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• Policy demand for practical application of the planetary boundaries concept sparks study to find ways to translate global framework to national and regional levels
• A three-step approach is proposed: assess spatial characteristics of planetary boundaries; analyse global socio-economic dynamics; and address equity and fairness
• Study outlines examples of analytical tools and integrative techniques that link the three dimensions and bridge scales, from global to local
The planetary boundaries framework is a set of biophysical measures that define a global ‘safe operating space’ for human activities. This concept is influential in international policy discussions about global sustainability, such as the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
However, there is often a mismatch when it comes putting global sustainability policy into practice. Decisions regarding resource use and emissions are mostly made by national governments, and thus environmental impacts that extend beyond political borders are often forgotten.
Centre researchers Tiina Häyhä and Sarah Cornell, and colleagues from PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Stockholm Environment Institute, and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, have added to the literature on this science/policy mismatch in a study published in Global Environmental Change. The study outlines a conceptual approach for translating planetary boundaries to national or regional scales.
This framework can help analysts and policy-makers identify meaningful national and regional targets aligned with the planetary boundaries. In the end, this can also support national and regional implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals
Sarah Cornell, co-author
Biophysical, socio-economic and ethical dimensions
Disentangling the social-ecological complexity embedded in the planetary boundaries may seem incredibly difficult. Biophysical interactions do not adhere to political borders or respect social conditions. The researchers offer three dimensions that need to be addressed to help conceptualize the planetary boundaries at smaller scales: biophysical, socio-economic, and ethical.
The first step to translating the planetary boundaries to national implementation is to analyse the spatial patterns of these dynamic processes, using Earth system models and observational data.
The second step is to understand the social and economic drivers of environmental change, which have their own dynamics. The authors highlight international trade as particularly important, as it creates a geographic separation between consumption-based causes and production-based impacts of environmental degradation. This allows importing countries to externalize environmental impacts such as pollution, water scarcity and ecological degradation.
The third step recognizes that these complex, interacting ecological and social dynamics also have an ethical dimension. Addressing the challenges of equitable sharing of the global safe operating space means recognizing that countries have different rights, abilities, and responsibilities.
The authors argue that these dimensions should be treated distinctly in translating from global to smaller scales. The paper highlights possible approaches and tools for addressing each dimension, as well as techniques that can help bridge across the three dimensions.
What should countries do?
In a globally connected world, countries both depend on each other, and are vulnerable to each other’s actions. National policies targeted only at environmental degradation and resource use within national territory are not enough for these global challenges.
While fairness and equity are currently being discussed for climate change and biodiversity loss, they may need to be expanded to other planetary boundaries as the globally systemic nature of their connections becomes more evident. Häyhä highlights, “If planetary boundaries are applied nationally, countries could consider the environmental and social impacts of their consumption patterns, even when these are far beyond their own political territory.”
Furthermore, operationalizing planetary boundaries to national action goes beyond the academic community, where more dialogue among policy, practice, and scientific expert communities is needed.
Cornell concludes that, “This framework can help analysts and policy-makers identify meaningful national and regional targets aligned with the planetary boundaries. In the end, this can also support national and regional implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Häyhä and Cornell’s study conceptualizes the planetary boundaries framework as a global social-ecological system. The planetary boundaries are expressed in terms of biophysical variables, but all of them have multiple socio-economic drivers. The study reviews and highlights various analytical approaches that deal with downscaling the global biophysical dynamics, and others that track patterns of global socio-economic dynamics. To translate the planetary boundaries framework to regional and national decision-making, the study calls for these approaches to be combined. The study also places these analytical steps within an integrative process so that the ethical dimension can be seen and discussed. This may avoid the worst problems of reductive global analysis, and help decision-makers embed complex environmental dynamics better in national responses to global sustainability policy.