Humanity must use innovation and ingenuity to live within ‘planetary boundaries,’ a new book says

Living on Earth
Iceland and hikers

Three hikers appear as tiny silhouettes against the backdrop of an Icelandic glacier on the cover of Big World, Small Planet. The book takes the view that our growing human population can live sustainably on planet Earth, provided that we live within key planetary boundaries.

Mattias Klum

From global warming to water shortages, humans are pushing up against a few fundamental "planetary boundaries," according to a newly published book.

Called Big World, Small Planet, the book is by Johan Rockström, executive director of Stockholm Resilience Centre, in collaboration with internationally renowned photographer Mattias Klum.

Rockström says the age humans have thrived in, the Holocene, has given us a false sense of security, but humanity can continue to grow and develop, as long as we respect key planetary limits.

“With the scientific evidence, we can define the desired state of the planet, the stable state of the planet that we need for our survival,” Rockström says. “So the obvious scientific question is, ‘What are the environmental processes that regulate our ability to have a stable planet? Most importantly, for each of these processes, can we define a boundary within which we have a safe operating space?’”

Rockström and Klum’s book identifies nine global environmental processes that science shows clearly regulate the ability of the planet to stay in a stable, desired state. Among these nine, three affect the fundamental “end game” for how the other planetary boundaries operate, Rockström explains.

Number one is biodiversity, which is all the living species in the biosphere and all of nature across the planet. The planet needs its forests, grasslands, wetlands, coral reefs and all of its animals and plants to function properly.

The second fundamental boundary is climate change. A stable climate system determines the outcome for all living species.

The third of the Big Three — what Rockström calls "novel entities" — is a totally manmade boundary: our invention of chemicals and compounds that are alien to nature.

“These include things like persistent organic pollutants or different kinds of nuclear waste elements that we concentrate in the biosphere and which are at risk of hitting us back through cocktails of chemicals that could, for example, abruptly and very unexpectedly change the genetic code of different species, including homo sapiens — ourselves,” Rockström warns.

Facing squarely these planetary boundaries raises deep ethical challenges, which is why climate negotiations have been so complex over the years, according to Rockström.

“The rich minority in the world, including countries like my own, Sweden, and the US, have benefited from unsustainable use of energy, creating a huge, exponential rise in wealth at the expense of the planet,” he says. “Moreover, we know that the outcome is very unfair, because so far ... those causing the problem are not the number one victims of the impacts.”

As intractable as this problem seems, Rockström sees progress. For example, accumulating evidence shows that developing nations may not need coal-fired plants, oil or natural gas because solar power, wind farms and smart biomass grids now seem both cheaper and better able to deliver development. Many nations may actually do better bypassing fossil fuels completely, Rockström says.

Nevertheless the moral imperative remains.

“[This] is perhaps one of the most dramatic and paradigm-shifting implications of adopting planetary boundary thinking,” he says. “Because as soon as you accept that planet Earth has biophysical boundaries that we have to respect, that translates to absolute finite budgets that we need to share in a fair way.”

For example, the climate change boundary of 1.5 degrees Celsius translates to a global carbon budget of roughly 500 gigatons of carbon that can “safely” be emitted. The world emits about 30 gigatons every year. “So, if we recognize that we have roughly 500 gigatons remaining to emit, we have to then share this in a fair way. We have to give China its part, India its part, Angola its part and so on and so forth,” Rockström says.

That means little remains for countries like the US and Sweden or the UK and France. The developed, rich world would have to totally de-carbonize by roughly 2030 or 2040 — 10 to 20 years earlier than the developing world. “2030 is in 14 years, so we’re talking about an energy revolution if, in fact, we are going to stay true to the climate boundary of 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Rockström says.

Then there’s the even more contentious issue of how to feed ourselves, while respecting the planetary boundaries surrounding agriculture and water.

“The single largest threat to the stability of the planet, and the single largest cause of climate change, is agriculture,” Rockström insists. “Some 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions originate from how we produce food. The largest cause behind loss of biodiversity is the expansion of agriculture into natural ecosystems. The largest consumer of freshwater by far is food.”

In the Western world, one meal with a little meat on the table consumes about 3,000 to 4,000 liters of fresh water per person per day, Rockström points out.

“An absolutely key strategy to return within a safe operating space on Earth is to transform the world towards sustainable food production,” Rockström says. “This challenge is, if anything, perhaps even the largest we face, because we know that we're soon going to be nine or ten billion people on Earth. Moreover, we have one billion people going hungry every year.”

The planet boundary analysis asserts that the world can no longer expand agricultural land. “We have to feed humanity on the existing land," Rockström says. "We cannot lose more nature, because nature is such an important habitat and host for biodiversity, and it sequesters carbon.”

“[At the same time], we need to drastically reduce our use of nitrogen,” he continues. “In fact, our scientific analysis shows we're in such a dangerous zone we have to reduce nitrogen use by about 75 percent. We're just at the ceiling of what we can use. We cannot increase it further.”

This demands a “doubly green revolution,” Rockström says. ”It has to be sustainable and it has to deliver food for humanity.”

While this may sound like a dire message, Rockström and Klum’s intention is to convey a new, positive narrative. “This is a story of new opportunities for humanity to thrive on the planet by using ingenuity, core values, and humanism to become wise stewards of nature and the entire planet," a press release states.

"That is how innovation works,” Rockström adds. “The planetary boundaries will help. By defining thresholds and a maximum allowable use of resources, ecosystems, and the climate, we can trigger a new wave of sustainable technological inventions, thanks to an abundance of ideas and solutions for human prosperity and planetary stability."

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood