Why science alone won’t resolve planetary boundaries

As a sustainability professional, I remember relishing in Johan Rockström and 28 scientists' 2009 creation of "a safe operating space for humanity", the framework of Planetary Boundaries.

Why science alone won’t resolve planetary boundaries

The authors of the framework identified the nine planetary boundaries among earth system processes that should be put under serious control and whose thresholds should not be surpassed in order to avoid the disturbance of the earth-system stability:

1) Climate Change

2) Rate of Biodiversity Loss

3) Interference with the Global Phosphorus and Nitrogen Cycles

4) Stratospheric Ozone Depletion

5) Ocean Acidification

6) Global Freshwater Use

7) Land-system Change

8) Atmospheric Aerosol Loading

9) Chemical Pollution

Unfortunately, mankind has already contravened at least three planetary boundaries by way of rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, and human interference with the nitrogen cycle, whilst the others are now in danger of being surpassed: freshwater use, land-system change, and ocean acidification.

Consequently, this means the interactions amongst all nine boundaries are crucial and need to be monitored constantly, otherwise they risk impacting upon the other planetary boundaries and pushing them beyond their respective boundaries and limits.

So, it would appear that all we now need to do is stay within some limits and adhere to and respect the nine boundaries or limitations. But being human, we haven’t.

Real-world environmental challenges like nitrogen pollution, freshwater consumption and land-use change have a huge part to play in politics, where solutions have to be negotiated amongst many. Thus, the idea of a scientific, expert group setting and defining global limits on these activities ignores these inevitable trade-offs and would somehow appear to block democratic resolution of the issues.

The notion of having science and scientific experts to define the environmental limits of human development is seen by some as unrealistic, and therein lays the problem. According to Steffen, Rockström, and Costanza, “Ultimately, there will need to be an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected.

In effect, such an institution, acting on behalf of humanity as a whole, would be the ultimate arbiter of the myriad trade-offs that need to be managed as nations and groups of people jockey for economic and social advantage. It would, in essence, become the global referee on the planetary playing field.”

I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, the planetary boundary hypothesis needs an overriding governing body or authority, superseding countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected. But there is no independent, global authority to rule humanity or the environment.

Science certainly has a key part to play in helping identify, shape and advise environmental management, but it cannot work in silo. Science alone will not define the environmental limits of human development. It needs to be championed by business and politics to deliver, and when this happens I think previous doubters and naysayers will listen.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie