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Climate•6 min read
There are nine planetary boundaries beyond which we cannot push Earth without putting billions of lives at risk. We are already outside the "safe operating space" for at least four of them.
Words by Claire Asher
Advanced human societies emerged during an unprecedented period of stability on Earth. During the 12,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution, our planet’s surface temperature varied by less than 1° Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) above or below the average for that entire period. As a result, life—both human and wild—thrived.
But over the past two centuries, humanity has dramatically increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, pushing us outside this “safe” climate zone; outside the conditions for which civilization has been designed.
Unfortunately for us, climate change represents just one of nine critical planetary boundaries, which the imprudent actions of our species risk dangerously destabilizing and overshooting.
In the mid-2000s, Johan Rockström, founding director of Sweden’s Stockholm Resilience Centre, gathered an international, interdisciplinary team of scientists to unite behind a single goal: define the boundaries for a “safe operating space for humanity” on Earth. They asked themselves: what are the safe operating limits of our planet, and what changes can we force on it before we trigger rapid, catastrophic environmental harm?
In 2009, the center published the Planetary Boundaries Framework, which outlined nine key processes, influenced by humanity, that threaten the stability of the entire Earth System. These are: climate change, biodiversity integrity (functional and genetic), ocean acidification, depletion of the ozone layer, atmospheric aerosol pollution, biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, freshwater use, land-system change, and release of novel chemicals (including heavy metals, radioactive materials, plastics, and more).
Together, the stability of these nine processes is essential to maintaining the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and ecosystems in the delicate balance that has allowed human civilizations to flourish. However, these are also the processes that human activities have impacted most profoundly.
The researchers then estimated a limit of just how much human activities could exploit and alter each of these processes before the global system would pass a tipping point—a threshold beyond which we risk sending the Earth spiraling into a state that hasn’t been experienced for the entirety of human existence, bringing extreme change that could crash civilization and endanger humanity.
“Systems—from the oceans and ice sheets and climate system and ecosystems—can have multiple stable states separated by tipping points,” explained Rockström, now the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. If those “stable” systems are pushed too far, he said, they lose resilience and can transition, abruptly and irreversibly, into a new self-reinforcing state—one that might not support humanity.
The original 2009 Planetary Boundaries report, and its update in 2015, revealed a stark assessment: researchers found that humanity is already existing outside the safe operating space for at least four of the nine planetary boundaries: climate change, biodiversity, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows (Earth’s nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, which are being heavily impacted by global agribusiness and industry).
However, the experts warn, these limits are estimates: what we don’t know is how long we can keep pushing these key planetary boundaries before combined pressures lead to irreversible change and harm. Think of humanity, blindfolded, simultaneously walking toward nine cliff edges, and you gain some sense of the seriousness and urgency of our situation.
The dynamics of large, complex, and interconnected biogeochemical systems like those operating on Planet Earth can be thought of in terms of pathways or trajectories, weaving between different steady states. The Earth’s trajectory can be altered by tipping points, which shift us from one steady state to another (something like a car changing gears). A number of complex feedback processes can either reinforce the current steady state, or weaken it, and send the planet spiraling toward a completely new state, like a bowling ball with too much spin careening toward the gutter.
Climate change, the best known of the nine planetary boundaries on which we’re encroaching, offers a good example of how this equilibrium process works.
Today, “We are at risk of triggering tipping elements in the Earth System towards a ‘Hothouse Earth’ from which it would be very difficult to recover to pre-industrial climate,” explained Steven Lade, a Stockholm Resilience Centre researcher specializing in social-ecological system modeling.
However, “with rapid decarbonization we could possibly reach a ‘Stabilized Earth,’” he added, maintaining our climate within the safe window of conditions to which humanity has adapted over the last 12,000 years.
The period of Earth climate stability in which our societies have thrived is known as the Holocene epoch. Beginning some 12,000 years ago, it marked the end of more than 100,000 years of alternating glacial and interglacial periods that saw the planet’s temperature fluctuate by as much as 6°C (10.8°F).
Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but it was “only in the last 10,000 years that we were able to develop civilization as we know it,” Rockström said. “The very origins of modern civilization, namely domestication of animals and plants and the establishment of agriculture, happened in the Holocene.”
Yet these very same hallmarks of our extraordinary success—agriculture, sedentary living, industrial manufacturing—are today fundamentally altering many Earth System processes responsible for keeping conditions on Earth stable.
In fact, our transgressions of the nine planetary boundaries have been so severe that geologists believe we have entered a new epoch in the Earth’s history. The start of the Anthropocene—a human-influenced period that scientists say was initiated somewhere between 10,000 and 70 years ago—has been marked by rapid, human-triggered increases in greenhouse gas emissions, large-scale land-use change, extreme biodiversity loss, and massive global consumption and pollution brought on by rapidly advancing technology and a booming Homo sapiens population.
