Arquivo de etiquetas: Antropoceno

Antropoceno XLV- A ciência no antropoceno

Now the question  is science stepping up to this challenge? Because I would argue and many colleagues with me that the policy domain is making enormous advancement based to a very significant extent on the knowledge provided by science, but that’s been largely diagnostics. Is science now prepared to also step up in contributing solutions? And the exciting answer is yes.

There’s a lot happening in science to now step into much more interdisciplinary approaches where natural science and social sciences work together for solutions, and to engage much more in what we call co-design and co-development of knowledge, together with businesses, together with community stakeholders, together with policymakers.821

Now where does this arise from? Well it arises from science reacting on the nervousness of its own evidence. The diagnostic is now so dire that we can truly talk of a planetary crisis. And science is getting nervous sitting on this enormous amount of evidence that humanity is putting its own future at risk.

This has led to very significant movements towards engaging more from science in exploring solutions. There’s also a deep emerging recognition that the science, policy, business, particularly partnership, is beneficial also for academic research, what we call co-design and co-development. So this is quite interesting and these are key features of the moving and advancements in what I call sustainability science; the emerging field of an integrated research for sustainable development.822

Out of this comes, for example, a new initiative, the world’s largest initiative on global sustainability research where Earth system science is moving towards solutions for global sustainability. It’s called Future Earth, it is an integration and a merger of the large global environmental change programs that have been around for 30 years and that actually are the source of the bulk of insights that, for example, led us to the conclusion that we are now in the Anthropocene.

In a very important large conference a few years back called Planet Under Pressure the scientific community came together and launched the idea of Future Earth, which is now becoming a reality in 2014-2015.823

So this is a large endeavor of thousands of scientists working together across social and natural sciences to not only focus increasingly on solutions, but also to learn more about the risks we’re facing, of how the Earth system operates, improve the definitions of planetary boundaries, and work much, much more together with different stakeholders in society.

Now what will then Future Earth do? And what is science increasingly excited about doing in general? And in a very simple way to illustrate that we can say that of course this is not true for all science, but you know, the large, large thrust after all has been that the science on global environmental change has largely focused in the past on understanding how the Earth system works as a self-regulating complex system, so we’re starting to understand more and more how climate interacts with the biosphere, that tipping points occur, etc., and also how we humans impact the system, which has been tremendously important to understand the pressures we’re posing. Future Earth is about adding two social dimensions.824

One is how does it impact on our own well being and what are the implications for livelihoods and development? And of course, perhaps the most exciting, what’s the response? How can we as scientists engage in finding the pathways towards a transformation to global sustainability?

Another very important advancement that we all are so well aware of is the bridge between science and let’s say the most accessible form of knowledge for decision making, namely assessments.

So we have a very, very long engagement in climate with United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has recently released its fifth assessment, the basis upon which decisions are made on climate change. But I’d just like to remind us all that we also have the sister of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES, which is now in place to do the same type of knowledge synthesis on ecosystems and biodiversity as a support for decision making.825

And Finding Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is a broad global platform of knowledge for change. So these are very profound large examples of how science is stepping up to the challenges in the Anthropocene.

So to conclude, initiatives like Future Earth and alliances such as the Earth League, which is another coalition of top, top knowledge institutions gathering together to serve society with better risk analysis, better understanding and solutions, is in my mind a very, very strong signal that science sees not only the risks in the trajectory and the paths we’re following today but also enormous opportunities in a transformation to a world within a safe operating space.

Antropoceno XLIII – ciência, politica e ação individual no antropoceno

We are now entering  in final module on this lecture series on Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities.

In the previous module, we dug ourselves into the challenges of translating our Planetary Boundaries science and challenges in the Anthropocene into global governance, the role of technology, the transitions humanity face in terms of energy, food, urban, pathways towards a future of growth and development within a safe operating space.

We looked into the challenges related to sustainable and resilient urban development and trying to position our new thinking on global sustainability within the realm of opportunity and development for humanity in the future.

Now in this eighth and final module, we’d like to integrate and synthesize and summarize all the insights across the entire set of lectures. We’d like to do that in the context of the big global policy agenda on transforming the Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals.

We’d like to do it also by sharing the latest thinking in how science is organizing itself and also opening opportunities for young scientists and bright minds to engage in the new opportunities around not only interdisciplinary research but also research for solutions and exploring avenues towards a future within a safe operating space.

In doing so and inspired by all your inputs into the forum and personal insights, we’ve also gathered the entire team of lecturers to share with you their personal reflections and insights, originating and being inspired by the contents of the entire course and engagement with all of you during these weeks.

We’d also like to remind you that even this week, please do keep the discussions and connections and ideas lively on the forum. We still hope that we together can take this course as a starting point to engage further in the future on exploring solutions for global sustainability.

So see this week as an opportunity and a Launchpad to start a dialogue that will go way beyond the weeks that we’ve had together over the past two months.


Antropceno XLII – Reencontrar a Humanidade no mundo urbano

I look at how trade enables movement of food and feed anywhere on our planet. And I’m also the Director of Studies, so I like to teach about all the things that we do here, in an inspiring way hopefully.

More than half of the population today lives in cities. And although we are no longer an agrarian societies we are still utterly dependent on agriculture for our food. And those of us who live in cities I think are disconnected from where our food comes from and how it’s made. I think we’re actually disconnected from the entire process of agriculture.

And part of this is because of global trade. Global trade lets us urban citizens consume foods from anywhere on the globe, produced far outside the city borders. And it also enables us to never actually see what’s going on in agriculture production.761

So urban consumers are different. Right now we need to deal with this balancing act too when it comes to feeding cities and feeding us to potentially feed the future estimated 9 billion people. We need to have more food, we need to maintain livelihoods of farmers, and we need to remain within the Earth’s capacity.

So we need to produce maybe 60% more calories of food. And we need to at the same time safeguard the livelihoods of the poorest 900 million people, 70% of which are very closely tied to livestock production.

We already see a 20% decline in the number of farmers on this planet in the last 50 years. Somebody’s got to grow our food. And we can’t continue doing farming and fishing in a way that degrades the natural basis for production.762

So there’s some unique challenges in the nexus of cities and food and sustainability. Urban dwellers do not understand agriculture production. That’s the first main challenge.

Second is that urban populations are wealthier. We consume more – because I’m an urban person too – and mostly though we consume differently. That 60% of new calories that we need to get, it’s not just because there’s going be 2 billion more people on the planet, it’s because we want to eat things like meat. We eat things – we eat fruit, we eat vegetables in city. That’s different than the traditional more grains-based diet.

The third kind of unique challenge is that there’s no longer going be just local production feeding the local population. The vast majority of food production is coming from far outside the city areas.763

Fourth, we see changing values, cultural values, in the urban areas. With this highly networked kind of place that we live in in cities, this globalized world, has become more westernized. And these type of western diets are very different and they’re resource-demanding too.

And last, fifth, is that urban cities, urban areas, are engine rooms of people that drive the free market system. So when we change our diets, when we urban dwellers choose different diets, we transfer that into the market system, we’re demanding different things. And that’s a challenge.

So I looked with my colleagues at three different food systems, and I mapped these developing country kind of capital regions in Australia, in Denmark and in Japan, and to see how they had different approaches to achieving their own food security systems.764

So Canberra in Australia, Canberra can provide more food for itself, but it’s chosen – since 1965 it produces less food in its own areas. And that’s because, partially because, urban dwellers in the Canberra area, they prefer – and they’re the ones with the political power – they are the ones that prefer smaller, more pristine ecosystem-like areas, and they’re pushing actually for less agriculture production inside the Canberra area. And that means that they’re – the Canberra is having to import more food.

In Copenhagen, Copenhagen could be self-sufficient but they’ve chosen instead to not be, they’ve chosen instead to import feed inputs, to value add it, and export pork.

Japan, Tokyo, can not provide for the whole 40 million people in the city. They have really high yields, they have a very productive production system, but they can’t provide for 40 million people in the land area. But you can see that because they place a very high cultural value on the food that you can see that they actually manage to maintain very high production levels of the traditional types of pork, rice, and cabbage.

So these are three different approaches that these cities have taken, and you can see that this is how they’ve solved their food systems. So this kind of study is useful I think because cities are going to need to manage food security by learning where in the world – what agricultural ecosystems they need to support their consumption.765

And I think Japan is a good example, the example of how many cities are going to feed themselves now. They’re going to depend on very large area outside of the city limits for their food provision. But there’s another reason that you want to make sure that you know where your food is coming from. And for example in 2010 when there was a large drought you could see that the willingness of certain countries to export food, for example Australia was not as willing, and partly because they didn’t have the amount of production of milk and butter, Japan had to look elsewhere to find these sources.

In 2010 during the droughts Russia decided not to export grains to the EU and the big cities in the EU. So you need to know where your food is coming from if you’re going to manage your food security.

And thinking about planetary boundaries, food actually is affecting every single one, it plays a role in all of the nine planetary boundaries. And people talk about deforestation, tropical deforestation, and land use change, but there’s another kind of deforestation that I haven’t heard as much about, which I’ve looked at, and that is related to aquaculture. And it’s related to mangrove deforestation. For example, more than half of the mangrove areas along Thailand’s coasts have been deforested to produce jumbo shrimp aquaculture. And that consumption is driven by rich consumers in the United States and Europe.

Another specific example, which is actually maybe a good success story, where we’re seeing the ozone depletion reduced is the fact that the CFCs, the chlorofluorocarbons, were originally used for refrigeration, for food. So we were able to ship and store food, and that’s why we were using so much chlorofluorocarbons. So these are, yeah, two just specific examples of how food is tied. And there’s many examples of how food is tied to all the planetary boundaries.

I’d like to finish talking with you today and leave you on a good note. There are many good examples of some fun innovations that come from cities. Urban gardening, even though it may not be able to feed the vast majority of us, but there are some really good examples. For example is Dar es Salaam it’s estimated that maybe 90% of the vegetables are actually produced in the urban area. And that in Hanoi they’ve maybe managed to produce up to 60% of their rice, right there in the urban area. So there are some places where they are managing to produce quite a bit of food right in the urban areas.

