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Many good things can happen over a cup of coffee. Will Steffen, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre recalls the origin of what has become one of the most important frameworks within sustainability thinking.
"I remember a breakfast meeting at a little cafe in central Stockholm in 2005 or 2006 with Johan Rockström and Bo Ekman (founder of the Tällberg Foundation). Johan had this idea to explore a concept he called Planetary Boundaries."
In 2008, a small group of researchers met in Tällberg, a small town in the centre of Sweden to discuss which “boundaries” influence the stability of the Earth system in its current state. They emerged from the meeting with nine of them.
On 24 September 2009, Nature published ‘A safe operating space for humanity’. Ten years later, lead author Johan Rockström, the founder of Stockholm Resilience Centre and now director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research believes the timing of their work was right.
Earth system science in the decades preceding the framework led to this point where we could make a first estimate of the boundary conditions for a safe operating space for humanity. If we had not done it then other researcher groups would have arrived at similar conclusions.
Johan Rockström, lead author, Planetary Boundaries framework 2009
With over 3600 citations to date, the article sparked significant intellectual excitement across the natural and social sciences. Academic discussion in the natural sciences has focused on stress testing the boundaries, fine-tuning the analysis and exploring alternative metrics. The social sciences foci has applied the framework particularly around equity issues, translating to regional and national levels, and combining with social boundaries, for example Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economic model.
The framework has attracted significant interest among policymakers and businesses. In 2012, the UN’s High Level Panel for the Rio+20 summit published Resilience People, Resilient Planet using the planetary boundaries framework as a foundational part of the renewed argument for sustainable development. Downscaling or translation of the boundaries has been undertaken for several countries and regions including China, Columbia, EU, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland.
The advocacy group WWF has used the framework as a core part of its Living Planet Report in 2016 and 2018. Companies like H&M, Ikea, L’Oreal and Houdini are looking at ways to adapt the framework to their businesses. This extensive interest in the planetary boundaries work caught the researchers behind it by surprise.
"I certainly didn't foresee how broadly the concept would be applied. This has raised the awareness of planetary-level issues across a very wide range of sectors and groups," says Will Steffen.
In 2015, an updated version was published in the Science. It provided new data on some boundaries, most notably biodiversity, and assessed that land use had also crossed a boundary.
But there is more work needed done.
Katherine Richardson from Copenhagen University and an author of the research says, “Early on, we acknowledged that our analysis did not take into account interactions between the boundaries. This area needs much more research.”
She also warns there are “gaping holes” around the quantification of novel substances and aerosol loading at the global level.
Steffen agrees. He recalls an early attempt to show all possible interactions among the processes, a “horrendous spaghetti diagram” in his own words.
“This was so confronting that we dropped development of that idea at the time, but now we have the tools and further understanding to return to the interactions challenge.”
Led by Sarah Cornell and a team at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, work is underway to develop the Planetary Boundaries 3.0 framework. This includes quantifying the two boundaries lacking numbers – aerosols and novel entities (for example genetically modified organisms, pesticides or even artificial intelligence).
According to Carl Folke, a co-author who founded the Stockholm Resilience Centre together with Johan Rockström, the framework is more than just a tool for science, policy and business.
“It has contributed to making people understand we live on a human-dominated planet,” he says.
That can only be a good thing.
In 2009, former centre director Johan Rockström led a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists to identify the nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system. The scientists proposed quantitative planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Since then the planetary boundaries framework has generated enormous interest within science, policy, and practice.
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