An interdisciplinary group of scientists evaluated insights into Earth system dynamics, seeking to characterize the conditions needed for our planet to continue in a stable, Holocene-like state — the state of the Earth over the past ~10,000 years in which human civilizations have thrived.
The scientists attempted to quantify the biophysical boundaries outside which, they believe, the Earth risks moving into a different system state.
"The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical 'hard-wired' thresholds in the Earth's environment, and respect the nature of the planet's climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes," says lead author Johan Rockström, director of Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Humans behind change
The scientists emphasize that the rapid expansion of human activities since the industrial revolution has now generated a global geophysical force equivalent to some of the great forces of nature. A growing number of scientists think we have entered a new geological epoch that needs a new name — the Anthropocene.
"There are now so many of us, using so many resources that we are threatening the Earth's capacity to regulate itself," says co-author Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University, one of the science strategy leaders of the Planetary Boundaries research initiative.
A novel framework
The researchers stress that their approach does not offer a complete roadmap for sustainable development. Identifying critical planetary boundaries provides one important element that can inform society´s decisions about sustainability.
Katherine Richardson, co-author of the scientific article, is also one of the science strategy leaders of the Planetary Boundaries research initiative.
She emphasises the huge potential for mankind to be more proactive and prevent us doing irreparable damage to the environment.
"What we present is a novel framework through which our scientific understanding of the Earth System can potentially be used more directly in the societal decision making process," says Professor Richardson. She is at the Sustainability Science Center at the University of Copenhagen.
We are developing the research initiative's activities along three focal themes:
1. The science underpinning the planetary boundaries
- Improving and refining the definitions and metrics
- Integrative global modelling — investigating interactions, feedbacks and thresholds
- The global evidence base of regime shifts and tipping points
2. Living within the safe operating space for humanity
- Describing and characterizing the safe operating space for humanity
- Knowledge, networks and societal change for global sustainability
Global governance that recognizes the planetary boundaries
3. Engaging with society about the planetary boundaries
- Visualization, outreach and public engagement
- Planetary boundaries in the sustainability agenda — informing policy and business
Replies to criticism of the Planetary Boundaries concept:
Johan Rockström: addressing some key misconceptions