But I’d like to finish with my own close to home example where I have a Masters student who has started a company, Bee Urban, in Stockholm, and she and her friends are putting beehives out on urban roofs all over Stockholm, and by increasing the habitat for the bees we now have pollination services throughout Stockholm, and we can maybe even say that this is improving our capability here to do urban gardening in Stockholm.

So these are just a few examples of some really exciting and fun things that are happening in cities when it comes to food production and food innovations. There are many, many different fun things going on, there are many different ideas, many different things that should be happening. We shouldn’t have one solution. There are many different ways, and many different things that we should be doing. I encourage you to find out what’s important for you, and think about what you ate for lunch, and where it came from. Thank you.

Antropoceno XL – Funções e Riscos das Tecnologias

This will be about technology, and this is one of my favorite topics. When we talk about the Anthropocene, I think we seldom miss the point that so much of what happens in the Anthropocene, and the fact that we might be in the Anthropocene, happens through technology; it’s been through technology. 741

And one of the favorite examples that I take up with some of my students and some of my talks is this example. A couple of years ago an NGO and a couple of researchers discovered a new monkey type in the Amazon called the Titi Monkey, a new type of Titi Monkey. And they needed money to promote conservation efforts for the monkey. So they decided to make an option, an online option to sell the naming rights of that monkey. So they did that, and it was quite successful. They managed to get $650,000, and the company that won that auction was an online casino called

So officially gets to name the monkey, so the official name of this Titi monkey is actually Titi Monkey. And it has a Latin name called Callicebus aureipalatii, which I believe means golden palace.

And it’s quite a bizarre example, of course, but I find it quite intriguing that we’re modifying – we’re affecting nature at such a deep level that we’re even auctioning out the naming rights of a monkey species to an online casino.742

I think the three interesting topics in here that are more general that this quite bizarre example. One deals of course with biodiversity and how we protect biodiversity. And there’s another issue related to politics of course. I mean where are we, is this a good idea should we really pull in private funding in this way? And giving – selling out naming rights in this way? And of course the third topic [is] about technology. Who would have thought 10 years ago that an online casino would have bought the rights to name this particular monkey?

Now I think this really brings us to an illustration of the next generation of environmental challenges in the Anthropocene, and new governance challenges facing us.

This is a quote from a New York Times article from one of the researchers a paper showing that the west Antarctica ice sheet was collapsing irreversibly, risking to create very large increases in sea level rise. And the quote from the scientist of course is, “This is really happening. It has passed the point of no return.” So it brings us back to the issue of tipping points and new risks.

Once these news were out there of course you hear discussions about trying to stop this from happening through technology, so essentially geo-engineering interventions. Sending out ships to spray out salt particles in ways that would make clouds whiter and then cool down the area, and hopefully, ideally, theoretically, cool the area down so much that you could stop the glaciers from collapsing. And of course this is just one example of many, many of these tipping point elements. This is a famous image from Tim Lenton’s work on tipping points in the Earth system.

And the issue here is of course if there are tipping points, and some of these might be a very, very large scales, and affect the Earth system as a whole, are there ways by which we can use technology to stay away from these, or mitigate these, or adapt to these in smart ways? And of course that triggers a lot of controversy and political conflict. And geo-engineering is a brilliant example of the interplay between risky tipping points, technology, and technological interventions and the political conflicts and debates those sort of discussions trigger.

And it’s not just about climate. I mean I just gave you a climate example. Some scientists propose that you would need to promote a new generation of conservation efforts that are more active to cope with climate change in ways to protect coral reefs.

So one example of tangible interventions were to create artificial coral reefs, or create big umbrellas, or to protect and cool down coral reefs, to create gene banks, etc., etc. Another interesting observation is from a workshop that was a few years ago in the UK where researchers and NGOs got together to discuss whether we can use synthetic biology to promote conservation and to maintain biodiversity. And there’s an emerging discussion about something called the extinction, so essentially using DNA from extinct species and use that DNA to bring these species back, and would that be a way to maintain and protect biodiversity?

Highly, highly controversial of course, and quite intriguing. I think one of the general reflections and reactions to this from the public and other scientists would be, but are we allowed to do this? Doesn’t this inflict on the precautionary principle? Now the precautionary principle that states that we shouldn’t do anything that might create harm. I mean that would be the popular perception of that.

But in fact if you look into international agreements, such as the Commission on Biological Diversity, it states something different. It says that, and I’m goint to quote here, “Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.” So essentially actors, NGOs, a few researchers, used the precautionary principle as support for these sort of intervention[s].

And is that the proper framing of the precautionary principle, or should we have a more moderate interpretation of that? And what would that look like? So I think that’s just a simple illustration of the sort of challenges that tipping points, emerging technologies, get mixed up in a way that create[s] new political controversies and new governance challenges.

Antropoceno XXXIX – Caminhos de transição: a energia

For the world to develop within a safe operating space of planetary boundaries one of the grand challenges is a global transition to a renewable world energy system. This is a double challenge because it’s not only about biophysical operating within a safe operating space, it’s the recognition, shown in this graph, of the tight connection between energy use in the world and economic growth. In fact there’s a linear relationship so far between growing economies and growing energy use. And that is projected to continue, even though in [at] a slightly lower pace, up until mid this century. 741

There’s also the recognition of how our past looks like. And just check out this development of the extraordinarily rise in energy use since the great acceleration started in the mid-1950s. And what you see here is the growth of coal, and particularly oil and gas, as the predominant sources of energy.

So one simply has to recognize that if we’re seriously talking about sustainable development we can not escape the fact that we need not only energy, we will need more energy in the future if we take an ethical responsibility for the wealth of a world of 9 billion people.

The challenge, thus, is a transition into a zero coal or non-fossil fuel-based economy in the future. What may help us here is in fact not only technology advancements in renewable energy, which is remarkable, it’s also the fact that we are approaching or are at peak of many of the most cheap fossil fuel energy sources.742

And in this graph you see that already from the mid-’80s, 1980s, and onwards we have actually bypassed the point of access to cheap sources of oil. This has a risk of course of a transition to other cheap but even more polluting sources, such as coal, and the transition we’re seeing today in terms of fracking for natural gas, which is methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. But overall it shows that however you twist and turn the analysis the era of cheap oil is behind us, which may help us also as an incentive to a transition to renewable energy systems.

But a very important challenge in terms of this transition is to recognize that not only is there a linear relationship between economic growth and energy use, what has enabled our quick economic growth is that energy has been cheap. And if you look at a key parameter in this regard called energy return on investment, meaning how much value do you get out for each input of investment into your extraction of energy.743

We have been privileged, in fact enormously privileged, of having a very large return on investments on oil over the oil era, since the early 1930s and ’40s with energy returns on investment often exceeding hundred in the early days of the oil bonanza, and today moving down quickly to levels of 30 to 15.

But look at what happens with, for example, nuclear energy, biomass, photovoltaics, oil sands, with energy returns on investment being very low. And in fact this really worries scientists and analysts because we’re not even sure how to operate a world economy with energy returns on investments going below 10 to 15, so another reason to really explore innovative solutions in the space of renewable energy systems.

And just look at this trajectory into the future indicating that we’re moving increasingly towards a point where we bypass this magical level of energy returns of investments below 10, which again means that energy becomes so expensive that it may no longer contribute to the economic growth we’ve seen in the past.744

So these are sharp reminders that the planetary boundary analysis showing the necessity to stay within a sustainable global carbon budget is coupled to the recognition also that the polluting, dirty and climate-destroying energy systems we have today are also becoming less attractive because they’re becoming more and more expensive, and less and less efficient in delivering to the human endeavor of economic growth.

Now if you look into the future the drama is equally stark. This is an analysis from the Global Energy Assessment showing that even in a transition to a sustainable energy future, here illustrated by the label Global Energy Assessment efficiency, or the Global Energy Assessment mix, which if you look carefully shows a very rapid rise in renewable energy systems and a contraction in the use of particularly oil and coal, but still the overall picture is growth of energy demand in the world.

So in 2050 the estimate, as you see even if we have very high optimistic projections on energy efficiency, we’re still seeing a future where we’re moving from our current use of roughly 500 exajoules of energy to a future of 600, 700, 800 exajoules of energy in the future. So a reminder again of the enormous challenge.745

Now what’s the solution to this? Well, most analysts would agree today that the long-term future is a future world basically or predominantly supplied from solar energy systems. We’re not there yet, but look at these graphs, which originate from fantastic work among energy researchers at Chalmers University in Sweden, showing the exponential rise in photovoltaics and wind power in key countries in the world.

And what you see here is that up until 2002-2003, we had a very slow rise in technology and uptake of these renewable energy systems. And then we have a takeoff and exponential rise where for example today countries like Germany, after all the world’s fourth largest economy in the world, if you wake up a Saturday morning in Germany you’re likely to get in the order of 30-40% percent of your electricity from wind and sun. So we’re starting to see solar and wind systems coming to scale also in the large economies of the world.

So there’s promise that this transition is not only necessary, but in fact possible to achieve at economically competitive rates, but also desirable. because they provide clean energy systems with very high benefits for health and also interestingly in a much more democratic way.746

Many of these energy systems are provided from small-scale distributed households, farms, small businesses, that produce their own energy and buy and sell energy to a flexible energy market. That’s why, to close, I believe that journals like The Economist even put at the front page of one of their recent issues a dinosaur and an oil pump in their hands, making the analysis that in fact those who invest and keep investing in dirty, risky, undemocratic fossil energy sources are the dinosaurs in terms of meeting the demands and needs and opportunities in the future. While a transition in terms of energy in a safe operating space can be, should be, and must be the opportunity for a much more clean, modern energy system for a world that of course will demand more energy to truly achieve sustainable development, but which needs to be sustainable.

7.4.2.. The role and risks of technology in the anthropocene

This will be about technology, and this is one of my favorite topics. When we talk about the Anthropocene, I think we seldom miss the point that so much of what happens in the Anthropocene, and the fact that we might be in the Anthropocene, happens through technology; it’s been through technology.

