    2020. Tom Gleeson (et al.). Water resources research 56 (4)


    Fresh water—the bloodstream of the biosphere—is at the center of the planetary drama of the Anthropocene. Water fluxes and stores regulate the Earth's climate and are essential for thriving aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as water, food, and energy security. But the water cycle is also being modified by humans at an unprecedented scale and rate. A holistic understanding of freshwater's role for Earth system resilience and the detection and monitoring of anthropogenic water cycle modifications across scales is urgent, yet existing methods and frameworks are not well suited for this. In this paper we highlight four core Earth system functions of water (hydroclimatic regulation, hydroecological regulation, storage, and transport) and key related processes. Building on systems and resilience theory, we review the evidence of regional‐scale regime shifts and disruptions of the Earth system functions of water. We then propose a framework for detecting, monitoring, and establishing safe limits to water cycle modifications and identify four possible spatially explicit methods for their quantification. In sum, this paper presents an ambitious scientific and policy grand challenge that could substantially improve our understanding of the role of water in the Earth system and cross‐scale management of water cycle modifications that would be a complementary approach to existing water management tools.

    Read more about Illuminating water cycle modifications and Earth system resilience in the Anthropocene
  • Keystone actors do not act alone

    2020. Jacob Hileman (et al.). PLoS ONE 15 (10)


    Global industries are typically dominated by a few disproportionately large and influential transnational corporations, or keystone actors. While concentration of economic production is not a new phenomenon, in an increasingly interconnected and globalized world, the scale of the impacts of keystone actors on diverse social-ecological systems continues to grow. In this article, we investigate how keystone actors in the global clothing industry engage in collaboration with a variety of other organizations to address nine interrelated biophysical and socioeconomic sustainability challenges. We expand on previous theoretical and empirical research by focusing on the larger business ecosystem in which keystone actors are embedded, and use network analysis to assess the contributions of different actor types to the architecture of the ecosystem. This systemic approach to the study of keystone actors and sustainability challenges highlights an important source of influence largely not addressed in previous research: the presence of organizations that occupy strategic positions around keystone actors. Such knowledge can help identify governance strategies for advancing industry-wide transformation towards sustainability.

    Read more about Keystone actors do not act alone
  • Learning from generations of sustainability concepts

    2020. Andrea S. Downing (et al.). Environmental Research Letters 15 (8)


    Background: For decades, scientists have attempted to provide a sustainable development framework that integrates goals of environmental protection and human development. The Planetary Boundaries concept (PBc)-a framework to guide sustainable development-juxtaposes a 'safe operating space for humanity' and 'planetary boundaries', to achieve a goal that decades of research have yet to meet. We here investigate if PBc is sufficiently different to previous sustainability concepts to have the intended impact, and map how future sustainability concept developments might make a difference. Design: We build a genealogy of the research that is cited in and informs PBc. We analyze this genealogy with the support of two seminal and a new consumer-resource models, that provide simple and analytically tractable analogies to human-environment relationships. These models bring together environmental limits, minimum requirements for populations and relationships between resource-limited and waste-limited environments. Results: PBc is based on coherent knowledge about sustainability that has been in place in scientific and policy contexts since the 1980s. PBc represents the ultimate framing of limits to the use of the environment, as limits not to single resources, but to Holocene-like Earth system dynamics. Though seldom emphasized, the crux of the limits to sustainable environmental dynamics lies in waste (mis-)management, which sets where boundary values might be. Minimum requirements for populations are under-defined: it is the distribution of resources, opportunities and waste that shape what is a safe space and for whom. Discussion: We suggest that PBc is not different or innovative enough to break 'Cassandra's dilemma' and ensure scientific research effectively guides humanity towards sustainable development. For this, key issues of equality must be addressed, un-sustainability must be framed as a problem of today, rather than projected into the future, and scientific foundations of frameworks such as PBc must be broadened and diversified.

