Safe and Just Earth system boundaries (Earth Commission)

Anna Triponel

June 2, 2023
Our key takeaway: “We cannot have a biophysically safe planet without justice” says Professor. Joyeeta Gupta, co-author of the recently released Earth Commission study. Yet, assessments of what is considered ‘safe’ planetary boundaries have not considered impacts to people thus far. Enter the new study by the Earth Commission, which quantifies safe and just earth system boundaries (ESBs) for the first time, highlighting the interconnections between human rights and the environment, climate, and biodiversity. 'Safe’ planetary boundaries are not necessarily ‘just’, in the sense that they can still cause significant harm to people. Layering on the ‘just’ lens tightens safe planetary boundaries above which we cannot afford to overshoot; this is critical for a stable and resilient planet that advances human development and well-being. What can companies do now? Companies can incorporate safe and just ESBs into their science-based targets. They can look beyond climate to include targets on biodiversity, water, nutrients, and air pollution through a human rights lens. Companies can begin or accelerate thinking on how they can transform their business models that respects both people and planet.

Earth Commission has released Safe and just Earth system boundaries (May 2023), which brings together more than 40 researchers and scientists to produce the first quantification of safe and just earth system boundaries on a global and local level:

  • Planetary boundaries and human rights are inextricably interconnected: The study provides a stark warning: “[t]he stability and resilience of the Earth system and human well-being are inseparably linked” but yet their interdependencies are under-recognised. Based on this interconnection, the study defines what safe and just earth system boundaries are: 1) “Safe boundaries ensure stable and resilient conditions on Earth, within the Holocene range of variability, that we know can support human development”; and 2) “Just boundaries minimize human and nature’s exposure to significant harm.” In short, earth system boundaries outline “a safe and just zone for people and planet”, which allows us to operate and “maintain a stable and resilient planet and ensure access for everyone to the resources necessary for a dignified life.”
  • Most safe and just boundaries for five domains (climate, biosphere, water, nutrient cycles and aerosols) have been breached: The five domains have been chosen because deterioration in their states will cause significant harm to people and planet in various ways: 1) If global warming surpasses 1.5°C, multiple climate tripping points will be triggered. This causes, inter alia, weakened or reversed carbon sinks, heat stress and loss of livelihood; 2) Clearing land for human use such as agriculture disrupts “ecosystem services, including carbon and water cycles regulation and halting species extinction” and leaves "little space for local ecosystems to provide critical services for life, such as pollination”; 3) Contaminating freshwater systems kills aquatic species and causes crop, food and drink shortages, as well as deadly water-borne illnesses; 4) Excess nutrients from fertiliser overuse damages nearby ecosystems (eutrophication), which affects aquatic life and people who depend on clean water; and 5) Air pollution i.e., aerosol concentration causes many people to die from respiratory illnesses and premature death. The imbalance of aerosol concentration between the North and the South hemisphere adversely affects weather cycles and ecosystems.
  • What can companies do now? The report highlights how many ESBs have already been transgressed. For example, the safe and just boundary for natural ecosystems requires 50–60% of the global land surface be covered with nature that is largely intact. We are already outside this limit, with only 45-50% of Earth having natural ecosystems today. So what actions can companies take? Companies should: 1) incorporate the safe and just ESBs into their science-based targets for reducing their environmental impacts, which “is one of the most important societal and business opportunities of our lifetime”; 2) set targets beyond climate to include other biophysical systems and processes; 3) address the root causes of biodiversity loss such as land use change by urgently accelerating efforts to halt or reverse this loss in line with the Global Biodiversity Framework; 4) eliminate activities that causes air pollution such as fossil fuel use, overgrazing and deforestation; and 5) drive systems transformation across all sectors, ensuring resource access for all. This will be a challenging, yet rewarding and necessary, journey. As the study aptly puts it, this journey “requires a leap in our understanding of how justice, economics, technology and global cooperation can be furthered in the service of a safe and just future."

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