And one of the favorite examples that I take up with some of my students and some of my talks is this example. A couple of years ago an NGO and a couple of researchers discovered a new monkey type in the Amazon called the Titi Monkey, a new type of Titi Monkey. And they needed money to promote conservation efforts for the monkey. So they decided to make an option, an online option to sell the naming rights of that monkey. So they did that, and it was quite successful. They managed to get $650,000, and the company that won that auction was an online casino called

So officially gets to name the monkey, so the official name of this Titi monkey is actually Titi Monkey. And it has a Latin name called Callicebus aureipalatii, which I believe means golden palace.

And it’s quite a bizarre example, of course, but I find it quite intriguing that we’re modifying – we’re affecting nature at such a deep level that we’re even auctioning out the naming rights of a monkey species to an online casino.

I think the three interesting topics in here that are more general that this quite bizarre example. One deals of course with biodiversity and how we protect biodiversity. And there’s another issue related to politics of course. I mean where are we, is this a good idea should we really pull in private funding in this way? And giving – selling out naming rights in this way? And of course the third topic [is] about technology. Who would have thought 10 years ago that an online casino would have bought the rights to name this particular monkey?

Now I think this really brings us to an illustration of the next generation of environmental challenges in the Anthropocene, and new governance challenges facing us.

This is a quote from a New York Times article from one of the researchers a paper showing that the west Antarctica ice sheet was collapsing irreversibly, risking to create very large increases in sea level rise. And the quote from the scientist of course is, “This is really happening. It has passed the point of no return.” So it brings us back to the issue of tipping points and new risks.

Once these news were out there of course you hear discussions about trying to stop this from happening through technology, so essentially geo-engineering interventions. Sending out ships to spray out salt particles in ways that would make clouds whiter and then cool down the area, and hopefully, ideally, theoretically, cool the area down so much that you could stop the glaciers from collapsing. And of course this is just one example of many, many of these tipping point elements. This is a famous image from Tim Lenton’s work on tipping points in the Earth system.

And the issue here is of course if there are tipping points, and some of these might be a very, very large scales, and affect the Earth system as a whole, are there ways by which we can use technology to stay away from these, or mitigate these, or adapt to these in smart ways? And of course that triggers a lot of controversy and political conflict. And geo-engineering is a brilliant example of the interplay between risky tipping points, technology, and technological interventions and the political conflicts and debates those sort of discussions trigger.

And it’s not just about climate. I mean I just gave you a climate example. Some scientists propose that you would need to promote a new generation of conservation efforts that are more active to cope with climate change in ways to protect coral reefs.

So one example of tangible interventions were to create artificial coral reefs, or create big umbrellas, or to protect and cool down coral reefs, to create gene banks, etc., etc. Another interesting observation is from a workshop that was a few years ago in the UK where researchers and NGOs got together to discuss whether we can use synthetic biology to promote conservation and to maintain biodiversity. And there’s an emerging discussion about something called the extinction, so essentially using DNA from extinct species and use that DNA to bring these species back, and would that be a way to maintain and protect biodiversity?

Highly, highly controversial of course, and quite intriguing. I think one of the general reflections and reactions to this from the public and other scientists would be, but are we allowed to do this? Doesn’t this inflict on the precautionary principle? Now the precautionary principle that states that we shouldn’t do anything that might create harm. I mean that would be the popular perception of that.

But in fact if you look into international agreements, such as the Commission on Biological Diversity, it states something different. It says that, and I’m goint to quote here, “Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.” So essentially actors, NGOs, a few researchers, used the precautionary principle as support for these sort of intervention[s].

And is that the proper framing of the precautionary principle, or should we have a more moderate interpretation of that? And what would that look like? So I think that’s just a simple illustration of the sort of challenges that tipping points, emerging technologies, get mixed up in a way that create[s] new political controversies and new governance challenges.

Antropoceno XXXVIII – Passara para um novo paradigma de governação

We’re in the Anthropocene. Our environmental challenges are now global and we face environmental risks that could actually lead to catastrophic consequences if we cross tipping points. What does all this mean for the global development agenda? Well, it truly puts into question some of our fundamental ideas of our relationship between environment and development.731

The first is the belief in the environmental Kuznets Curve, which so much dominates the way we deal with environmental policy and environmental impact reduction strategies. The belief that in the early days of development in the pre-industrial economies environmental impacts are large because of inefficiencies and poor capital availability, and that industrial economies somehow in the early days peak in terms of negative environmental emissions which comes from the empirical or the experiences, particularly from air pollution, from industrial activities, and the richer we get the better we are in improving our environmental conditions.

This is profoundly wrong. All empirical evidence shows that in the hyper-connected and globalized world in Anthropocene what has happened is potentially, or in fact in reality that we’re improving local environmental conditions often but we’re pushing environmental impacts across Earth system components in the entire planetary system. So we might have clean air where we live locally, but we’re ruining the planet system at the larger scale.732. In fact it’s so important that also fundamentally reshapes the way we think of sustainable development.

You’ve all seen the three pillars of social, environmental, and economic development which forms the basis of our modern thinking on sustainable development, but that has translated, as we all know, into a strategy of advancing economic growth as one sector and trying to reduce environmental impact as far as we can.

In the Anthropocene this will not be enough. It was okay when we were a small world on a large planet where we could always so to say find free environmental space in the atmosphere, and the biosphere, and the cryosphere. Now we’re in [at] a saturation point. We’re hitting the ceiling where we need to, all citizens of the world, all nations in the world, operate within the same space. And we must be honest. This three pillar approach has after all become what we could call a Mickey Mouse economy, where economy is occurring and developing at the expense of natural capital, the environment, and human capital; cheap labor and subsidized labor forces enabling hyper-consumption across the world.733

So let’s simply agree it’s time to scrap this obsolete model of separating social, environmental and economics. We need to transition into a paradigm which looks like this, namely use our economy as a vehicle to serve and meet societal needs, and have societies that operate within the stable confines of a resilient Earth system. Or, as we’ve been talking so much across the science that we’re now advancing, development within a safe operating space of planetary boundaries.

This changes profoundly economy, it changes profoundly governance, and it changes profoundly relations between nations, because suddenly planet goes first. We need to set global environmental goals within which we can have economic growth and development. It also addresses, which is shown in the now famous donut model for economic growth, that if we have a biophysical ceiling defined by planetary boundaries there must be a social floor, a floor of how we distribute the absolute amounts of remaining environmental space in a fair and just way among all citizens on Earth.

So in summary, the change in the paradigm includes number one, once and for all reconnecting world development with Earth resilience. We simply have to recognize that Earth is the basis for our well being and that development occurs in an integrated fashion. We must therefore accept that economic growth and economic development must occur within a safe operating space of absolutely set boundaries for the Earth system.734

This means that we’re moving from the current realm of relatives where we normally assume that if we just put the right price on the environment we’ll be so efficient that it will actually take us to sustainable development. The problem is that when we rush towards an economy that will grow three times, the world economy will grow three times over the next 30 years and the world population 9 billion people, even if we become relatively better and more efficient if that all adds up to us transgressing planetary boundaries we’re still going to cross tipping points.

So we’re moving from that reality, relatives, to the reality of absolutes. Now we simply need to respect an absolute amount of carbon remaining to emit. We need to respect an absolute maximum amount of fresh water to use, land to use, phosphorus to use.735

This is a profoundly different approach because it puts a cap on the playing field within which we can develop. It might seem very utopian, but you know we’re applying this kind of thinking very often in many, many other areas. In fact the history of how we have developed policies around chemicals is largely applying this kind of absolute planetary boundary thinking. Think of the Montreal Protocol when we in the mid-’80s recognized that emissions of chlorofluorocarbons were destroying our protective ozone layer. We did not take a relative policy of percentage reductions of these, uh, damaging ozone-depleting substances, we forbid them, we put a cap and we operated within a boundary.

And this is often the way we operate in many areas where we forbid toxic substances and we operate within a safe space. Now we need to do that for all components in the Earth system.736

But is this then going to be a paradigm that only operates at the global level where we have some kind of steering committee running the planet? Of course not. It is absolutely clear that in the Anthropocene we need to strengthen Earth governance, we need to collaborate all nations in the world to set planetary boundaries, but we also need to recognize that all action occurs from below, individuals, communities, businesses, nations, and that as the famous Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom pointed out that one of the most exciting opportunities we have is to invest in stronger polycentric governance systems where we connect local informal institutions and collective action among engaged citizens with formal institutions across different levels of society to work from local to global, and that this actually works.

We show it for water management, we show it for agriculture management, that in many parts of the world this actually can function. So it’s not a contradiction between the global and the local, it’s actually an integration between the different scales.737

But what does all this mean for the economy? And I’ll just give you one example of how this changes our thinking. Often the question is raised well, if you apply a planetary boundary thinking isn’t that actually saying that we’re limiting growth, we’re limiting economic growth? And what we’ve argued as the scientists behind this is: not at all. In fact what the planetary boundary analysis shows is that we need to stay within a safe operating space. But what happens within that operating space is up to us; it’s our choice. The economy should be able to grow within a planetary boundary safe operating space, what we have a bit jokingly called a planetary souffle, meaning that the economy should be able to grow within this space. A souffle also alludes to the fact that this is quite a challenging and innovative pathway because, you know, if we don’t manage this in a sustainable way it may in fact abruptly collapse, which we sometimes see in the financial crisis.738

Now can we actually envisage an economy growing within a safe operating space? Absolutely. In fact in our innovations, technology breakthroughs and advancements of business models that are not only resource-efficient but even circular, mean that we can produce value and generate well being within the confines of a safe, resilient Earth system.

And just to give you a few examples of how this could translate, even in conventional economics. Conventional economics had developed macroeconomic analysis of how expensive or beneficial It will be to solve the climate challenge. One of the most famous of these models is called DICE and here is just one example of how this looks like for climate.739

This is a graph from 2010 until end of the century, 2100, in terms of what it will cost to the world economy, so it’s GDP on the Y axis, if we continue as business as usual and move towards a very risky 4 degrees C future, or if we reduce emissions to a 2 degrees C, 450 ppm future. And this is the classical graph showing that GDP would only go down with a few percent if we stay with our business as usual, which we scientists criticize very, very fiercely because we say these economic models are not considering the devastating costs to the economy if we cross dangerous temperature levels. But let’s for a moment assume this is correct, that in fact it is such a small difference in terms of cost whether or not we reduce emissions.

