Hussh | Seven out of the eight "safe and just" global Earth-system boundaries have already been surpassed

Seven out of the eight “safe and just” global Earth-system boundaries have already been surpassed

// Hidden Stories Series

Seven out of the eight “safe and just” global Earth-system boundaries have already been surpassed

June 16, 2023
Almost all global thresholds for a “safe and just” planet have already been breached, signalling a pressing need for urgent action and a shift towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

The conclusion was made in a groundbreaking study published in the journal Nature, that expands on the concept of “planetary boundaries” initially introduced in a seminal 2009 paper. While this has been widely embraced in academic and policy circles, it has also faced criticism for oversimplifying the complexities of our interconnected world and potentially diluting the necessary political will.

The new study authored by many of the same researchers, builds upon the original framework by incorporating a crucial “justice” dimension. This novel approach rejects human exceptionalism and places equal emphasis on the well-being of all species and ecosystems. It also takes into account intergenerational justice, considering the impacts of current actions on future generations, as well as local-scale impacts that disproportionately affect vulnerable communities.

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By integrating these justice considerations, the study arrives at a sobering realisation: seven out of the eight “safe and just” global Earth-system boundaries have already been surpassed.

The finding underscores the inextricable link between environmental sustainability and social justice, highlighting the fundamental truth that there can be no safe planet without justice. As one of the study authors asserts, the thresholds defined in the research not only ensure the stability of the planet but also enable thriving societies, robust economies, and resilient ecosystems across the globe.

However, it is essential to approach the concept of defining a planetary “safe space” with caution. Some experts caution against allowing a self-selected group of scientists to unilaterally determine the boundaries without engaging in broader discussions and debates involving diverse stakeholders. They argue that addressing the complex challenges of the Anthropocene requires collaborative efforts, trust-building, and inclusive negotiations that involve the perspectives and values of all concerned parties.

The study’s focus on climate change provides a detailed examination of one of the Earth-system boundaries. The researchers emphasise that exceeding a global warming level of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would subject millions of people to extreme temperatures, disproportionately impacting vulnerable and marginalised populations. With the planet already experiencing a warming of 1.2 degrees Celsius on average, it is evident that the “safe and just” boundary of 1 degree Celsius has already been breached.

Significantly, the study also represents a departure from previous analyses by assessing Earth-system boundaries at a local scale rather than treating the planet as a monolithic entity. This localised approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of the boundaries that have been crossed in specific regions, unveiling the hotspots where breaches are most severe.

According to the researchers’ analysis, more than half of the world’s land surface, affecting 86% of the global population, has experienced the violation of two or more “safe and just” Earth-system boundaries. This underscores the urgent need for immediate and concerted action to restore balance and prevent further harm.

While the study has received widespread recognition as a significant scientific contribution, it also faces criticism and questions about the interdependencies between different boundaries and the subjective nature of defining justice.

Some experts contend that the complexities of the Earth system make it challenging to establish definitive limits, and caution against overly simplistic approaches that could hinder the ability of societies to adapt to changing conditions.

It is crucial to emphasise that the research does not seek to impose rigid boundaries or dictate solutions. Instead, it sparks vital discussions and invites an inclusive dialogue on how to achieve a safe and just planetary future. By fostering debates and encouraging a diversity of perspectives, we can collectively refine and improve our understanding of these boundaries and work towards a shared vision of a sustainable and equitable world.

The challenges ahead require us to embrace multidisciplinary collaborations, engage in proactive policy-making, and foster an inclusive and equitable transition. The pursuit of a safe and just planet demands a collective effort that recognises the interconnectedness of environmental and social systems, amplifies marginalised voices, and promotes systemic changes that prioritise justice, sustainability, and the well-being of all.

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