The dawn of the Anthropocene, a new epoch, needs to serve as a warning, Rockström said, that “we’re starting to hit the ceiling of the biophysical coping capacity of the whole Earth System.”
Six years on from the last Stockholm Resilience Centre update (another is due this year), Rockström noted there is little evidence we’ve reversed course to avoid looming tipping points. “If anything, we are even deeper into the transgression of climate, on biodiversity, on land-use, and on nitrogen and phosphorus. So we have not turned around the  trends.”
Of the four boundaries that researchers say we have already exceeded, climate change and biosphere integrity are considered “core” planetary boundaries because either one, on its own, could change the course of Earth’s trajectory and endanger humanity.
“There’s enough science today to say that [human-induced climate change] on its own can knock the planet away from the Holocene state,” Rockström said. “Similarly, if we just continue our mass extinction, losing more and more species, from phytoplankton to top predators, you will come to a point where the whole planet [system] collapses.”
There is strong evidence we’re already in the midst of a global mass extinction. A 2019 assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that 25 percent of plants and animals assessed—totaling 1 million species worldwide—are threatened with extinction. A separate study found that more than 500 vertebrate species are on the brink, each with fewer than a thousand individuals remaining in the wild.
Importantly, researchers say we are flying blind when it comes to both the quantity or quality of biodiversity loss that can be tolerated by ecosystems before triggering irreversible change.
“IPBES made it clear that we have really high extinction rates right now and they’re getting higher,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist and senior vice president of WWF. However, data not on extinctions, but on total population declines, are actually more informative for assessing biosphere health, she said, noting, “By the time species are moving to extinction there’s very little you can do.”
“We should really be looking at population [abundance] declines around the world, and nest that with ecosystem integrity measures, and nest that in [measures of] the way ecosystems are functioning to deliver services to humans,” Shaw explained.
According to WWF and the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) 2020 Living Planet Report, population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish declined by 68 percent on average between 1970 and 2016—a strong alarm call.
Scientists are now detecting the first flashing warning lights on the Earth System dashboard, telling us humanity is already pushing beyond our world’s safe operating space for multiple planetary boundaries and approaching tipping points.
“We have changed the planet so much that it is very likely that there will be significant impacts, and we’re seeing those impacts in the last five years,” Shaw said.
An example: melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets has accelerated since the early 1990s, suggesting these colossal ice deposits may have now entered a new state of sustained and escalating retreat, after many centuries of stability. Contained within these now vulnerable ice sheets is enough water to raise the global sea level by more than 65 meters (213 feet).
Similarly, Arctic sea ice is retreating and scientists predict the region could be mostly ice-free in the summer as early as 2035—with no certainty of what extreme changes this might bring.
Other early warning signs that we are approaching a climate change tipping point include increasingly frequent and severe droughts, heat waves, storms, and tropical cyclones.
“The number of climate-related natural disasters is climbing at an alarming rate, with significant economic and health impacts, especially for the most vulnerable,” said Ana María Loboguerrero Rodríguez, head of Global Policy Research for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).
No one knows how much stress civilization can withstand before it starts to collapse.
These early changes are signs of an impending shift from once stable Holocene conditions, say scientists. More concerning: many of these changes are expected to create positive feedback loops that further accelerate change.
For example, the continued melting of the Greenland ice sheet will not only cause major sea level rise, but also could alter ocean surface temperature and salinity, potentially triggering a transition in ocean circulation systems like the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (AMOC), which in turn could drastically alter global climate, and even accelerate the loss of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
However, it’s not all likely to be bad news: some feedback loops may have a balancing effect on the climate and on other planetary boundaries. “Which of these feedback loops wins, and when, is one of the big questions about our future climate,” Lade said.
Still, these reinforcing loops could trigger more complicated cascades of change. “The whole Earth System is a complex self-regulating system,” Rockström said, “if you push one [planetary boundary] too far it can cascade like a domino and impact the others.”
For example, land-use change due to agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation worldwide; it reduces the amount of water released to the air from plant leaves. In the Amazon Basin, this transpiration is a major source of rainfall. But signs are strong that rapid Amazon deforestation—combined with global climate change—may be triggering more extreme drought, leading to an abrupt shift from rainforest to degraded savanna, with profound implications for the entire planet. That biome-wide shift would release a vast store of ancient sequestered carbon, exacerbating climate change, leading to more drought and more tree die-off—a vicious, self-multiplying cycle.
