Planetary Boundaries and Sustainable Development Goals: Our Rescue Tools

September 18, 2019

    I recently came across an interesting research paper wherein group researchers proposed a novel concept of Planetary Boundaries. I was so fascinated to know about it that I decided to share with you all. Since the topic is vast and a bit technical, I will try to keep my writing as simple as possible and will try to stick to the point that I want to deliver.

Planetary Boundaries Approach:

    Johan Rockström et. al. presented the Planetary Boundaries approach in Ecology and Society journal in the year 2009. The research article is titled as ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’. Planetary boundaries are limits within which humanity can perform livelihood activities safely. Crossing these boundaries will put our lives in dangerous situations. Basically, planetary boundaries tell us where we need to stop interfering with our planets natural resources to keep its environment habitable for us.

planetary boundaries
Nine planetary boundaries (PB) from Rockström et al. (2009) and Steffen et al. (2015)

    So, what is special about this paper? Well, this paper, for the first time, classifies and quantifies anthropogenic (human initiated) actions. As of now, 7 out of 9 parameters have been quantified which is a big deal.  

    Nine Planetary Boundaries are;

  1. Climate Change
  2. Novel Entities
  3. Stratospheric Ozone Depletion
  4. Atmospheric Aerosol Loading
  5. Ocean Acidification
  6. Biogeochemical Flows
  7. Freshwater use
  8. Land System Change
  9. Biosphere integrity

    These planetary boundaries are defined after thorough study on more than 100,000 data points collected from all around the world. The study says that we have crossed boundaries of 3 parameters till date (climate change, land system uses and biogeochemical flows). Crossing the boundary means there are high chances of abrupt, uninvited continental or planetary level changes. We have to limit our actions (i.e. anthropogenic activities) within such a limit so as to avoid future catastrophic events. Unpredictable weather events, burning of forests are some examples of such events.

What is SDG?

     SDG’s are Sustainable Development Goals adopted by United Nations general assembly in year 2015. Following is the list of 17 SDG’s;

  1. No Poverty – End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  2. Zero Hunger – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
  3. Good Health and Well-being – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  4. Quality Education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  5. Gender Equality – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation
  10. Reduced Inequality – Reduce income inequality within and among countries.
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  13. Climate Action – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy.
  14. Life Below Water – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Life on Land – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
  16. Peace and Justice Strong Institutions – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  17. Partnerships to achieve the Goal – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

    SDGs can be thought of as description/characteristics of an ideal world where everybody would like to live in. Interestingly, SDG’s do provide indicators to measure achievability but do not speak about their implementation. Every country is supposed to set its policy independently to achieve these goals.

What is the connection?

     Planetary boundaries approach has registered serious observation regarding implementation of SDG’s. It says that if we continue to develop our policies in conventional way to achieve SDG’s, our success rate in achieving SDG’s will affect earths safe operating space (as defined by nine planetary boundaries). We need to adopt transformational changes in our lives to achieve these SDG’s as well as to keep planetary boundaries within their limits.

     The study has presented 4 possible pathways that humanity can proceed with. However, extrapolated data shows that only one pathway (i.e. ‘smarter’ pathway) leads to satisfactory achievement of SDGs and planetary boundaries. Following are the one line explanations of 4 pathways;

  1. Same (Business as usual)
    • If we continue practicing policies without any major changes, we will achieve only 11 SDG’s out of 17 and end up with precarious situation where resource scarcity will be high.
  2. Faster: (Accelerating economic growth)
    • If we focus on fueling economy to achieve higher profits and increase individual incomes, the situation will worsen than earlier pathway and we will burden earths life support systems.
  3. Harder: (Governments and industry trying together)
    • If we align our policies on all SDG’s equally, we will still cross the planetary boundaries but with lesser effect than that of earlier two pathways.
  4. Smarter: (Governments and industry actually choose transformational actions)
    • If 5 bold transforming actions are taken by humanity, we can simultaneously achieve SDGs and remain within planetary boundaries. These 5 transformative actions are;
      1. Rapid renewable energy growth
      2. Accelerated productivity in food chains
      3. New development models in the poorer countries
      4. Active inequality reduction
      5. Investment in education for all, gender equality, health,family planning
Possible pathways of growth

Message to Humanity:

            The data on which this study is conducted is available on public domain [click here]. One can cross-check the work done and interpretations made upon it and correct/critique them wherever necessary. While the researchers around the world will look into the data and policy makers and decisions makers will do their jobs, we as human beings need to change our mind-sets towards natural resources that we use. We must remember that our today’s behavioral change can benefit our future generations in long term. This is our responsibility and their right to see this beautiful planet in its purest possible kind!

Image and Text References: Stockholm Resilience Centre, October 2018 Report 

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Note: The information (text and graphics) used here is for information purposes only. Author does not have any commercial or other intentions. Read Disclaimer for more information.