A new study for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency provides a first attempt to develop a methodology for downscaling planetary boundaries to nationally relevant ones. Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

Downscaling planetary boundaries

A safe operating space for Sweden?

Novel research explains environmental performance of countries within planetary boundaries concept

Story highlights

  • Study makes first attempt at downscaling planetary boundaries into ones nationally relevant for Sweden, and compares these to current environmental objectives
  • Four of the planetary boundaries were scaled down, and  report outlines methods and issues that need further exploration to increase policy relevance
  • Current  environmental agreements provide good coverage of planetary boundaries framework, but both developed and developing worlds need to act responsibly 

Can the planetary boundaries framework be used as a tool to better understand the environmental performance of countries, and how can global planetary boundaries be interpreted at the national scale?

In a new feasibility study for the Swedish Environmental Protection AgencyPDF (pdf, 2.9 MB), the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) provide a first attempt to develop a methodology for downscaling planetary boundaries to nationally relevant ones.

The study also compares the planetary boundaries with Sweden's national environmental quality objectives, exploring how the international dimension of these objectives relates to the planetary boundaries.

"Based on the definitions of the original planetary boundaries framework we are able to suggest national level boundaries for climate change, nitrogen, water and land use," says Björn Nykvist, Research Fellow at SEI and Postdoctoral researcher at SRC.

More international cooperation
The team of researchers use existing data and research to illustrate the performance of these four boundaries for Sweden and 60 other countries. They also discuss several policy implications of the results related to international collaboration on global environmental problems.

These implications include Sweden's environmental performance on planetary boundaries and what this says about the achievement of the generational goal which stipulates that Sweden's national environmental objectives must not be reached by simply 'transferring' environmental impacts abroad.

The study is the first of its kind and provides an analysis of these policy questions, building on the methodology and mapping of national performance which were developed in the report. The new study also shows that existing international environmental agreements provide good coverage of the planetary boundaries framework.

"On paper, many of the most important global environmental problems are being addressed by policy makers. However, implementation is lagging, and the report shows that we need more international cooperation," says Åsa Person, Senior Research Fellow at SEI, who leads the policy analysis work of the report.

Handle data with care
The report also highlights the importance of developing consumptive indicators that reflect the global environmental problems highlighted by the planetary boundary framework. Such indicators also highlight the responsibility of the developed world to act on several global environmental problems.

"It comes as no surprise that Sweden and other high-income countries have high per-capita emissions and resource use, which often results in poor performance on the downscaled planetary boundaries"

Björn Nykvist, co-author

Nykvist stresses the fact that the report represents early work on downscaling planetary boundaries and caution is required with any analysis of an individual country´s performance. Some of the indicators suggested in the report are based on data that is self-reported and future work will need to look more specifically at each boundary and each indicator used.

Although it was not possible to downscale the remaining five planetary boundaries, the report offers a set of methods and issues to explore further in order to increase the policy relevance of the planetary boundaries framework.

"For example, our study points to the importance of an in-depth investigation on how to equitably share the available space within the planetary boundaries, which is something that neither the original framework nor this report manage to address," Nykvist concludes.

Download report herePDF (pdf, 2.9 MB)

DOwnload report


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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