Arquivo de etiquetas: fronteiras

Antropoceno XXIII – As 4 fronteiras silenciosas


In last  five posts we’ve gone through the big planetary boundaries of climate change, ocean acidification, and stratospheric ozone depletion. Naw will  be covering the remaining six planetary boundaries.

This is a really exciting module where we will be exploring the boundaries on biodiversity loss, freshwater use, land use change, our interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorous cycle, aerosol loading, and novel entities of chemical pollution.



Antropoceno XXII – A Fronteira do Ozono

All life on Earth depends on the extraordinarily thin layer of livable atmosphere which envelopes the biosphere in our Earth system. But above the atmosphere in the high atmosphere, roughly ten to fifty kilometers above ground, we have the stratospheric ozone layer.464

And the stratospheric ozone layer is a protective shield that enables life on Earth by reflecting back harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. So clearly the ozone layer is a planetary boundary enabling human prosperity and development on Earth.

The stratospheric ozone layer has for a long time been understood as being absolutely essential for living conditions on Earth. And in the early ’80s scientists started to observe something absolutely extraordinary namely a rapid, abrupt drop in the thickness of the ozone layer.461

This was a huge surprise, in fact scientists even thought it was an error in the scientific observations. But through fantastic research by top scientists in the interface between atmospheric research and chemistry soon it was proven that the reason for this depletion was that certain chemicals that we used as refrigerants, as solvents, propellants, the whole family of chlorofluorocarbons were moving up the atmosphere through high winds and reacting with ozone and – and breaking these molecules apart and thereby depleting the stratospheric ozone layer, threatening life on Earth, and particularly health for humans, by risks of rising skin cancer, cataracts and damage also on vegetation, food production systems on Earth.463

This led in the mid-1980s to the extraordinary step where the world gathered around a protocol, the famous Montreal Protocol, to ban chlorofluorocarbons from use in refrigerators. And this in turn has led to a success story where a boundary of ozone depletion was transgressed in the early ’90s and now we’re actually moving into a safe operating space, showing that humanity in fact can collectively as all nations on Earth work together to operate within a safe operating space.463

So we are moving in the right direction on ozone, but what is very important to recognize is that we’re still observing an ozone hole, particularly over the polar regions, and the classic ozone hole is in Antarctica, which is due to the combination of ozone depleting substances, continued emissions of chemicals, but also the fact that the sins of the 1980s are still haunting us because of the delay time in much of these chemical reactions, which is also a reminder that, uh, we need to apply the core thinking of planetary boundary theory which is a precautionary principle, because what we do today, which we sometimes do not even understand, can have a harmful effect on the Earth system, can actually come back and hit us many, many decades later.

I’ll give you a small example that comes from the Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, who was one of the three scientists observing the depletion of the ozone layer in the early 1980s. The industry at the time had a choice of two molecules to develop the refrigerating chemicals that were used worldwide, either chlorine or bromine. And just so happened by pure coincidence that the industry chose chlorine. That was very lucky for humanity because it just so happens that chlorine has several magnitudes lower harmful effect on ozone. If the industry in the early ’80s instead has chosen, or rather in the early ’60s all the way up to the ’80s when we banned the chemicals, had chosen bromine as the carrier of refrigerating systems across the world we most likely would have had a catastrophic tipping point that would have undermined human development on Earth.464

So that’s an example of how close we were of what we can call a planetary scale disaster, and why thinking in terms of defining planetary boundaries is so essential. Science has come to a point where we are at a position where we can define a control variable, which we have chosen as the thickness of the column of ozone across the planet.

And this gives us a very good, robust, science-based definition of how much we must maintain in terms of ozone, and thereby also translating that to avoiding chemicals that can destroy the ozone layer.

Is the problem finally resolved? Well the answer is unfortunately no. The most damaging chemicals used in the early ’80s are not on the market any longer, but we’re using other types of refrigerants, and methane is a compound that also poses a threat to the stratospheric ozone layer, and we see other emerging novel entities that could actually threaten the ozone layer, reminding us that planetary boundary processes do interact, and one very strategic way of protecting the ozone layer is also to have a strong boundary on chemical pollution.

Antropoceno XX – a Fronteira das Alterações Climáticas

In this lecture we provide scientific evidence why climate change is a planetary boundary, and the basis for defining the boundary for climate change.

It originates, not surprisingly, from the fantastic scientific explorations of our recent paleoclimatic conditions on Earth, again the stable climatic state we’ve had in the Holocene, shown here over the past 2000 years of reconstruction of temperature which varies at a maximum of +/- 1 degree or 2 degrees Celsius.


And as you see at the end the extraordinarily rapid pace of temperature rise in the world over just the past 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution, and our initial large scale emission of greenhouse gases from our industrial development.

This is the basis for the fundamental evidence that builds up the arguments around climate change. It becomes even more dramatic if you connect the past with the future, which is shown in the next graph showing the IPCC projections up until the end of this century.

And it’s absolutely extraordinary to see the Holocene stability which is again this churning up and down with a +/- 1 degree Celsius, and the fact that we are today heading on average along a pathway that will take us to in the order of 4 degrees Celsius warming during this century. And I think it’s absolutely clear just from this graph that we are at risk of pushing ourselves very rapidly outside of the Holocene stability.442

Now up until today we have already increased global average temperature levels within the order of 0.8-0.9 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years.

What you see here is the distribution of that heat across the planet based on modeling and observations, and what you see is that in fact many regions in the northern hemisphere have actually even more warming already today, which is for example affecting one of the regulating systems, namely the polar regions in terms of its feedbacks in the stability of the Earth system.

The next insight building up the evidence for a climate boundary is that sea level rise is occurring at the pace of the projections we have or even faster. In fact much of the evidence today points at the risk of us underestimating the pace of sea level rise, particularly because we’ve underestimated the rate of melting which potentially could be irreversible in parts of Antarctica.443

We’re also seeing unfortunately increasing robust analysis looking into the future that we’re following what I would actually call a disastrous pathway that leads us on average to three, four, potentially even higher, warming in this century. And that is coming out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last, the most recent 5th assessment.

And here you see the synthesis graph showing the different scenarios to the future. The red line is the pathway that takes the world towards a totally undesired not Holocene-like state of 4 degrees C warming, and we know unfortunately that we’re following this path. So this is again increasingly showing that we need to do something very rapidly in putting a boundary on climate change to avoid moving outside of a desired state.445

The next piece of analysis is related to the risk of tipping points and risk. And here science is advancing in a very profound way. We’re understanding the climate system much, much more in detail, and particularly how the climate system interacts with the other planetary boundary processes such as land, water, oceans, and biodiversity.

And this graph may seem a little bit complex, but it’s a really important insight that is coming out of the three last IPCC assessments. So what you see here is a risk assessment shown in red ambers, which has become a seminal and very famous set of graphs, of the risk analysis of the 3rd assessment to the left, the 4th assessment in the middle, and the most recent 5th assessment to the right. And what I want you to look particularly to is the column furthest to the right in each assessment which has a small darkened little block attached to it, which is the assessed risk from science of large scale discontinuities.446

To put it in simple language, the risk of human-induced catastrophic tipping points. So this is the risk of us destabilizing the entire monsoon system, or irreversibly melting the Greenland ice sheet. And if you look carefully in the third assessment the risk of such large-scale discontinuities was assessed to occur at a point where the warming reached in the order of 4 degrees C. So on the Y-axis you have average temperature at which we risk these kind of catastrophic tipping points. But as knowledge advances, as our understanding of [how] the complex Earth has evolved, just a few years later in 2007 with the fourth assessment, as you’d see if you look carefully the threshold at which catastrophic tipping points can occur is down in the range of 2-3 degrees C.447

And now in the most recent 2013 fifth assessment you see that the assessment from science is that these kind of large-scale discontinuities could actually occur even lower – in the order of 2 degrees C warming. And the reason why this is occurring is that we’re understanding more and more about resilience, about the risks that we have surprise and thresholds in the Earth system. And this to me is the most fundamental piece of evidence showing that a planetary boundary approach on climate is absolutely necessary because for one, at already very low temperature rises we today have evidence enough to say that the likelihood of large scale catastrophic changes is highly probable. And secondly, it’s highly uncertain. It’s so complex that we need to apply a precautionary principle where a boundary position is a position of safety beyond which we enter this area of uncertainty. And just to really hammer that point home, when you translate the latest assessment of the IPCC, our 5th assessment in terms of risk, something absolutely astonishing falls out.

We are today, in 2014, at a concentration of greenhouse gases for all gases, so carbon dioxide plus the other gases including methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and the short-lived climate forcers, including soot and sulfates and organic carbon, we are at 450 ppm.

Now we have taken the data in the IPCC and just translated them in probability of reaching different degrees at 450 ppm, and that is shown in this graph.

So on the X-axis you have temperatures and on the Y-axis you have the probability of reaching that degree of temperature at 450 ppm, at our current concentration of greenhouse gases. And look at the point which I’ve put on this graph which is 6 degrees C. I’ve taken an extreme warming, 6 degrees C is something totally outside of anything we can imagine, it’s an uninhabitable planet, it’s a degree of warming which any person, even a climate skeptic, would agree is totally unacceptable for humanity.

What’s the probability at 450 ppm according to the latest IPCC that we reach 6 degrees C Well on the Y-axis you see that the probability is a staggering 1.6%. Now what does a percentage, a probability of 1.6% mean? Well to give you and equivalent it would be the same as accepting that we have 1,500 aircrafts crashing every day. So it’s a probability level for catastrophic events, which in in any other sector of society would never, ever accept.

In fact, some of  the large reinsurance companies after the IPCC released its report, clearly pointed out that we’re reaching a point of risk which goes beyond the point where they potentially can no longer issue, insurances because they can not be liable for the large scale costs that would be incurred if these kind of catastrophic events would be allowed to happen. So we’re entering truly a danger zone with regards to climate.

This is shown clearly in the next slide here on our analysis of how much forcing we are loading on the climate system. So what you see here is the last half million years how we are able to reconstruct in a very, very adequate way how much greenhouse gases we have in the atmosphere, how much forcing that includes. Forcing is the amount of watts, the energy that is trapped per square meter because of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And look at the future.

What you see here is how we are rapidly moving out of the Holocene, moving out into a forcing and temperature rise which is way, way outside of the Holocene equilibrium. Now when we all take all this science together and synthesize it to define the boundary, we then apply our theory of a safe operating space, an uncertainty zone, and a danger zone, and we find that the science indicates that at the range of between 350 ppm and 450 ppm the science is well in agreement that here we have a risk of crossing catastrophic thresholds. And therefore we apply the boundary at the safe lower end of that uncertainty which is 350 ppm for carbon dioxide. And there you have it, that’s the way we place the boundary for climate change.

Antropoceno XIX – A quantificação das Fronteiras do Planeta

431Now that we’ve identified the nine planetary boundary processes, the large scale processes  of climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, the slow variables of rate of biodiversity loss, interference with the nitrogen and phosphorous cycle, land use change, freshwater use, and the two heavily human-induced risks around chemical pollution, aerosol loading, the challenge arises of defining quantitatively the boundary position for each one of these processes which distinguishes between a safe operating space and entering a danger zone where we have a higher probability of crossing tipping points which would take us away from a safe Holocene state.

Now in exploring that work, we look at the vast evidence in the latest science and try to identify first of all a control variable, an indicator or a parameter that regulates each process.432

So for climate change, for example, it falls naturally to choose the concentration of greenhouse gases, and for each boundary we do the same.

And once we’ve identified a control variable, we try with the best of our knowledge to identify the point at which science indicates that we approach and are at risk of crossing a tipping point.

And that’s the way we pursue for each of the boundaries the exploration of positioning the quantifications of a safe operating space for humanity within the Holocene state. And the theory here is relatively simple but fundamentally important. And it’s shown in this graph of our – where we distinguish between the safe operating space in green, an uncertainty zone or a danger zone in yellow, and entering a zone of danger in red.

So what we’re doing for each boundary process is one, trying to identify a control variable which is a good indicator or proxy for the stability of a system.

So for example for the climate system we’ve identified climate forcing in – defined in the number of watts per square meter of increased heat in the atmosphere, and also carbon dioxide concentration as two good control variables for the climate system. And then we scan off all the scientific literature to try and – and explore what does science say today about the point beyond which, in terms in this case concentration of carbon dioxide, we may risk abrupt and irreversible tipping points which could push the Earth system outside of an Holocene-like state.433

But the trick is that science of course is associated with large uncertainties, and will always continue to be associated with uncertainty, not necessarily only because we don’t understand the climate system in exact system but because all planetary boundaries interact to a point where it’s extremely complicated to put an exact point at which you cross a tipping point.

That causes and generates what we’ve called a zone of uncertainty, essentially a standard deviation in science. And that zone of uncertainty is the zone of uncertainty within science defined here as the yellow range. And somewhere in that yellow range we, with a very high probability, have the threshold, the point where the system crosses a tipping point.

Now here the planetary boundary theory takes its first and only normative stance. We have decided as a proposition in the planetary boundary framework to position the boundary at the lower end of the scientific uncertainty. This is applying a precautionary principle.434

I mean you could, theoretically at least, place your boundary at the upper end of the uncertainty zone and – and rather have a more optimization-based approach. But we feel that it’s a very risky approach to take because we fear that somewhere in that yellow zone science indicates that we have thresholds that – with a very high likelihood will occur.