Exactly this data can actually be plotted in a different way, and this is shown in this graph where we’ve just taking [taken] the growth of the economy on the X axis, so this is global GDP, but on the Y axis we show the difference in concentration of greenhouse gases, the planetary boundary. And what you see here is of course the blue line which goes up all the way to 800 ppm in the business as usual, the 4 degrees C pathway, and as you see it reaches year 2100 a world economy of 500 trillion US dollars. But look at the 2 degrees C future, which bends at 550 ppm and actually is projected to also reach 500 trillion US dollars slightly later, a few years later. And then you have the 450 ppm which stays at 450 ppm, but actually reaches a very high degree of economic growth as well.

But let’s not put in a boundary here. So we’ve taken not the planetary boundary that we have so strong, robust support for of 350 ppm. We’re taking the climate skeptics’ boundary, we’re taking a boundary that everyone will agree upon, because nobody wants a 6 degrees C future, a totally catastrophic future that will not support human civilizations on Earth. So we’ve taken the 5% risk of reaching 6 degrees C and put that on this graph, and that is shown by the upper horizontal line here which is at 550 ppm. So if we accept moving towards a boundary of 550 ppm, the world moves into the realm of a 5% risk of reaching 6 degrees Celsius, which is a probability that nobody, no reinsurance company, no bank, no government, ever, ever would accept.

Well what is this? Well actually that is a hard boundary. It means that the business as usual trajectory hits the ceiling at already 200 trillion US dollars. The world economy can not go beyond this point, which shows that the only pathway to its prosperous future for humanity is in fact that we bend the emission curve within a safe operating space, because it’s the only trajectory that can allow us to reach 500 trillion US dollars which is required to actually support a world of 9 billion people.

Everything above this level is not acceptable, it’s actually outside of the realm of economics. It’s the realm of ethics, it’s the realm of political leadership, it’s the realm of a new development paradigm where we accept that there are certain ceilings that we can not transgress.

And this ceiling is not even a planetary boundary, this is the ceiling of ultimate unacceptable movement beyond anything that anyone ever would accept. So this is quite an interesting way of illustrating, I think, that we need to reconsider the way we operate in terms of future development. (energia, Segurança alimentar, Urbanismo sustentável, Gestão da Biodiversidade)

Now these transitions are dramatic of course, and can they actually be achieved? Well so many analysts are showing that yes, a global energy transformation inside a safe operating space is possible. We can envisage a low carbon world economy by mid-century, a food security transformation where we feed the world with sustainable food is possible. Yes, we need to increase food production 50% by mid-century, but through sustainable agricultural innovations a lot of evidence indicates we can feed humanity in a safe operating space. An urban sustainability transformation is necessary but also increasingly possible. Two-thirds of the cities we need by mid-century are not even built yet. Let’s build them in a sustainable, resilient way. Biodiversity management is increasingly shown to be both effective, economically  beneficial, and builds resilience that’s shown by many, many studies, for example, on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity team.

So it’s not as if a transition to a safe operating space is the dark story of doom and gloom, it seems increasingly to be the desirable, more attractive story of innovation, transformation and human prosperity.

Now it won’t be an incremental journey. Together with colleagues at the Tellus Institute we recently tried to ask ourselves the question well how deep is this transformation into a safe operating space?

And that tentative analysis using a model called PoleStar indicates that it won’t be enough with only taxes and measures in terms of policies and technological breakthroughs, we will need to change lifestyles. It appears that we need to reconnect our own values with the biosphere, we need a much stronger emphasis on well being rather than just consumption, and that it actually is a shift also in our lifestyles. So it is a social, technological, and political journey we are embarking on if we truly want to endorse and kind of take in the latest science of the realities in the Anthropocene.

But to summarize, that recognition which we are the first generation to be knowledgeable about should not be used as a big, black blanket, putting a stop on development, it should rather be used as an encouragement for a new type of development, a new type of economic growth where we can meet the needs of both the poorest in the world and the aspirations ostrom

Antropoceno XXXVII – Estruturas emergentes de Governação Global

So speaking of global environmental governance, how should we reform it? So we know we’re facing fragmentation, we know we’re facing complexity, we know we’re facing gridlock.

So what are some ways by which we can modify global environmental governance to better cope with the challenges of the future?721

And of course there’s no clear, simple answer to that. And I would say there are different schools and different approaches to address that issue. So I’m just going to present a couple of these different approaches.

One of them, and I would say the most popular one in my community, I would call deep institutional reform. And deep institutional reform builds on the idea that if you manage to reform critical pillars of global environmental governance then you would create an architecture that’s better able to deal with these challenges. So there are different ways to look at that reform and there are some very tangible reform proposals in that.

So for example, one would be that you need to reform the United Nations Environmental Programme. So you would reform and upgrade the UNEP, as it’s called, and give it a bigger mandate, better resources, and better capacities to coordinate the fragmented setting up of international institutions.

Another idea or another very tangible proposal would be that you would look into economic institutions at the international level and put a much stronger sustainability focus into these. You would design and put into place mechanisms that would guide economic development at the international level, taking sustainability into consideration.

Another reform proposal that has been discussed is to modify the voting rules in international bodies. You would move from decision making that’s unanimous into where you just need majority, or a qualified majority. And the idea would be that if you change the voting rules in these bodies then you would get faster decision making and it would become more ambitious.722

So that’s just a few examples of that way of thinking, that the way to reform the environmental governance is through deep institutional reform.

Another school of thought or another stream within this community would be to focus less on institutional reform but more to strengthen networks. And that mode of thinking I would call network revolution.

So essentially you would say no, it’s impossible to move ahead with institutional reform, it’s very difficult to get all these countries to agree on something tangible, so let’s focus on strengthening partnerships that exist between states, or between public and private actors. Let’s invest more in building global partnerships and networks across state and non-state actors. Let’s focus on allowing fewer number of countries to create more ambitious goals, for example within climate policy, and have them create benefits for themselves and then hoping that that club will expand over time. So that’s the club approach.

Another way to look at this is to talk about polycentricity. So polycentricity essentially means that you have several independent bodies of decision making that collaborate and create rules through that collaboration. And the idea is that these modes of more network polycentric governance are more flexible, they’re more apt to changing circumstances, they’re better able to cope with complexity, and they can expand over time essentially.723

So that second approach focused on networks where it’s less about institutions but more about creating a network revolution at the international level.

There’s a third stream that I find interesting that focuses more on law. And that stream I would call legal transformation. And the idea there would be that you would create different interpretations of existing law in ways that would push us towards sustainability, essentially redefining international human rights law, for example, or creating some sort of planetary boundaries declaration. That’s one example, so you would create a planetary boundaries declaration between nation-states. And that sort of development would trigger changes in international law to better address sustainability.

And one interesting observation within this community is that these sort of norms, for example, to protect the environment, or a norm around stay within planetary boundaries, can evolve nonlinearly, meaning that you will have actors lobbying for that sort of change for a long time but nothing happens, but then suddenly you see a nonlinear change, so suddenly it becomes from something being discussed just amongst a small group of people to something that suddenly becomes a global institutional norm. So that has more focus on legal issues.

And then the fourth stream in this focuses more on citizen and participation, global democracy, cosmopolitan democracy. And the idea here, and the assumption here is that we’re getting into these processes of gridlock, we’re not able to agree at the international level, because people are not being part of decision making. Decision making is happening behind the scenes, in small groups, in small clubs, with limited insights from citizens. And the idea would be here to reform international organizations in a way that allowed for wider participation from citizens, civil societies, and NGOs. And the idea would be that these sort of reforms would open up decision making and create more ambitious environmental decision making at the international level.

So those would be four different streams in the debate that I would pick out, so:

  • deep institutional reform,
  • network revolution,
  • legal transformation,
  • and global citizenship.

One thing to keep in mind though, and I think that’s one of the interesting things, is that these are ideas that might start out as something different, but that actually start to become recombined. So you see interesting combinations of these ideas out there emerging; combining legal transformations with network revolution, or combining deep institutional reforms with global citizenship. And this nice visualization by one of my colleagues, Diego, shows how actors or authors start referencing to each other over time and start to combine these ideas into different proposals on how to reform global environmental governance.

So how are these related to planetary boundaries? I think that’s a critical issue. I think what we’re interested in is not only dealing with incremental global change, or separated problems by themselves, not just only climate change, biodiversity and ocean acidification in parallel. We need to start to look at: how do these reforms try to address very complex interactions between these problems? How do these proposed reforms in institutions, how well are they able to address the nonlinear properties of these problems? Do we need additional institutions to, for example, pick up early warnings and respond to early warnings that we’re moving towards bad tipping points in the Earth system or in regional ecosystems, how do we look at that? So it’s also a matter of function in these governance structures.

So just to summarize the key message in this very complex issue, I would say the takeaway message is there are multiple approaches to governance. There’s no simple, quick fix solution through reformed governmental governance, there are different traditions, there are different streams, they all have different flavors in a sense.

But there are also interesting combinations emerging between these different streams. And we also need to take a step back and look at these proposals, and look at the dimensions. What are the distributional implications of these proposals in terms of risks, or resources, or power? And how well do they function, not only to deal with incremental environmental stresses, but also very complex interactions between global environmental problems, some of which might be linear and some of which might be nonlinear and lead to rapid unexpected shifts?

Antropoceno XXXVI- Estruturas Existentes de Governação Global

This talk will be about global governance and structures to deal with complex global environmental problems.

Normally when we think about the Earth system and planetary boundaries we start to think about: so how do we cope with these problems at the global level? And normally people would assume that you would need a world government, which is I believe an incorrect assumption for what governance is.711

We talk about governance in terms of different set of partnerships, international agreements, the way state and non-state actors interact with each other, the involvement of scientific communities, NGOs, etc., etc. So essentially governance in this setting is a much more messy and complex interaction between state and non-state actors at the global level. And it’s not about creating a one static body on decision making in a world government.

I think that’s one very critical, important thing to keep in mind when we talk about these sort of issues. What are some critical developments in global environmental governance? I would say there are several trends that we look at.

