Matching scope, purpose and uses of planetary boundaries science


Background: The Planetary Boundaries concept (PBc) has emerged as a key global sustainability concept in international sustainable development arenas. Initially presented as an agenda for global sustainability research, it now shows potential for sustainability governance. We use the fact that it is widely cited in scientific literature (>3500 citations) and an extensively studied concept to analyse how it has been used and developed since its first publication.

Design: From the literature that cites the PBc, we select those articles that have the terms 'planetary boundaries' or 'safe operating space' in either title, abstract or keywords. We assume that this literature substantively engages with and develops the PBc. Results: We find that 6% of the citing literature engages with the concept. Within this fraction of the literature we distinguish commentaries—that discuss the context and challenges to implementing the PBc, articles that develop the core biogeophysical concept and articles that apply the concept by translating to sub-global scales and by adding a human component to it. Applied literature adds to the concept by explicitly including society through perspectives of impacts, needs, aspirations and behaviours.

Discussion: Literature applying the concept does not yet include the more complex, diverse, cultural and behavioural facet of humanity that is implied in commentary literature. We suggest there is need for a positive framing of sustainability goals—as a Safe Operating Space rather than boundaries. Key scientific challenges include distinguishing generalised from context-specific knowledge, clarifying which processes are generalizable and which are scalable, and explicitly applying complex systems' knowledge in the application and development of the PBc. We envisage that opportunities to address these challenges will arise when more human social dimensions are integrated, as we learn to feed the global sustainability vision with a plurality of bottom-up realisations of sustainability.


Full reference: Downing, A., Bhowmik, A., Collste, D. Cornell, S.E., Donges, J., 2019. Matching scope, purpose and uses of planetary boundaries science. Environ. Res. Lett. 14 073005. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab22c9

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