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How can planetary boundaries be useful for mobilizing political reform and innovation for sustainable development? In what ways are the answers to this question different from the “Limits to growth” debates of the 70s, when reductions in population growth, consumption and GDP were considered to be the solutions?
These questions are central to an article featured in the journal Solutions. It is co-authored by the centre’s deputy science director, Victor Galaz, and colleagues from Japan, the Netherlands and UK. Together they discuss possible governance reforms based on the notion of planetary boundaries. Their conclusion is that exploring these issues is more urgent than ever.
“Actions to arrest the global environmental crisis have so far not matched the scale and urgency of the task”
Victor Galaz, co-author
Decades of international discussion on sustainable development has simply failed to reform international governance and institutions in ways that can keep pace with the rate of global environmental change, they conclude.
Political values and trade-offs
The question is how planetary boundaries can be used in this context to drive sustainable development as we deal with the growing challenges of the Anthropocene.
"Simple political or institutional solutions to such complex problems seldom exist. They are always associated with political values and trade-offs, and hence need continuous public, scholarly, and political debate," Galaz and colleagues argue.
Nonetheless, it is indeed possible to identify key elements of governance reform grounded in the concept of planetary boundaries. This is what the Solutions article sets out to do even though the authors conclude that each element has its implementation problems and trade-offs.
"We should not let this distract us from the urgent need to focus on solutions," they write.
Learning, innovation and creativity
Five governance elements are discussed in the article. They are in turn related to:
1) deep institutional reform at the international level
2) the potential to tap into international law and legal principles
3) the importance of “biosphere economics” that takes threshold effects seriously
4) multi-scale knowledge integration
5) a “mobilizing narrative” as a driver of transition.
Overall, in order to be successful any governance reforms need to "offer opportunities for learning, innovation, and creativity at all levels, in both the North and South".
In 2015 the original planetary boundaries from 2009 were updated, but the central message remains: there are global environmental boundaries beyond which humanity is very likely to face a number of non-linear, abrupt, and irreversible changes. Within these boundaries humanity must find a safe space to flourish, beyond them the risk of undoing much human progress rises substantially.
Debate is healthy, but...
The idea of planetary boundaries is the subject of ongoing discussion and debate: this debate revolves around for instance whether thresholds in natural systems really exist and if the focus on scarcity and boundaries help or hinder action. In addition, Galaz and colleagues note that the planetary boundaries concept has also induced considerable debate between states with different development needs. This means that the planetary boundaries must be made attractive and meaningful to different societal actors, in both the North and South. If not, the concept will not fulfill its potential as a guide for human action in the Anthropocene.
“Ongoing debate in academia, in policy circles, and in society at large is healthy, and we should not allow debate about the precise nature of planetary boundaries to stymie necessary institutional reforms and innovation” they write.
Victor Galaz is an Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in political science and deputy science director at the centre. His research elaborates the major governance challenges posed by Earth system complexity, planetary boundaries, and the Anthropocene.