Planetary Boundaries and the risks we run as we cross them

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has produced a new study of the planetary boundaries, a concept it first unleashed on the planet in 2009. It reveals a worsening situation. It has received considerable media attention as an issue of environmental impact. But it is much more than that.

Boundaries of sustainability

The idea of the planetary boundaries, of which the Stockholm Centre identifies nine, is that these are the boundaries of a sustainable world. Staying within them makes the world liveable. In 2009, a large team of scientific authors concluded humanity had breached three of them. The new study says we have broken through four.

The nine boundaries are:

  1. Climate change
  2. Change in biospheric integrity (loss of biodiversity and extinction of species)
  3. Biogeochemical flows (the phosphorous and nitrogen cycles)
  4. Land system change (such as deforestation)
  5. Ocean acidification
  6. Freshwater use
  7. Stratospheric ozone depletion
  8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic atmospheric particles)
  9. Novel entities (organic pollutants, radioactive materials, micro-plastics…)

I have re-ordered them compared to how they are arranged in the Centre’s summary to make it neater. In this list,

  • The first four are the boundaries humanity has transgressed – the climate, the biosphere, key chemical balances and land;
  • The fifth – ocean acidification – looks likely to be the next one we will bust through;
  • The sixth – fresh water – is, by the standards of the first five, not too bad;
  • The seventh – the ozone layer – is the one that’s moving in the right direction, becoming more sustainable;
  • The last two have not yet been quantified so we don’t know how we’re doing.

Not a pretty picture, is it? –

Planetary Boundaries 2015

In this illustrative representation of the concept and the analysis (and, not to boast, but there is a better one in my The State of the World Atlas, based on the 2009 study), the blue ring illustrates the planetary boundary. From there out to the red ring is what the study’s authors call the zone of uncertainty. Beyond the zone of uncertainty is certain danger. We are in that extreme zone, the study says, on biogeochemical flows and the integrity of the biosphere; we are in the zone of uncertainty with climate change and land system change.

The world we have known till now – indeed, the one we have known for the 11,700 years of the Holocene epoch – is the one inside the blue ring and in the safe zone. As we start to transgress the boundaries of sustainability, we get into unknown territory. We don’t know what it’s like out there on the other side of the planetary boundaries. And in particular, we don’t know what happens if we cross all those frontiers.

Conflict risk

Last year, writing about what I have called the ‘conflict horizon’, I identified long-term pressures on the planet’s habitability as one of the underlying factors increasing conflict risk over the coming two decades. The most commonly (and rightly) cited environmental pressure is climate change but the interplay with the other environmental pressures is also important and potentially destabilising.

In the context of conflict risk, what matters with climate change and the other pressures on the boundaries of sustainability is not the source or the form of the pressure alone but the response we manage to mobilise. The challenge from nature, which is resulting from the pressure humanity has put upon it, is a challenge for how we organise ourselves and run things. In more formal language, it is a challenge for governance and our social, economic and political institutions.

As the basic conditions of life become more difficult, the risk of countries will be highest in those countries where inequality is sharpest and conflict management institutions are weakest.

Pressure on the boundaries of sustainability is increasing the risk. We have to ease the pressure. We have to adapt to the consequences we cannot avoid. We will find both more straightforward if we also find ways ease the other factors increasing conflict risk.

Linked problems, linked responses

There has also been considerable press coverage recently of a new Oxfam report about inequality forecasting that by next year one per cent of the world’s population will own half the world’s wealth. Everybody seems to be getting the message about inequality these days; even the head of the IMF has said it threatens democracy and hampers economic growth.

With concern about inequality becoming so respectable, it’s time to be sure that conflict into the frame. As a tweet from Gary Slutkin the CEO of Cure Violence put it, ‘Inequity is to violence as dirty water is to diarrhoea.’

The environment is not just an environmental issue. Conflict is not just a peace issue. Building resilience means addressing human impact on the environment, of course, and more besides. It sounds a daunting challenge but the good news is that you can look at it the other way round. Building resilience, building peace and meeting the governance challenge are essentially the same activity.