I mean, this is a simplification that one thing that we normally discuss in this community is the rapid increase of international environmental agreements. So normally people would think that one of the key challenges at the global level is that we don’t have proper international environmental agreements, but in fact if you look over time there’s been quite a rapid increase of the number of agreements.712

So in 1857, there was one multilateral environmental agreement and in 2012, the last count that I have, we had 747. So it’s quite a rapid increase of international environmental agreements, and that’s one important trend to keep in mind.

Another thing that we also know in global environmental governance is that it’s not only do we have more international agreements, we also have more actors involved. There are more nation-states that have ratified agreements of this sort over time, and there are also more non-state actors getting involved in these arenas where global environmental issues are being discussed. So more international environmental agreements and more actors, those are two critical trends.

One of the biggest debates within my community is what the impacts of these trends are. And one general conclusion from my community is that this sort of increased density of agreements and actors have created fragmentation and segmentation.713

So essentially you get different layers of decision making that become practically decoupled from each other; you lack coordination, and you lack a system’s overview to tackle the sort of challenges we’re facing. So that’s another important trend. So more agreements, more actors, fragmentation, and segmentation.

There’s an interesting development though over time if you look at it. And you can see that in this short video by Rak Kim is that you also see increasing inter-linkages between international environmental agreements.

So that short video shows the number of international environmental agreements, and how they start to link to each other by referencing. So it starts in the end of the 1800 and then moves rapidly into today. And you see that massive increase of inter-linkages and notes linking to each other, so it also implies complexity, it’s becoming more complex, the landscape of institutions at the international level.714

This creates something that people also explore called gridlock. And gridlock is a phenomena where you have an increasing number of global challenges but where nation-states are not able to agree on something tangible to address these stresses.

So essentially you get more actors involved in more roles, but each of these actors also have veto power, so essentially they are not able to get to a point where they manage to create effective institutions to address critical challenges. So the transaction costs to get to collective action increase over time, because of more actors, more complexity.

So here’s an example that we’ve been working on for the last years dealing with ocean acidification, and marine biodiversity, and climate change. And these are three so-called planetary boundaries. The interesting thing with these three phenomena is that these are not separate global problems they interact in different ways. So climate change contributes to ocean acidification; ocean acidification affects marine biodiversity at the same time as these two changes modify the carbon uptake capacity of oceans, hence contributing to climate change. So these are three interacting processes.715

The question we asked in our research is: who’s responsible to cope with not only the isolated problems but their interactions? And again if you look into the institutional landscape, if you look at what are the relevant international rules that affect these three interacting areas, you’ll see a long list of different international agreements. You see Agenda 21; the CBD, which is the Conventional Biological Diversity; the Millennium Development Goals; the UNFCCC, which is the international climate agreement, etc., etc. So it’s a long list of international rules that somehow are related to this problem complex.

And again if you look, what are the relevant international organizations somehow partly being responsible to address this issue? It’s also a big – essentially a big soup of acronyms moving around and trying to one or the other address this issue. So you have the World Bank, UNESCO, UNEP, the World Fish Centre, Human Ocean, the Food and Agricultural Organization, etc., etc.

One of the things that we find interesting though is that it’s not only chaos and anarchy at the international arena with all these messy institutions. Actually what we see are emerging patterns of collaboration, information sharing, experimentation, of attempts to navigate this combination of complexity in the problem, essentially in the Earth system, and complexity in the social institutional system.

So we see this pattern of networks emerging. That’s something that we’ve been studying for one particular case that we call PaCFA, the Partnership on Climate Change and Fisheries. And this we believe are interesting networks to keep an eye on if you want to understand the challenges facing global environmental governance to cope with sustainability challenges in the future.

So there are three key messages from this in terms of how global environmental governance has evolved and its capacities to deal with sustainability issues at the global level. One is that you see increased fragmentation over time, but also complexity in terms of institutions and actors linking to each other in very complex ways. And sometimes these create processes of gridlock, essentially the number of challenges are increasing over time and becoming more severe, but the landscape of actors and institutions is so complex that actors are not able to come to robust agreements on how to deal with those challenges. So those are the three key messages from this first lecture.

Antropoceno XXXV – Governação Global

We probed how planetary boundaries interact, learning for example that the stability of the climate system depends entirely on the way we manage land, water, and oceans, proving that in fact the planetary boundaries seem to be like three musketeers – all for one, one for all.

We need to simply be sustainable stewards of all the components of the earth system. But we also discussed in depth that biophysical boundaries cannot guide us toward sustainability alone. We need to stay within a just and fair safe operating space, connecting the human dimension with the biophysical challenges of global sustainability.

We’ve been pulling in the latest thinking from very, very important experts in their areas, such as Kate Raworth, who developed the doughnut economy model of connecting a social floor to the biophysical ceiling of planetary boundaries.

We’ve been discussing a bit more in detail of how to reconnect human development to the biosphere and staying within a safe budget on all of the planetary boundaries.

We’ve also introduced the concept of peak everything and how resource constraints couple to the boundaries provided by tipping point analysis related to planetary boundaries.

Now we’ll move into a module focusing on governance, focusing on pathways to success and also the grand transitions we face in energy, food systems, technology, and urban areas.

I’m sure you have many many ideas of what planetary boundary thinking means for governance, for democracy, for equity, for transparency. So please do share your ideas, opinions on the forum to keep a lively discussion forward.

Antropoceno XXXIV – Reconectar a sociedade com a biosfera

Reconnecting human development to the biosphere. This is really fundamental for the future of humanity. The biosphere, as you all know, is this thin layer around the Earth that is the only place in the huge universe that we as know have hosts life. So we live on this small, little round ball in this immense universe and have the chance to be alive for up to eight, nine, ten decades. We’re part of this biosphere, we’re imbedded in it. That’s what I’m going to talk about today and try to connect you, and your not only thoughts, but also your bodies and hopefully emotions to being part of this planet and feel humble about it.

And old model which is still used a lot is to look at the economy as the center of the universe. And if we listen to news and television programs there’s a lot of focus on what’s going inside the economy and our financial systems. And they operate and run our daily activities. But in that model we had three factors of production for the economy; it was land, labor, and capital.641

And land basically was agricultural land in those days when Adam Smith developed those theories. But during the mid and late 1900s land was removed basically from the economic model because it was no longer a limiting factor for economic and social development. Basically it was labor and capital that were the limiting factors. So basically the whole biosphere was lost from the way we think about operating the economy in our models.

So in the late ’80s we started something called ecological economics to try to reconnect land, which we later called natural capital, into the model of economic development. So we extended land, labor, and capital to natural capital, cultural capital, and human-made capital as three critical factors of production for how the economy is operating.642

And today when you hear a lot of talks about the green economy, you hear a lot about efforts to value nature and ecosystem services. It’s about making the natural capital visible in the way we operate the economy. From the level of big companies in their books and all the way to how we measure GDP in economic development.

But the real model we should strive for is a model where we look at the economy as a part of society, and society as part of the planet. Quite obvious model but it’s sort of forgotten in our contemporary society.

So I believe that we in two, three generations have created mindsets on Earth that pretend as we are not living on the planet, that pretend as if we are independent on the Earth that we’re living on. That’s why we are using this model, where the economy is part of society and part of the overall planet; part of the Earth’s life support systems, or the biosphere. And to us that’s a fundamental conceptual figure. It’s almost like an icon for how society should relate to the little round ball we’re living on. And it’s become very obvious now in the Anthropocene that that’s the case.

So humanity now, as you all know, we’re living in this biosphere in the Anthropocene where we are a global force in shaping the planet, not just in terms of how many we are. In the early 1800s we were about 1 billion. When I was born around 3, 4 billion, and now about 7.5 billion people. So that’s the scale and how we operate those things. Then the connectivity we are totally intertwined through global society. All over the planet, and through information technology, we have been able to speed up our activities in an enormous way.643

So we’re living on this little round ball and shaping it fast and have forgotten about it, which is not very smart for a species that calls herself, himself homo sapiens, the smart monkey actually. So we’re a wise band. So I think it’s really high time to reconnect our value systems and worldviews, and the way we operate to the little round ball, and this thin layer of life that we are part of.

We are now moving a new terrain. We have gone through the great acceleration of expanding our actions, and now are moving into a new terrain of new dynamics where issues that have been treated separately; like climate, human health, and economy; are very much intertwined, they are really tied together.

And they are also connected through new types of shocks. So if we get an oil crisis together with, food crisis for example, together with the financial crisis, there are no types of patterns playing out on Earth that we have not seen before.

So these domains that are often thought about as separate are actually completely intertwined already. And now we’re moving into another phase where we’re going through a next great acceleration where people in countries that have not been fairly poor are moving out of poverty moving into a middle class situation. We also have developments in information technology and microbiology and genetics that are moving really, really fast, that it’s hard to envision what it will look like in the decades to come.

And those are fantastic opportunities, fantastic possibilities for humanity. But my point here is that if those possibilities and those actions are not connected to the planet we live on, they may not be opportunities, they may be things will increase the risk for something not very pleasant for humanity.

So the challenge is really to use our innovative capacities, our fantastic gift that we have of thinking, and reflecting, and developing innovations, in line with the biosphere that we’re part of and depend on.

So the reconnecting idea or the reconnecting path is not a simplistic one, it’s a very profound one of increasing the opportunities for well being of people anywhere on Earth and increasing the pathways for good human life.

And that’s why we need to probably transform our paths today into new pathways to be able to do that. But there’s a lot of hope and a lot of science in that direction already going on on Earth. If you just go back the last ten years and see how businesses are waking up; how the climate issue have opened up space for these type of redirections and transformations; and how green technology and different lifestyles; and the way we eat things, and go back to more safety and healthy foods; and these type of paths are actually moving fast now. And that’s very hopeful in that sense.

So the whole idea of reconnecting is really about doing something very obvious; to appreciate being life on this little round ball, to reflect on it, and reconnect ourselves. A big challenge when we are living in urban areas. About 50, 60% of people are in urban areas today and are not always connected to the broader planet on a daily basis.

I will illustrate what I mean also by changing these pathways for reconnection, reconnecting to the biosphere by a picture where you see a lot of details, but a lot of areas in between where you have no idea what they say.

