Sustainable boundaries – a missed opportunity?

Note from P.B.I. Director Deborah Tripley on Rio+20

The Planetary Boundaries Initiative (P.B.I.) has called for sustainable boundaries to be part of the final Outcome Document presented to Heads of government at the Rio+20 conference which starts this week.

We are on our way to the Summit to make these views known. If you wish to support us in our journey let us know by completing our online form or email us at

So far, however, governments have shown little appetite for the recognition of planetary boundaries despite the recent findings by the Global Environmental Outlook report (GEO 5) that earth systems must not cross them.

‘In its introduction the GEO 5 report states:

“More recently, science has struggled with the realization that many Earth systems are at planetary boundaries that must not be crossed (Rockstrom et al. 2009). These concepts are useful to communicate both the dependence of human development on the environment and the urgency with which the consequences of collective human activity on the biological, physical and chemical processes of the Earth’s systems need to be addressed.’

The GEO 5 report argues for strong transformational governance.

It argues that more focus should be put on the drivers or causes of current unsustainable development systems. It states that global ecological and institutional systems are extremely complex and slow to change, and that it is necessary to recognise that decisions made today have longterm and far-reaching impacts.

The report goes on to suggest that without addressing these drivers it will be difficult to move to an environmentally sustainable suite of choices and outcomes (p.25).

The P.B.I.’s draft Declaration is an initial legal framing document for the planetary boundaries concept. It has at its core three simple requests of governance institutions :

  • Recognition of earth system processes
  • Respect for earth system processes
  • Responsibility for transgressing earth system processes

By earth system processes the P.B.I. places reliance on the scientific concept developed by Rockström et al that there are nine critical Earth-system processes and associated thresholds that it is now urgent that we respect and keep within, in order to protect against the risk of irreversible or even catastrophic environmental change at continental to global scales. Doing so would create a safe operating space for humanity, within which human economy and society would be able to play out. According to the concept’s authors, three of the nine suggested thresholds have already been crossed (for climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle).

What is new about the concept is that, rather than understanding environment, economy and society as three pillars of sustainable development, it makes clear that sustainable development policies are best developed within certain biophysical boundaries – what is known as ‘ the safe operating space identified by the biophysical realities of critical natural thresholds’. The GEO 5 report supports the prevailing scientific view that critical thresholds are being approached or even crossed stating :

Ecosystems and the biosphere are systems that may change in a direct and linear way as a result of human stresses, or that may have more complicated dynamics (Levin 1998). Although some can absorb a substantial amount of stress before they exhibit anyresponse, change can take place abruptly and irrevocably when a threshold is exceeded, leaving little opportunity for human adaptation..’

However the current approach being adopted by governments insufficiently tackles the synergistic relationships between human well being and environmental sustainability or considers such relationships within a biophysically constrained world.

An example of such synergies is provided by the GEO 5 report. Taking the the millennium development goals on poverty and hunger and environmental sustainability it notes that:

‘… approximately three-quarters of all human land use is for meat and dairy production. Red meat is several times more demanding of land and water than poultry or vegetarian foods, and is also linked to cancer and heart disease. Policies encouraging lower consumption of red meat would contribute to the MDGs related to human health and environmental sustainability.’

The Rio +20 draft outcome document is keen to establish a process for a set of global sustainable development goals. However, establishing goals without first establishing critical biophysical planetary thresholds and boundaries, is unlikely to be effective and will ultimately prove to be a barrier to the achievement of the MDGs.

As we make our way to Rio we continue to advocate for the final Outcome document to underline the critical importance of ensuring the recognition of Earth –system processes so that we establish a vision that everyone is pursuing the goal of living within planetary limits..

We would also welcome your support for the Draft UN Declaration for Planetary Boundaries.


Click here to download a copy of the UNEP Geo 5 Report

Learn more about our Draft UN Declaration for Planetary Boundaries


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