    Read more about Learning from generations of sustainability concepts
  • Anthropocene risk

    2019. Patrick W. Keys (et al.). Nature Sustainability 2 (8), 667-673


    The potential consequences of cross-scale systemic environmental risks with global effects are increasing. We argue that current descriptions of globally connected systemic risk poorly capture the role of human-environment interactions. This creates a bias towards solutions that ignore the new realities of the Anthropocene. We develop an integrated concept of what we denote Anthropocene risk-that is, risks that: emerge from human-driven processes; interact with global social-ecological connectivity; and exhibit complex, cross-scale relationships. To illustrate this, we use four cases: moisture recycling teleconnections, aquaculture and stranded assets, biome migration in the Sahel, and sea-level rise and megacities. We discuss the implications of Anthropocene risk across several research frontiers, particularly in the context of supranational power, environmental and social externalities and possible future Anthropocene risk governance. We conclude that decision makers must navigate this new epoch with new tools, and that Anthropocene risk contributes conceptual guidance towards a more sustainable and just future.

    Read more about Anthropocene risk
  • Governance, polycentricity and the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles

    2018. Hanna Ahlström, Sarah E. Cornell. Environmental Science and Policy 79, 54-65


    Global change and governance scholars frequently highlight polycentricity as a feature of resilient governance, but both theoretical and empirical knowledge about features and outcomes of the concept are lacking at the global scale. Here we investigate the structural properties of governance of global nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) cycles, two processes in the 'planetary boundaries' framework. We have used a mixed-methods approach to institutional analysis, integrating polycentric theory with social network theory in environmental policy and legal studies. We include an actor collaboration case study, the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM), to explore governance challenges associated with global N and P cycles. We set the scope for selection of relevant legal instruments using an overview of global N and P flows between Earth system 'components' (land, water, atmosphere, oceans, biosphere) and the major anthropogenic N and P perturbations. Our network analysis of citations of global N and P governance exposes the structural patterns of a loose network among the principal institutions and actors, in which legal instruments of the European Union serve as key cross-scale and cross-sectoral 'gateways'. We show that the current international regimes in place for regulating N- and P-related issues represent a gap in governance at the global level. In addition, we are able to show that the emergence of GPNM provides synergies in this context of insufficient governance. The GPNM can be viewed as a structure of polycentric governance as it involves deliberate attempts for mutual adjustments and self-organised action.

    Read more about Governance, polycentricity and the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
  • Marine plastic pollution as a planetary boundary threat - The drifting piece in the sustainability puzzle

    2018. Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, Sarah E. Cornell, Joan Fabres. Marine Policy 96, 213-220


    The exponential increase in the use of plastic in modern society and the inadequate management of the resulting waste have led to its accumulation in the marine environment. There is increasing evidence of numerous mechanisms by which marine plastic pollution is causing effects across successive levels of biological organization. This will unavoidably impact ecological communities and ecosystem functions. A remaining question to be answered is if the concentration of plastic in the ocean, today or in the future, will reach levels above a critical threshold leading to global effects in vital Earth-system processes, thus granting the consideration of marine plastic pollution as a key component of the planetary boundary threat associated with chemical pollutants. Possible answers to this question are explored by reviewing and evaluating existing knowledge of the effects of plastic pollution in marine ecosystems and the 'core planetary boundaries', biosphere integrity and climate change. The irreversibility and global ubiquity of marine plastic pollution mean that two essential conditions for a planetary boundary threat are already met. The Earth system consequences of plastic pollution are still uncertain, but pathways and mechanisms for thresholds and global systemic change are identified. Irrespective of the recognition of plastic as a novel entity in the planetary boundaries framework, it is certain that marine plastic pollution is closely intertwined with global processes to a point that deserves careful management and prevention.

    Read more about Marine plastic pollution as a planetary boundary threat - The drifting piece in the sustainability puzzle

Show all publications by Sarah Cornell at Stockholm University