So this may illustrate where we are today in society when it comes to knowledge generation and understanding that we are very good at understanding details, but have a harder time with seeing the bigger pictures because of the enormous amount of information, the enormous amount of activities that we are operating with.

So when we aim at looking at the bigger picture, it may sometimes become quite blurry and unclear. And in knowledge generation and science that’s often a very explorative, but also very exciting phase when you think you’re onto something but you don’t really know what it will look like.

But hopefully when the picture becomes clearer you will most likely be quite surprised. The world may not look like what you actually think it looks like. And this whole idea of reconnecting to the biosphere is about that actually. It’s about basic, very simple truths about part of a planet that we have forgotten part, that are not part of our conceptions and reality today but are profoundly important for our future.

We tried to develop new ways of reconnecting people to the biosphere. And a recent project that was just launched in June this year is an art science book called Reflections on People and the Biosphere, where we match some of those texts of being part of the biosphere with photographs taken from the same spot on an island in the Baltic Sea in Europe. And it’s quite amazing how one single place can provide such a palette of impressions. And that’s something to think about when we are running around hectically and efficiently on Earth to look outside the window, to see the different nuances going on there, a rainy day, sunny day, sunset, dawn, beautiful light, the birds flying, and let it move into your body and fill you up, and reconnect yourself to the planet in that way.

And in that book actually we’ve been using some music lyrics also from classic music writers. And here’s one from the Beatles that I thought was breathtaking when I read it again actually, from a tune called “Because.” It goes like this: Because the world is round it turns me on. Because the wind is high it blows my mind. Because the sky is blue it makes me cry.” Thank you very much.

Antropoceno XXXIII – Fundamentos Sociais das fronteiras do planete

Back in 1987 the Brundtland Report defined sustainability as how many between humans and nature and how many among people? In other words, environmental processes and social processes have to be working together for us to achieve global sustainability.

In 2009 Rockström and his colleagues defined planetary boundaries globally for biophysical processes. And what many people see is a rather abstract conceptualization of the Earth system. But human factors are really important. They weren’t dealt with explicitly in the global planetary boundaries framework, but human processes are the causes of many of these changes, and human communities and societies will feel the consequences of the changes.631

We’re an important part of the Earth system, and we need a framework that helps us to deal with the biophysical changes and the social changes at the same time.

A couple of years ago at the Rio+20 conference this challenge of global sustainability was the main topic that brought the world’s nations together. We recognize that we’re increasingly pushing the world into biophysical unsustainability, but we’ve also got major social unsustainability problems too.

If we want to apply the planetary boundaries framework in practice, which really means applying it at sub-global levels, we have to address the human dimensions, the human drivers and impacts of environmental change.632

Back in 2012, for the Rio+20 conference, Oxfam proposed what we now call the Oxfam Donut. Oxfam is a campaigning group for relieving problems of poverty. And they recognize the importance of the planetary boundaries as setting out the environmental ceiling for the safe operating space for humanity. But they also argued that for a fair and just world we need to recognize the social foundations of that safe operating space too.633

They argued that any framework or vision of sustainable development for the world that we now live in needs to recognize that eradicating poverty and increasing justice all around the world is intimately tied to the biophysical processes of ecological sustainability too.

This focus on really linking people with planetary sustainability is an active area of research and conversation between science and policy at the moment. This figure shows some work that was done recently by the global change science community really emphasizing, that our social processes and above all our economic processes need to happen within the constraints that are presented by the functioning of the Earth system.634

We have some practical experience in linking social activities and these global environmental changes. For example at the global level, the International Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes the importance of local and traditional knowledge as an important part of protecting ecosystems and preventing the loss of biodiversity.

We have many community level initiatives for sustainability. You may be familiar with the Transition Towns, for instance. That starts to recognize the importance of everybody’s action at the local level to contribute to global sustainability as well.

In Transition Towns people are working together to see how their everyday activities can reduce their carbon emissions and reduce the pressure on climate change.635

Businesses are also engaging in ways of reducing their environment impact, and they need our encouragement at every step.

Fairtrade products are one example and certification systems that reduce the impact on ecosystems, fisheries, forests, and so on.

These are very practical approaches where we’re trying to see how our local social activities reduce the pressures on global environmental dynamics. We need many more of these activities, and we need many more to engage in them all around the world. But these show us that we’re moving in the right direction.

Global sustainability fundamentally means recognizing Earth’s biophysical processes and, that they set the conditions for our human and social activities on Earth. We need to be constantly aware of the consequences of our choices and activities on the ecosystems on which all of humanity depends. And we need to bear in mind that the choices we make can either harm or safeguard the human values of fairness and global justice.

Antropoceno XXXII – questões sobre acesso e distribuição de recursos

In the Anthropocene with rising exponential pressures on our finite Earth system one very obvious issue arises, which is whether or not we’re running into resource constraints to the extent that we can talk of passing the peak of resource availability for humanity.

But if we add to that the recognition that we have to operate within a safe operating space of a stable Earth system an additional elements adds even to the peak, namely the need for a fair distribution of the remaining budgets with regards to each of the planetary boundaries.621

Irrespective of whether the resources are coming to an end, we need to recognize that there’s just a finite, absolute amount of carbon left to be emitted into the atmosphere; nitrogen left to be used on our land to produce food; fresh water to be consumed without avoiding or trying to avoid that we cross tipping points with regards to ecosystem functions in basins.

And in this lecture we’re going to combine the analysis of the risk of us passing peak levels of resource availability, and the fair distribution and downscaling of planetary space within the analysis of our safe operating space of planetary boundaries.622

Now this has very, very strong links to sustainable development because as soon as we recognize the risk of running out of resources, and as soon as we recognize we need to stay within global budgets of fundamental resources that determine our ability for social and economic development, we are in the realm of equity and just distribution of space, particularly in a world with 1 billion absolute poor and in a world that will soon have more than two new billion co-citizens on Earth predominantly born in what today is developing countries.

So this truly entering the realm of connecting the biophysical analysis with the issues of development. Now the journey we’ve made is absolutely extraordinary in terms of recognizing that we are in a situation where we need to consider resource constraints very seriously.623

To the left-hand here, you have an illustration of the past 100 years of use of resources in the world. It is analyzed by combining the classical parameters that add up to human impacts on Earth, the so-called IPAT equation, impact equally population multiplied by affluence, multiplied by technology.

And here you see these entities expressed in terms of population numbers, technology is expressed in the number of patents registered, and affluence simply as world GDP. And if you look at that small, little graph on the lower left-hand corner that is the world in 1900, that is the turn of the century a little bit more than 100 years back, with a very small imprint in the world. In fact we had essentially no influence on the Earth system as a whole and we did not have any risks of hitting the ceiling in terms of resource constraints.

Up until 1950, the second box, there’s a very slow change in terms of human pressures. In fact we’re just moving linearly and slowly along the path of growing resource use.624

And then: bang! We move into the great acceleration with 3.5 billion people and we put into high gear of industrial development in the world and suddenly choof! We’re in the final huge box in the upper right-hand corner. And that’s the world of today, the world filled up with the junk originating from the over-consumption and the propelling of the modern industrial systems; societies that we all know.625

What is so remarkable with this journey which you have to recognize is that we often blame population growth for causing this. In fact that’s not the predominant number. If you look at this analysis carefully you see that the largest influence is affluence, which is the number one driver of increased resource use.

So it is absolutely essential to recognize that when we operate the world, and try to transition into a safe operating space, we must address the fair sharing among all citizens on Earth of the affluence and the wealth that we are generating.

On the right-hand side you have a New Scientist summary of where we are on one element of resource constraints, which is particularly rare Earth metals, everything from aluminum and uranium, all the way to lysium, and different key metals that are used to get our mobile phones to work, and computers, and video systems, and cars.626

And what is remarkable with this analysis is it shows that at our current pace of resource exploitation we will run into, or pass, the peak of resource availability within this century. In fact, for some metals even within decades. And this is a reminder that the discourse around peak of resources is a real one. And it’s not only about metals, it’s about phosphorus, it’s about oil, it is increasingly about everything that is the fundamental base from the Earth system building up our well being.

Now how does this translate into the economy? Well it starts to have an indent. In the lower left-hand corner here you see what is known to all of us, the fact that we’re leaving behind the era of cheap oil. In fact we see today the rising volatility of global oil prices is occurring at a very high level, between 75 and over a 100 in fact, sometimes a 110, a 120 US dollars per barrel of oil. This is a signal that we are at or approaching peak oil in terms of cheap oil availability.627

In the upper left-hand corner you have the worrying graph of trend with regards to yield levels of key cereals, our staple food crops in the world, which shows as you see a slow but sure stagnation in terms of growth rates, not really keeping pace in the red line with population growth. A reminder that we do not know whether we’re running into a kind of peak when it comes to land and water resources related to food production.

And the large graph shows, and is the reminder, of what’s happening with commodity prices? Well over the past 100 years we’ve had shocks in the system. We had a shocking rise of commodity prices in the world with the big wars in the world, the oil shock in the ’70s. But look at the current world of the Anthropocene.628

We enter the fundamentally globalized world of today, and we are stuck it seems in a permanent level of high commodity prices. All of this adds up to the conclusion that we need to consider resource constraints as a fundamental part of navigating the Anthropocene.

Now how does this relate to planetary boundaries? Well in some parts it does so one-to-one, but in other parts it doesn’t. And that distinction is really important to make. Take phosphorus, for example. Clearly evidence indicates that we may be running out of cheap phosphorus. Phosphorus, one should remember, is like oil; it’s a finite and mined resource. Are we transgressing phosphorus? Well yes, the evidence shows we are in a danger zone irrespective of whether or not we’re running out of phosphorus.629

For nitrogen we’re certainly not at peak. There is an endless amount of unreactive nitrogen in the atmosphere, but we are clearly loading reactive nitrogen at a level, which is taking us into a danger zone of tipping points.

Biodiversity we can clearly say we are at a peak with regards to collapse of many ecosystems, and we are transgressing, so there you have a one-to-one relationship.629a

Climate change, the same. We are seeing evidence of peak, particularly on oil, but we’re also in a danger zone with regards to climate change.

