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Science, policy and practice

The planetary boundaries framework

The planetary boundaries framework is not only one of the most significant research concepts developed by the centre, it is also one of the most influential to come out from global sustainability science overall


In 2009, SRC director Johan Rockström led a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists to identify the nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system. The scientists proposed quantitative planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Since then the planetary boundaries framework has generated enormous interest within science, policy, and practice.

The first scientific article on the framework was published in 2009 in the journal Ecology and Society and as of January 2018 has been cited 685 times. A feature article in Nature the same year generated more than 2,535 citations, according to Web of Science. New scientific insights on several of the processes were included in the 2015 update, published in Science. It stated that society’s activities have pushed climate change, biodiversity loss, shifts in nutrient cycles (nitrogen and phosphorus), and land use beyond the boundaries into unprecedented territory. Research and debate continue on the boundaries for water-system change and chemical pollution.

From 2017, Johan Rockström’s ERC Advanced Grant Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene is funding an exciting new phase in this work. SRC researchers including Sarah Cornell, Tiina Häyhä, Ingo Fetzer, Steve Lade, Andrea Downing, Jonathan Donges, and Avit Bhowmik have all been actively involved in advancing these frontier areas, and building collaborative research links among a growing international community of scientists.


The framework has also been influential in global policy. In 2011, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged global society to “Help us defend the science that shows we are destabilising our climate and stretching planetary boundaries to a perilous degree.” Centre researchers kept planetary boundaries in the forefront of policy-advisory processes leading up to the agreement of the global Sustainable Development Goals. Policy-makers working at national and European levels are also interested, catalysing a research network,, which links scientists involved in translating the global framework to operational decision-making scales.

A 2012 report to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency assessed Sweden’s responsibility, and a 2016 study for the European Environment Agency assessed the contribution to global boundaries both of activities within Europe’s territory and of effects of its citizens’ consumption. Increasingly, companies are asking for guidance on putting the planetary boundaries into business practice.

In 2012, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, a forum for 200 companies including some of the best-known brands in the world, used the planetary boundaries framework to shape their Action 2020 strategy. Since then, there has been further engagement with companies in financial investment, food, textiles, building, technology, and household goods sectors.

In 2017, SRC became the scientific partner in a research project with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Swedish clothing retailer H&M group, working to integrate the planetary boundaries framework and the circular economy concept.

Published: 2018-05-25