“There is growing concern that, with the recent increase in deforestation rates under Brazil’s [Jair] Bolsonaro government, we may be approaching a tipping point for the Amazon rainforest,” said Will Steffen, emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Canberra, who was part of the team that developed the original planetary boundaries framework. “The three [Earth System tipping points] of greatest concern in my view are the Amazon rainforest, the Greenland ice sheet, and Siberian permafrost.”
The Amazon Rainforest example shows how disruptions to regional processes—such as the cycling of water by trees—can add up and push us toward planet-wide tipping points.
Another tipping point example: the devastating wildfires striking Australia and California in 2019 and 2020. They arose from multiple factors—intensifying drought due to climate change, accumulated leaf litter, unusual wind patterns—that built up slowly. Then, a small human intervention, such as a spark from a utility company power transformer as happened in California, was enough to “change a forest to a shrubland overnight because of climate change,” potentially altering biodiversity, Shaw said. “Climate change really manifests itself in these bursts of catastrophes.”
Regional interactions between planetary boundaries may already be accelerating our trajectory away from a safe Earth operating space. “At a planet scale, you don’t [yet clearly] see these types of things; [but] at the regional scale, it’s really phenomenal how [the interaction between] climate change and biodiversity loss [for example] is manifesting itself,” Shaw noted. “We never thought we’d see [biodiversity] collapse like we’re seeing at the regional scale this early.”
As regional and global change intensifies, scientists warn that it’s what we don’t know about the vast complexity of interactions between Earth System processes—only a fraction of which have been well studied—that concerns them most.
“It is quite frustrating to have to admit that we don’t yet fully understand the fundamental interactions between planetary boundaries,” Rockström said. Even if we are able to bring the climate system back into a safe operating space, he added, “we may by that time have triggered so much forest dieback and so much permafrost thawing and so much ice melt … that the planet has already chosen another route”—another trajectory and steady state not conducive to human civilization.
If we are to steer our planet away from a devastating new trajectory, phasing out fossil fuels to reach a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions world economy is a key priority. But even more pressing, experts say, is a change to our food systems.
Food production accounts for nearly 25 percent of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss, the primary cause of land-use change, one of the largest sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and it generates huge freshwater demand. Because food production generates big carbon emissions, it adds to ocean acidification too. That covers six of the nine planetary boundaries.
Together, “a food-system transformation and an energy transformation would take us a long way back into the safe space,” Rockström said.
“Nothing short of a systemic transformation of food systems is required to feed the world’s current and future population sustainably under climate change,” said CGIAR’s Loboguerrero. Making that sweeping change would not only reduce emissions, but improve health and food security, “providing multiple incentives for behavior change.”
The next 12 months offer golden opportunities for the global community to come together and agree on policy priorities to set Earth on a trajectory for long-term stability.
Three major international meetings are scheduled for 2021: the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Kunming, China, from Oct. 11-24; the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, U.K., from Nov. 1-12; and the U.N. Food Systems Summit in Rome from July 19-21. Measurable, implementable, verifiable, time-sensitive, and most importantly, binding targets and agreements are vital.
“It’s a big year for outcomes and for commitments for the next 10 years that will determine whether or not we stay within these planetary boundaries,” Shaw said. At WWF, she added, “we’re looking to work with other stakeholders through those three meetings to get actions to stay within the safe operating zone at both the regional scale and planetary scale.”
In a paper published in Science last October, Shaw joined an international team of scientists calling for the CBD to set “ambitious goals” for biodiversity and sustainability, such as no net loss of biodiversity by 2030.
What makes this year’s meetings more crucial than ever: reminders of past failed global summits, and a clear understanding that time is fast running out.
Experts are calling for a transformative, holistic approach to avoid risky tipping points, seeing the entire Earth System as a shared global commons, with humans as stewards. “The intertwisted nature of this framework calls for the development of a novel governance approach at global, regional, and local scales,” Loboguerrero said.
One such framework is the Global Commons Alliance, which brings together more than 50 international NGOs, multinational corporations, and city policymakers to promote the adoption of science-based targets to operate within planetary boundaries. But that partnership will need to grow geometrically if we are to act effectively.
That’s a daunting global goal. But there is one planetary boundary—the first we ever realized we were in danger of crossing—that offers hope: the depletion of the ozone layer. In 1987, the world’s nations recognized the urgency and validity of the science and embraced the politically binding requirements of the Montreal Protocol. We stepped back from the brink, shrinking the ozone hole, which could now be healed by 2050.
If nations can come together to address climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, as they did to address the threat to the ozone layer, then there is a chance we can reverse current trends and steer Earth’s trajectory back toward a stable Holocene state. That chance is growing dimmer—but it is an effort we absolutely need to make.
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