So this is an example of how the comparison of the two concepts can be done to guide also sustainable development.

Therefore it falls naturally to then ask the question: how does the planetary boundary analysis address the issue of distribution among nations and citizens in the world?

And what we’ve done for this analysis is to try for those boundaries that do operate truly across scale to try and spatially distribute the analysis at the appropriate level where each boundary operates.629b

And this falls naturally, for example, the land boundary, which of course land use change occurs locally and adds up to the global level. Nitrogen is applied at the local scale of a farmer’s field, or wasted in a waste water treatment plant in an urban region, but adds up to problems at the larger scale. Same for fresh water; same for biodiversity loss; same in fact for aerosol loading, which operates entirely at the regional scale where soot, and black carbon, and emission of pollutants changes rainfall patterns not at the global scale, but at the regional scale.

So it’s clear that planetary boundaries have direct relevance across scales, and we’re increasingly exploring how to downscale the relevant boundaries to the level where they operate at their local ecosystem level.

And several initiatives are taking along these lines. Interestingly, for example, an effort of downscaling the responsibility for the global boundaries at the national scale illustrated here by one report trying to translate boundaries to the context of a nation, in this case Sweden.

There’s also scientific efforts of trying to advance the theory on how can you in fact translate the global boundaries into the regional scale of large biomes? And finally even efforts at the larger policy level of bringing forward what does global boundaries mean in this case for the European Union in terms of operationalizing environmental policy? So all examples of trying to connect the scales from global to regional.

What we’ve done is actually tried to do it within the analysis of how do the boundaries operate in maintaining resilience at different scales? And here are just a few examples of the advancements in this area.

So the global boundary on biodiversity loss and biosphere integrity was originally set as the maximum allowed amount of number of extinctions we can allow ourselves on Earth. But now we’re able to downscale this to look at the maximum Amount of biodiversity loss in different ecosystems, and do that in a way that can increasingly  address both the number of species, but also the ecological functions they represent, and project that across time, and thereby be able to identify the hotspot regions in the world where we need to very, very rapidly transition into a sustainable management of ecosystems, but we can also see the areas where in fact we’re doing progress already on staying within a safe operating space.

Importantly we can do this also for the interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle. And if you map out the global boundary of phosphorus, the global boundary of nitrogen, and apply it to where it is actually originating from, which is predominantly in the applications on agriculture land, what appears that is not surprisingly an overuse of boundary, in fact a transgression into a danger zone, in the richest nations in the world, where we have the hotspots in terms of overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus, while you see the parts of the world that so far stay very clearly within a safe operating space.

And this addresses heads-on the distributional issue of the boundaryes. It shows for example in this case that poor developing nations in Africa have a right and a need to increase their use of nitrogen and phosphorus to be able to raise food production, and can still do so within a safe operating space. While the rich nations in the world actually need to drastically reduce the use of nitrogen and phosphorus, and particularly phosphorus because it’s also one of these resources that are [is] hitting peaks.

Same with fresh water. Here we can analyze basin by basin where are we taking out too much fresh water? Here it’s no longer a clear cut issue of north, south division in terms of overuse. Here’s rather recognizing that the interface between social well being, nations being more or less poor or rich, but also those regions that are more or less endowed with high degree and good access to fresh water.

So what you’re seeing here is, for example, that the well developed parts of [the] western United States are in fact transgressing the regional basin-scale boundary for fresh water, but similarly parts of India where overuse of water is related very, very closely to inherent water scarcity.

Finally on land use we then can explore much more in detail how much of our current temperate, boreal and rainforests do we still have standing? How much of this do we need to have standing to enable a resilient Earth system? And where are we in terms of hotspot regions in the world? Showing, for example, that we need to very rapidly address sustainable management of temperate forests, boreal forests, and the real hotspots about safeguarding that we have remaining, thriving, and resilient rainforests in the world.

So in conclusion, our analysis of planetary boundaries defining a safe operating space shows we need to be really precautious. In fact the analysis indicates that way before we reach a peak level of overuse, we may have to seriously consider boundaries beyond which we risk crossing tipping points that can undermine our abilities to thrive in the future.

But my conclusion is we need to put these analyses together, recognizing both peak resources and the global budgets that we now need to distribute in a fair way among all citizens in the world to truly have not only a safe sustainable development but also a just sustainable development.

Antropoceno XXX – Recursos e Interações

Now we’ve really made some advancements. You’ve covered the Anthropocene, all the thinking around resilience and tipping points, the great acceleration, and now we’ve also covered all the nine planetary boundaries. Again I’d really like to encourage you to dig deeper in the materials and background literature around all the boundaries.

But through the lectures we now have a nice, up-to-date feel of where we are with regards to the Planetary Boundary Framework. We saw that three of them have already been transgressed – we are in a danger zone – and even though many of the remaining still have a certain degree of freedom, we’re approaching the ceiling for several of them, which means that humanity really is in a very dire situation of a rapid transition to global sustainability.

That’s why it is exciting that we are now moving into our next cluster. We’ll be looking at how planetary boundaries interact and also introducing the concepts around peak resources and what does planetary boundaries translate to in terms of the budgets and the remaining space for human development. And this means that we will now be coupling the biophysical analysis with the human dimensions. It is not enough to think only in terms of the safe operating space but also a just and fair operating space for humanity.

The social boundaries, the floor for development, will now be linked into and broadening the whole framework on planetary boundaries. We’ll also be discussing how to reconnect human development to the biosphere, to ecosystems all over the planet.

You got to know Sarah Cornell in the previous module as an expert on biogeochemical flows. She will be coming back in this module thanks to her deep engagement in the social and human dimensions of planetary boundaries. We’re now going to also have our third hangout. And let’s make that a really thriving, lively hangout for this week. Good luck.

Antropoceno XXIX – Sintese sobre Fronteiras do Planeta

Synthesis and progress on planetary boundaries

The science on planetary boundaries builds on the remarkable advancements in Earth system science over the past 20 to 30 years. It’s an integration in the natural next step in scientific advancement between our understanding of the pressures of the Earth system, how the Earth system is a complex self-regulating biogeochemical physical system, and the recognition that if we push environmental systems too far, we risk crossing tipping point that can fundamentally, abruptly, and irreversibly push ourselves away of the stable desired state of planet Earth.561

What may surprise you is that the approach of finding planetary boundaries is illustrated very nicely in this first slide here where a Moon lander is looking at our wonderful, small, little marble Earth planet from a distance.

In fact, that’s how the analysis starts. We step out as humanity and try to understand the Earth system and ask ourselves to question what are the Earth system processes that regulate the stability and the resilience of the Earth system? And for each such process we ask ourselves what is the boundary beyond which the system could be pushed outside of a desired state?

And science shows very clearly that we know what this desired state is. And in this slide as a synthesis of that shows the ice core data from Greenland indicating the enormously jumpy ride that humanity has had throughout his entire period on Earth as modern human beings.562

This graph shows our last 100 000 years journey on Earth, until we enter the final, last interglacial period, which we learned in school to call the Holocene, which I would call the Eden’s Garden, the perfect paradise, desired conditions for us to build our civilizations and the modern world as we know it.

So the planetary boundary framework is about safeguarding the desired Holocene-like state on Earth by recognizing this state as the only state we know that can support the modern world as we know it, and from science determining the Earth system processes that regulate this state.563

And that is what led us to defining the nine Earth system processes that we know, with the best science at hand, regulates the stability of the Earth system.

And here we have of course the big systems with large scale tipping points, such as: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion. We have the four slow variables that operate under the hood of the Earth system regulating the ability of the large systems to be stable: land system change, fresh water use, the rate of biodiversity loss, and the way we interfere with the large nutrient cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus. And then we have the two processes that are so highl564y manmade: namely aerosol loading, which is all the soot and the particles in the atmosphere that cause large health challenges but also influences, for example, rainfall patterns and weather conditions; but finally of course the novel entities, the exponential growth of chemical compounds that aggregate themselves in the Earth system.

By tapping on the best science we can put quantitative boundaries that gives us in green a safe operating place. This is where we can put humanity back, to prosper, develop, evolve, and thrive within this safe operating space. That’s why planetary boundaries is a truly integrated analysis. It’s about a safe space, and by biophysical terms, but it’s about recognizing equity, fairness, and a just distribution of the remaining ecological space on Earth to enable a world of soon 9 billion people to develop and prosper.565

In my mind this is the new definition of sustainable development. It’s recognizing that global sustainability and development within a safe operating space is the new endeavor and the new goal for human development on Earth.

We’re very excited by the fact that science can now step up to, I would argue, the responsibility of providing quantitative global environmental goals of this kind. It shows in our analysis that we’re already in a danger zone on climate change, biodiversity loss, and interference with the nutrient cycles.566

This work was released the first time in 2009, and has since then led to a very large, vast set of scientific efforts of critically analyzing the quantifications, critically asking the questions whether we’ve got the nine boundaries right, and based on all the science we are working continuously updating this concept to get the absolutely best quantifications.

And a few exciting updates have occurred based on scientific colleagues around the world publishing updated work in this area. The first one is the recognition that the nine boundaries are not entirely, so to say, even in the role of regulating Earth resilience.

In fact we do identify now that three of the boundaries are what we call core boundaries. They operate and regulate the entire Earth system, and they are the endpoint depending upon how the other boundaries operate.567

So the best example of these three core boundaries is climate change. Climate change is the end result of how we manage fresh water, nitrogen, phosphorus, land, biodiversity, oceans. It all aggregates up into the functioning of the climate system. So when we use climate forcing as a good control variable for the climate system, the level of that forcing, whether or not we stay within the boundary, depends intimately whether we’re able to stay within a safe operating space for the other boundaries, to the extent, in fact, that among us scientific colleagues we talk of the boundaries as being like three musketeers, “One for all, all for one.” It seems we need to stay within a safe operating space for every boundary in order to avoid that one boundary flips over across the threshold.

