Rio and the Importance of Planetary Boundaries

by Peter Roderick, WWF UK

Article for Outreach, Stakeholder Forum, 16 December 2011

“It has never been more important to heed the evidence of science that time is running out on our ability to manage successfully our impacts on the Earth’s environmental, biodiversity, resource and life-support systems on which human life as we know it depends.” So said Maurice Strong in his Statement to the Special UN General Assembly Event on Rio+20 on 25th October 2011. And he should know.

The clarity brought by the planetary boundaries approach can help us make the most of the time we do still have. It posits that there are nine critical Earth-system processes and associated thresholds that we need to respect and keep at a safe distance from, in order to protect against the risk of irreversible environmental change at continental to global scales. Doing so would create a safe operating space for humanity, within which a sustainable and just society would be possible. According to the concept’s authors, boundaries for climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle have already been crossed.

The concept offers the Rio Conference a basis for framing the challenge of meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. That is why the Planetary Boundaries Initiative has proposed that the Conference should adopt a Declaration on Planetary Boundaries, or at least prominently reflect its principles of recognising that boundaries do exist, committing to respect them, and taking responsibility for doing so.

As well as framing, we need commitments. The Rio Conference should at the very least establish a process for developing, by the time of the review of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, a legal instrument reflecting these principles, and give that task to an over-arching, supra-sectoral international body. This body would also be given the tasks of coordinating global research and development of our understanding of the processes, and of reviewing the adequacy of international legal and governance regimes and structures for safeguarding them. Necessary legal improvements should follow.

Being responsible for safeguarding necessary Earth-system processes means establishing legal principles and duties to recognise and respect them. As the UNDP has argued, constitutionally recognising equal rights to a healthy environment promotes equity by no longer limiting access to those who can afford it; and embodying this right in the legal framework can affect government priorities and resource allocations.

This would be in line with Maurice Strong’s call for a system based on Principles 21 and 22 of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration for those who suffer environmental damage in one country, resulting from development in another country, being able to seek legal recourse and compensation for the damages they have suffered.

But planetary boundaries cannot be seen in isolation. Over-consumption on a finite planet where millions go without daily places the primary duty on developed countries to take the lead in staying within the boundaries – morally, and legally. Whatever goals emerge from Rio must address these deep inequalities at the same time as reflecting biophysical reality.

As Strong pointed out, some of these ideas might be deemed unrealistic, “but denial cannot change the reality, only increase its dangers. What seems unrealistic today will become inevitable tomorrow, too late to change. The need for such actions is real and urgent. Rio+20 cannot do it all but it can and must set these processes in motion and give them the support and impetus they require”.

The Planetary Boundaries Initiative has been developed from research on long-term governance options over the last 12 months funded initially by WWF-UK and the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development. Follow-on research undertaken with further support from WWF and conceptual input from members of the UK Alliance for Future Generations, scientists, development policy experts and lawyers, led to the drawing up of a draft Declaration on Planetary Boundaries to focus thinking on how potentially dangerous natural thresholds could be manifested legally.


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