The other core boundary is biodiversity. We now recognize increasingly that the genetic diversity on Earth, and the functions they play to sustain resilience and to build human well being, is a high level aggregate result of how we manage fresh water, land, oceans, nutrients, and even the climate system.568

And the third core boundary we believe is novel entities. The reason for this is that chemicals, such as everything from endocrine disruptors, persistent organic polluters, all the way to nuclear waste and loading of heavy metals, is so totally lien to the operations of the Earth system, in fact the Earth system has never seen, at least not in millions of years, the kind of human-induced artificial loading of new totally artificial compounds into the Earth system.

We’re learning as we speak what the aggregate effect of these can be on our own health, on the genetic composition of species, from birds to humans. But this is an entity of its own core right. And these three we call core boundaries.

The second development is that we’ve refined the biodiversity boundary. We call it now biosphere integrity, because we recognize that genetic diversity is one thing which we captured in the first analysis. Basically what’s the number of species on Earth, which we can measure quite well with extinction rate, which you used in the original analysis.

Now we’re much more, let’s say, sophisticated in using a new index called the biosphere integrity index, which measures not only number of species but also their functions and how many species within each function. So we can secure, for example, that we do have the minimum amount of pollinators in an agricultural landscape. And this is truly exciting giving the tools for sustainable development in the Anthropocene.

We’ve also refined some of the quantifications. And I would just like to share a few of the key developments here. And the number one is on phosphorus. In the original analysis, we were preoccupied with how much phosphorus can we load into the oceans before we risk a large scale tipping point in the oceans into anoxic, oxygen-free dead states in the ocean?

We were criticized for this. Scientists pointed out that way before you’ve pumped in so much phosphorus in the ocean that you could tip the ocean you’ve destroyed so many fresh water systems along the way of the journey of phosphorus from where it’s loaded, often in an agricultural field, to the ocean that we have tipping points occurring in fresh water systems. So now we actually have a twin definition of the phosphorus boundary.

One, which we maintained from the original analysis, which is the amount of phosphorus that we can load in the oceans. It emains in fact eleven million tons of phosphorus per year. We’re today loading eight, nine so we’re approaching the boundary. But can you imagine? The analysis shows that already at averaging at 4 million tons of phosphorus per year on what we call erodible soil, which is essentially how much phosphorus we can load on productive agricultural land, when we go beyond that number we risk large scale tipping points in fresh water systems. These twin boundaries need to be considered for phosphorus.

For nitrogen finally we took, which was a very wise decision, the valve of how much inactive nitrogen we can maximum take out of the atmosphere, and transform into reactive nitrogen which would plug into the biosphere. You may be aware that the fantastic invention of the Haber Bosch process, which produces reactive nitrogen fertilizers is the vehicle for our modern agriculture, without which we probably could not feed ourselves in the modern world. But it loads reactive nitrogen into the biosphere at an extent, which is so large that we humans are now a much larger force than the entire global natural nitrogen cycle.

We estimated in the first analysis that the maximum loading of nitrogen in order to avoid that nitrogen triggers tipping points in ecosystems was 35 million tons of nitrogen per year. It was a first best guess. Roughly one-fifth of the amount of nitrogen that we’re taking out of the atmosphere, so a dramatic decrease, and therefore indicating that we’re way out in a danger zone on nitrogen.

However, we did, you could argue, a simplification in the first analysis, because you see there’s another way that we humans take out nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is by cultivating nitrogen-fixating crops. So, we have also biological fixation nitrogen actively induced by us humans in modern agriculture. Now we have included that, so now we have a boundary that includes both the industrial uptake of nitrogen from the atmosphere in the industrial production of fertilizers, and the additional human-induced nitrogen fixation by, for example, legumes in modern agriculture. And together that forms a much more robust boundary, which ends up being an estimated 44 million tons of nitrogen as a maximum boundary per year.

I won’t go through the rest of the boundaries. I really urge you to look at the analysis and the materials that come with this lecture. But I really want to close by emphasizing that every boundary has an uncertainty range. And the uncertainty range is often quite large. It’s the humble reminder that science continuously adds new knowledge, and that the boundary position is proposed at the lower, more precautious end of that uncertainty range, because we now, as for ozone, that we always are facing surprise when it comes to the large changes we’re seeing in the Anthropocene.

Overall it’s also important to recognize that even though we have attempted to quantify boundaries for the nine boundary processes at the global level, they do operate across scales, and they do interact across scales.  We’ve done some very significant updates in terms of downscaling those boundaries that are relevant to downscale, and these include, for example, the coupling of a global boundary, on fresh water with the river basin definition of minimum amounts of environmental water flows.568

The coupling of the phosphorus boundary for fresh water, with a maximum amount of phosphorus per hectare of land that we can allow ourselves to apply. Same for nitrogen, taking it down to the hectare level.

These are really exciting developments which enable the planetary boundary concept to be operational also at the local level, for a business, of a community, or of a nation’s policies in terms of how to contribute to stay within a safe operating space. And that is in my mind one of the biggest advancements in the work we’ve done in the planetary boundary analysis over the past five years.

Antropoceno XXVIII – As novas fronteiras

Novel entities

Hello, my name is Sarah Cornell and I’m an environmental researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The first thing I need to do right now is explain what I mean by the term novel entities. Back in 2009, Johan Rockstrom and colleagues argued that there should be a planetary boundary for chemical pollution. But they weren’t able to define a quantitative value for that boundary.551

In recent years this challenge has been a topic
of a lot of conversation between Earth system scientists, my own field of research, and ecotoxicologists, people who deal with the problems of chemical pollution.

We now refer to the process as the release of novel entities into the environment. Why did we change the name? Well, first of all it signals that we’re focused on the role of human-caused changes in the Earth system that can fundamentally alter the way that biogeochemical, ecological and physical processes happen at the global level.

The changes we’re concerned about are the ones where human technological capability lets us bypass the normal ecological and physical self-correcting, co-evolutionary behavior of living organisms interacting with the physical processes of the planet.552

When I talk about self-correcting behavior I simply mean that the toxic substances that exist in nature generally break down in nature. To give a really blunt example, an organism will die if it’s exposed to natural toxic substances, but natural processes will also tend to break down and disperse the toxin in question. And there are many chemicals that have toxic effects, some of them like salt, or alcohol, or kerosene, or snake venom can be very toxic indeed, but they are dissipated in the environment because living organisms have co-evolved with the processes, the chemical processes, that produce them.553

Our human technical capability lets us put together chemical substances in combinations that did not exist before, and that no ecosystem has been adapted to, or can adapt to, on the time scales that we see for technological change.

Chemical toxicity on its own isn’t necessarily the problem, it isn’t a systemic or planetary problem. Life can and does adapt to toxic substances. And we don’t need a planetary boundary for issues that are local and temporary.


We’re concerned about Earth system processes. So for that reason the term chemical pollution was too general for our purposes. But we do need to be aware of the planetary risks of creating these fundamentally novel substances that can’t be metabolized, that don’t break down easily in the environment, and that interfere with the physical and ecological processes on which all of the other Earth system functioning depends.

We’re concerned about humanity’s capacity to mobilize some natural toxic substances in new ways, in new forms, and in an ever-accelerating rate. The most obvious category of novel pollutants is the completely new synthetic substances. We can’t say that there’s a Holocene background level for these kinds of compounds. Compounds like persistent organic pollutants for instance, often called POPs.555

Another Earth system problem is the production and the environmental release of highly reactive molecules that contain some of the toxic or radioactive heavy metals. These organic compounds can be transported through water and the atmosphere to some of the most remote parts of the Earth system. Mercury is one very concrete example. Volatile organomercury compounds are emitted into the atmosphere and they can be transported and they expose ecosystems, and human populations, to very high levels of pollution very far away from their original sources.

Here we have a few other examples where Earth system functioning has already been impacted by human technological capability to produce new chemical substances. They’ve all had serious, if not necessarily catastrophic yet, impacts. You’re probably familiar with the problem of the chlorofluorocarbons, the CFCs, that led to the depletion of atmospheric ozone in the upper layers of the atmosphere.

They’re also powerful long-lived greenhouse gases, so in that sense they’re chemical substances that interfere with the physical functioning of the Earth system.

Another very well known example is the problem of DDT, a synthetic pesticide that kills agricultural pests and mosquitoes, but many other organisms too. DDT accumulates in fatty tissues and so it can be carried through the food chain. It persists for years in soils and sediments. It has now become a globally distributed problem and it has fundamentally changed the way that ecological processes happen in the Earth system.

As a result of planetary experiments like these we know that particular traits make novel entities a problem in the Earth system. Toxicity is important but we must take a big picture view that goes beyond just the effects on individual organisms through to ecosystems and actually the whole planet. Problem substances persist in the environment. This means that they can be transported large distances around the world, either in living organisms or through water in the atmosphere. We see systemic effects when these substances accumulate in living tissue. For instance, the problem of bioaccumulation makes substances become more concentrated as you work up the food chain. So, some of our keystone species in ecosystems are the ones that are most vulnerable.

Another important trait in this is the very high risk of irreversibility. Sometimes this is just because a problem has become globally distributed and we can’t deal with it directly, but in other ways it’s because we have passed a physical or an ecological tipping point in the way that the Earth system functions.

All of this means that we are still no closer practically to achieving a single quantitative boundary value for chemical pollution or these other novel entities. A major practical obstacle is the sheer variety of chemical substances, of radioactive substances, and of the many forms that these substances take once they’ve been released into the environment and are subject to chemical and biological changes.

Because of this colleagues at Stockholm University, and many places around the world, are working on defining principles that will let us identify planetary risks associated with the creation of these novel entities and their release into the environment.

We really want to improve the way that we screen for hazards, and the way that we manage and monitor environmental changes caused by novel and synthetic substances in the environment. One of the big implications of this is that we simply must halt the environmental release of the most problematic substances.

556The big challenge is we don’t know which those substances are usually until it’s too late and the impacts are already seen in the environment. So this also means that we must apply the precautionary principle much better.

The risks of environmental change are not known very often with some of the compounds that we’re creating, and certainly with many of the compounds and technologies that we’re capable of creating. We, here at SRC, and in many of our global change partner organizations, [are] encouraging dialogue about this new area of research.

It requires new interactions between science, and policy, and business, and actually between everybody in society, because we’re all exposed to these new global risks and we need to deal with them together.