So the boundary position is at the lower end, and that gives us the green space below, so to say, when we stay below the control variable position we’re in a safe operating space. The upper end of the uncertainty zone then performs the threshold between the zone of uncertainty and a clear zone of high danger.

And that gives you the three positions in this graph, a safe operating space, an uncertainty zone, and a point beyond which we are a very high risk of crossing tipping points.

The reason why we have shown two graphs here is that for the systems where we have large scale tipping points we do try to explore exactly the point at which we had evidence of thresholds.

But for those processes such as land system change or fresh water use where there’s no evidence of planetary scale tipping points the change when we, for example, start overusing water or degrading land is that the system gradually becomes more and more degraded.435

The response of the system is not associated, at least not as we know, with an abrupt threshold. What we try to identify then is the point at which evidence suggests that if we push the system even further, if we cut down even more forest, the feedback into for example the climate system is such that it could push the climate system across a tipping point. And that then becomes the point where we put the boundary.

So we have one set of boundaries defined on the point along a control variable beyond which the feedbacks can damage other systems, and for those systems which have thresholds we put the boundary at the point beyond which we actually can have a threshold.

So that is the fundamental thinking around planetary boundary theory, and I would very much encourage everyone to look at the literature around this which explains this very clearly.

Now what’s then the result? Well the result is in the following graph showing the nine planetary boundaries which when quantified, and in the original publication we made attempts of quantifying seven of the nine boundaries, we felt that we did not have evidence enough to quantify either the aerosol loading boundary nor the chemical pollutions or novel entities boundary.

But for this– the remaining seven we proposed quantitative boundary levels which they creates the safe operating space you see here on the graph.

And our original analysis showed that for three of these boundaries, which is indicated in the – in the red areas here which define our current state for each boundary, that we have transgressed and entered the danger zone for climate change, the rate of biodiversity loss, and the human interference with the global nitrogen and – for the global nitrogen cycle. In fact for phosphorus we estimate that we’re still within the safe operating space.

So this is to illustrate the way we can apply planetary boundary thinking, that if we can use science to define the boundary levels beyond which we can push the system outside of a stability domain we can actually monitor and keep track of where we are with regards to all the boundaries.

Now I really want to emphasize finally that because we are beyond a safe operating space for, for example, climate does not mean that have crossed the tipping point, it just means that we’re in a zone where we can potentially see tipping points occurring.

And unfortunately the observations we’re making, for example, both on biodiversity, climate and certainly on nitrogen, is in fact that we are inducing tipping points and potentially also have the start of irreversible change at the larger scale.

Now these estimates are all summarized scientifically in quite substantive scientific tables which are provided in the literature which is associated with the course we’re giving.

So I would very much encourage anyone to, say, following this lecture to also explore in more detail the contents and the quantifications as presented in the original table that we have in the 2009 publication, and I’d also like to flag that we’re right now currently, in August 2014, working on an update of a planetary boundary 2.0 which will provide the scientific update on the quantifications of the boundaries, a certain amount of refinement of the boundary definitions, and even attempts to quantify those unquantified boundaries which we had in the 2009 analysis.

Now in the final graph here you see the numbers that we had in the original publication. And you see here the – the boundary position, but also the uncertainty range which is then the uncertainty range in science.

And what you see here is, for example, estimates which for climate change is actually quite robust, or very robust, in terms of scientific evidence, that when we pass a concentration of carbon dioxide of 350 ppm – we are today at 398-99 – we enter a danger zone and we’re starting to see evidence of abrupt changes in both Greenland, inland glaciers, ocean acidification related to climate forcing, and changes in Antarctica.

Then we have a few boundary definitions which are more tentative. For example on nitrogen the definition we took at the original analysis was set at maximum amount of uptake of nitrogen from the atmosphere for fertilizer of thirty-five million tons of nitrogen per year.

That is roughly one-fifth of our current uptake from the atmosphere. Humans are the largest interference of the global nitrogen cycle, all categories. In fact our modern agriculture takes out more nitrogen in the atmosphere than the entire biosphere does naturally.

This number is based on a first best guess, and we’re working very actively to update this, but it shows at least that we’re able to take the first stab at identifying what are the safe boundary levels even for such complicated processes, which clearly are key for the resilience of the Earth system, in terms of defining quantitative safe levels.

And the science is – is advancing as we speak. In fact since the 2009 publication there’s a very, very broad set of fantastic, uh, groups of scientists who have critically assessed these first numbers and improved them, and in almost all instances come up with even better, um, proposals of quantifications, and that synthesis is – is something that we’re building on to continue [to] develop this framework, which increasingly has a very strong resonance out in both science, policy and business, and therefore also in its application in different sectors of society.

Antropoceno XVIII -As Fronteiras do Planeta

Justification for the planetary boundary selection

What makes a planetary boundary process a planetary boundary process?  Well, the key criteria that have to be fulfilled is that it’s an environmental process that is part of regulating the ability of the Earth system to remain in our current desired state, the Holocene equilibrium that has enabled human development of the past 10 000 years. 421

Together with scientists across the world we plunged into this challenge over several years of enquiry to try and identify what are all the environmental processes that qualify to this criterion of being absolutely fundamental in regulating the resilience and stability of our desired state of the planet? And the result is nine planetary boundary processes.

And I can tell you that this enquiry was extremely challenging, and we turned every stone of evidence to see what are the processes that could qualify to play this role? And we were actually ourselves surprised that there were only nine processes rather than 20 or 30 processes.

And this was put out, and it’s been put out for scrutiny for several years, and there’s so far not been any scientific suggestion of adding a tenth or eleventh process, or taking away one of the nine. So we’re today quite confident that if humanity can manage these nine processes within safe boundaries we have a very high likelihood of enabling a prosperous future for humanity on a stable planet.422

Among these nine processes we have different types of planetary boundary processes, some of which have scientific evidence of planetary scale tipping points, some of them which do not have evidence of planetary scale tipping points, but which under the hood of the Earth system regulate the stability of those who have global scale tipping points, or that they have themselves sub-planetary scale tipping points at the ecosystem or biome scale, which if they cross tipping points at enough places in the world simultaneously could cause an impact at the planetary scale.

And this is why we define them as different categories of planetary scale and slow variables, which do not have evidence of global scale tipping points. And scientific evidence exploring the paleo record of how oceans have developed in the geological history of Earth indicates that oceans have large scale planetary level tipping points related to acidification, which makes oceans qualify as a planetary scale boundary process.423

The planetary boundary process is an environmental process that is fundamental in regulating the ability of planet Earth to remain in the Holocene-like state. And the scientific enquiry here has then been exploring and deepening our understanding of what are the different processes that determine, for example, the ability for the climate to stay stable; for our polar regions to stay as they are today for the ability of our forests and oceans and land areas to continue to produce both food, air quality, and fresh water as it has been doing for the past 10 000 years. And in doing that and sharing that analysis with international leading scientists across the world the result is nine planetary boundary processes.

Now what is fundamentally important to recognize is that to be and to fulfill the criterion of a planetary boundary process does not require that that process is associated with a planetary scale tipping point. The key is what are the processes that regulate the ability of the entire planet to stay in the Holocene? But among the nine processes that we’ve identified, three of them have evidence of planetary scale tipping points, as shown in this graph.424

That is the climate system. Clearly we know that in the past history of the Earth system the climate system has been pushing the entire planet in and out of glacial and interglacial periods, for example.

Ocean acidification is another such process where we see paleoscientific evidence that the entire ocean can go from anoxic to oxic events, so basically oxygen-free or oxygen-rich states, that the ocean can actually flip between different stable states.

And clearly the stratospheric ozone layer, which is the protective layer in the upper atmosphere, which protects the entire biosphere from harmful radiation from the Sun.

But then we have, perhaps more surprisingly, six processes that science now believes qualify as planetary boundaries but which don’t have planetary scale tipping points. And they fulfill the criterion for two reasons. One is that they play a fundamental role in regulating whether or not the large-scale processes potentially could cross a tipping point. So for example land use systems, fresh water use, and biodiversity, which are fundamental in providing the capacity of land areas to be carbon sinks, and if that ability is not there climate system would very rapidly cross a tipping point. And another example is the ability of land areas to sequester and keep nutrient flows intact as a way of regulating the amount of different pollutants in the air.

So among the processes which have this ability of operating under the hood of the Earth system and regulate its ability to stay in the Holocene we’ve identified four, which are biosphere processes forming part of planetary boundaries.

One is the interference, or the way we manage the large biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, which together with carbon are the big cycles in the world.

Atmospheric aerosol loading, which is the amount of soot and pollutants in the air, which in turn regulates the stability of the large rainfall systems, for example in tropical regions, such as the monsoon.

Global fresh water use, which is one a significant greenhouse gas, as water vapor, but also the fundamental role of water as the bloodstream of the entire biosphere, regulating the amount of biomass which in turn regulates the amount of carbon in the entire Earth system.

Land use change, which is the fundamental fabric for all living species on Earth.

And biodiversity, the genetic diversity from animals and vegetation and trees, forests, which overall determine the ability of the biosphere to cope with and adapt to changing conditions on Earth.

Now finally we also identify that there is most likely one final ninth planetary boundary, which we originally defined as chemical pollution, and increasingly talk of as new entities.

This is the recognition from increasing evidence, despite its complexity, that the cocktail of chemical accumulation in the biosphere could potentially cause major shifts in for example the genetic composition of species on Earth, which could be a tipping point in terms of life conditions on Earth.

So overall therefore nine planetary boundaries: three of which have evidence of large scale tipping points; climate, stratospheric ozone layer, and ocean acidification; four boundaries which operate a little bit more at the smaller scale but regulating the Earth system: biodiversity, land, water, nutrients, and fresh water; and two boundaries which are very heavily anthropogenically caused: both air pollution, which we call aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.

Now are there tipping points among these that operate below planetary scale? And the answer is yes, so that’s the second criterion why even those that do not have planetary scale tipping points qualify as planetary boundaries.

For example, biodiversity loss is increasingly shown to be involved in tipping points at ecosystem scale. And in the Anthropocene we see the risk that we can have tipping points occurring in so many places in the world that they aggregate into becoming a planetary concern.

So it’s not necessarily so that a system has to have one tipping point at the planetary scale, you can have multiple tipping points, and if they occur in enough places simultaneously they actually add up to a potential influence and impact factor at the Earth system as a whole. So there you have it in a nutshell where the planetary boundaries originate from.

The antropocene V – Holoceno e Antropoceno

Where we introduced the big picture, the science behind the evidence showing that we can welcome humanity to the Anthropocene, the Quadruple Squeeze on planet Earth, and the Great Acceleration of the human enterprise.

This coming week, we’ll now explor211e the Anthropocene in much more depth, digging ourselves into the different perspectives and visions on the Anthropocene. Professor Garry Peterson, one of our senior head researchers in regime shifts at the Stockholm Resilience Centre will be joining us this week. And please don’t miss our first hangout at the end of this module.

To understand the human predicament in the globalized phase of environmental change, in a situation where we recognize increasingly that the Earth system self-regulates its stability and that it could push itself away from its current stable state if we trigger the planetary system too far. We must explore something profoundly important in order to help us in the pursuit of global sustainable development, namely to identify what is the desired state of planet Earth?212

We often illustrate it in the following way, namely showing in different cups the stable states that an ecosystem, or in this case the entire planetary system, can reside in. So one of the largest and most important questions for science today is what is the desired state of planet Earth to support the modern world as we know it? And what is really exciting is that science increasingly shows that we have an answer to this question.

And the answer originates, not surprisingly, from paleoclimatic data on ice cores. Now you’ve probably seen this set of data, the fantastic evidence going all the way back almost 1 million years, here at the ice core data going back 800,000 years, showing temperature variability over this period, and the twisting and churning of the Earth system in and out of two stable states; namely, the deep glacial states, the cold, lower points in these graphs that often have a duration of roughly 120-150,000 years, separated by relatively short periods of interglacial warm periods where we have essentially an ice-free state of the planet with ice in the caps.213

Now what is really interesting with this graph is to look particularly at the last two interglacial periods. You see the label Eemian, and then you see the label Holocene. Holocene is the period that we are in right now, the period where we’ve been for the past 10,000 years. But the last time we had a warm interglacial is the Eemian, roughly 120,000 years back. Now this period is interesting because over several thousand years it was two degrees warmer than what we have today in the Holocene. And research shows quite clearly that during that period of 2 degrees Celsius warmer than what we have today in the world of the Holocene, sea levels were in the order of 4-6 meters higher than today.

And this is to me an enormously clear reminder that the Earth system actually has stayed over very long periods of time within very narrow bands of environmental boundaries or levels, and that even small changes can lead to very, very abrupt and large shifts in life conditions on Earth, in this case manifested at sea level rise.214

What you also observe from this curve is something quite extraordinary. On the Y axis you see that temperatures on average change with only +/-4 degrees Celsius, and that’s the difference between having two kilometers of ice above our heads, and the warm, lush environmental conditions that we are so used to in the world of today.

So this is one reminder of the extraordinarily important insight that the environmental conditions on Earth vary and that we have stable states. But let’s not go into trying to answer the question of what is our desired state.

Then we can go into exactly the same data, which is shown here, but only over the past 100,000 years. So this is the last 100,000 years on Earth, again on the Y axis showing variability of temperature, a good proxy of how it was to live on Earth. And what you’ll see now is that this was indeed over almost the entire period a very jumpy ride for humanity indeed.215

We were hunters and gatherers during this period. We were a few million people and we had a very rough time because predominantly because of these enormously rapid jumps between very cold and very warm periods.

It’s an interesting period because we were modern humans during the entire phase, so we had the same ability, both physically and intellectually, to develop civilization as we know it.216

Recent genetic paleoanthropological data shows in fact that the cold point that you might there at roughly 75,000 years back when we had hundreds of meters lower sea level than today and most of the fresh water in the world tied up as ice in the polar regions, we’re probably down to only 15,000 fertile adults on Earth. We were hidden in the Ethiopian highlands and we had a very rough time of survival. We were essentially extinct. And we go through this entire very tough period and enter then this final stable phase which is shown in a circle here which we have learned in school to call the Holocene.

The Holocene is an extraordinarily stable phase for human development. In fact temperatures vary with only +/-1 degrees Celsius. And even though the genetic diversity has been around for millions, often hundreds of millions of years, it is now that everything we know in terms of ecosystems, nature, the biosphere, settles in.

This is where the rainforest, the coral reef systems, the temperate forests, all the wetlands, settle in and establish themselves very permanently in the state that we know. It is now the rainy seasons become predictable. It is now in the northern temperate zone we know that we have almost every year a hundred days of temperature, which allows us to grow food. It is now in the tropical regions we have a hundred days of secure rainfall, allowing ourselves to be able to produce food. And not surprisingly we barely enter the Holocene and what do we do?218

We embark on the most important invention of all time; we invent agriculture. And the exciting thing is that we invent agriculture right at the start of the Holocene in at least four different places simultaneously on Earth. And because we didn’t have SMS or e-mail or chat rooms it’s absolutely proven that this occurred entirely independent of each other, and because of the stable environmental conditions on Earth.

We go into the civilizational development starting off with agriculture, the Mesopotamian empires, the Egyptian empires, the Maya, the Chinese, the Latin American civilizations develop all the way to the great acceleration in the mid-1950s. We’re three billion people and then off we go in the Great Acceleration. We’re 7 billion people today, committed to 9 billion people.

And the scientific conclusion of this single graph is as simple as it is dramatic, that the Holocene is the only stable state of the Earth that we know can support the modern world as we know it.

We can live outside of the Holocene, the planet isn’t bothered, but we would probably not have any chance to support the modern world as we know it, soon with nine billion co-citizens.219

Now this simplifies life tremendously for humanity because we know the Holocene very well. We can define very well the environmental conditions that we need to fulfill in order to remain stable in the Holocene. We understand the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, the big ecosystems, and this helps us tremendously in defining global sustainability.

Now the proof that we have had major problems during this period are shown in this graph showing the very large exodus that we were triggered or forced to embark on during periods of often very, very cold, dry, and food security-wise challenging situations for humanity. We also know during this period from data from Greenland that the jumps in temperature could be 10-15 degrees Celsius over just periods of decades.

In fact we have 25 such abrupt shifts over just the past 100,000 years, as evidence that it was a very, very difficult ride for humanity during this cold period before entering the Anthropocene.

So overall we need to recognize that the biomes and ecosystems in the world sustain and support the Holocene state of the world. That systems such as rainforests that regulate the carbon sinks in large parts of the rainforest systems, and the rainfall systems regionally; that we have coral reef systems that also regulate the resilience in the ocean, and the ability to circulate heat, and the ability to take up carbon dioxide; the large permafrost regions holding vast amounts of methane; the temperate forest regions that provide a canopy that reflects back heat back into space through its darker colour, but also massive carbon sinks; the systems on the savannahs which in turn regulate large parts of heat fluxes, rainfall trajectories, and also carbon sinks; are all systems that together form part of regulating the stable state of the Holocene.130a

And the conclusion is that we understand the Holocene, we need to preserve the Holocene, and the Holocene is the state that we know can support human development in the future.

The antropocene IV – The Great acceleration

It is a very profound, not to say dramatic, insight that we’ve now entered the globalized phase of environmental change, that we are now a big world on a small planet. And I can tell you that from science this has been something that has been emerging of the enormous advancements in research over the past 10-15 years. And it’s just very recently, just over past 5-10 years that the syntheses in all the data have been put together. It’s not something we’ve known for a very long time. 131

And now I’ll be presenting to you the very latest evidence that proves that we have entered a completely new era. So this is story, the scientific story, of the Great Acceleration.

Now the Great Acceleration starts with the enormous expansion of human exploitation on the world. We see it from urbanization, we see it from the fact that we’ve transformed 40% of land area into food production, and it’s all translating now into data, which looks as follows.

On these graphs here you see from the Industrial Revolution until today the exponential rise for everything that we value in terms of welfare and development, from population growth, economic growth, but even to the number of our paper consumption, and telephone use, and tourism, motor vehicle rising. And you all see the exact same exponential shape.132

But it all translates to an enormous pressure on planet Earth. So the graphs on exactly every key process in the environment, be it biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, deforestation, ocean acidification, air pollution, overuse, and eutrophication of lakes and waterways through overloading of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, they look exactly the same way as in this right-hand plate. The exponential curves of pressure over the past fifty years.

So this is the drama, that the Great Acceleration is based not on theory or models, it’s based on real world observations of the exponential rise of pressures on essentially every parameter that matters for our own human well-being. If you put all these curves into one curve it looks like this.

Up until roughly the mid-1950s, in fact, we had quite limited pressure on the planet as a whole. It’s not as if we haven’t caused major environmental damage, even disasters, in the history of humanity. In fact, environmental change has had, and caused, and contributed to the collapse of the Mesopotamian irrigation societies, the Maya culture, major, major disruptions. But these were local to regional consequences.133

From the mid-1950s onwards we start the exponential rise to the point where we’re today risking the entire stability of the Earth system. The warnings came early, as you all are aware, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the early 1960s, with The Limits of Growth from the Club of Rome in 1972. But if you would plot those little points on this graph, and I would urge anyone to do that, you’ll see that, perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising that conventional economists, and policymakers, and business leaders actually criticized and questioned these warnings, which came so early, insightfully, way before we had the evidence. You know, the curve, which had barely started to rise, could actually go anywhere in the future.

But today we are at the top of that exponential curve. Today we’re sitting on a mountain of empirical evidence that we are causing a vast, large global experiment on planet Earth. We are in fact the first generation to know that we’re undermining the ability of the Earth system to support human development.134

This is a profound new insight. It is not very, very scary potentially. It is also an enormous privilege because it means that we’re the first generation to know we need to change. We’re the first generation to know that we now need to navigate a transformation to a global sustainable future. And this is where the real excitement arises, that sustainable solutions exist to be able to carry out that transition.

Now this all comes across as relatively theoretical when we look at these large curves of exponential pressure. But they do translate immediately to, for example, measurable temperature rise, which has risen in the order of 0.6 degrees Celsius just over the past thirty, forty years, 1degree C over the past hundred years, causing already today challenges for the world economy.

And we see it from the empirical data in terms of temperature trends across the world, and we get it documented in scientific synthesis, such as the latest update from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So there’s an enormous amount of evidence to support the conclusion that we are in the Great Acceleration, and need a great transformation.135

But it’s not only about the environment. So here you see a joint set of curves showing on the right-hand side what I previously showed you, the exponential pressures in terms of biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide, fertilizer use, etc. But you see on the very left-hand side you see curves that are very similar to this trend. The upper one is the trend on obesity and stuntness.

We have today a world with almost 1 billion obese and over 1 billion of absolutely malnourished, a trend where the obesity is rising, and lifestyle-related diseases are rapidly moving in the wrong direction.

The second graph shows antibiotic resistance in our food producing systems. So we are today aware of the fact that agriculture is the world’s largest single source of the negative exponential rise in environmental pressures. But it also has tremendous health implications in terms of everything from lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases, in terms of the exponential rise in the world of, for example Diabetes Type 1. But also in rising risks because were situating ourselves in a position where antibiotic, which is used very intensively in livestock production, can no longer securely help us treat very basic diseases.136

So it’s a complex again where we need to understand in an integrated way the social, ecological, the health, human well-being, and environmental changes we’re posing and subjecting ourselves to in this situation of a Great Acceleration.

To add to the challenge we need to recognize that we have two giants colliding right at this very moment. Because you see the pressures we’ve discussed so far are only, so to say, manifesting the degree to which we’re putting pressure on the planet.137

The big question, of course, is how planet Earth responds. So the first giant that we now need to face is the recognition that these pressures translate increasingly to risks of abrupt tipping points that the Earth system may respond by suddenly and irreversibly undermining the ability, for example, of forests, land areas, and oceans to deliver to the economy.

But the second giant, which is colliding right as we speak, is something that we often underestimate. The global curves I’ve showed so far, the exponential rise of pressures have at large been caused by the rich minority on planet Earth, the 1.5 billion affluent people that have been largely part of the Industrial Revolution and its success so far.138

It is now we’re going to scale with the ability of all citizens on the Earth to have a right to development, and that adds up to a completely new magnitude of pressures. But you should also recognize that we need to translate that to the reverse, namely the ethics of providing the right for all inhabitants to have an equal access to the ecological, the remaining ecological space in the world.

And that is one of the key challenges we need to discuss much more in terms of defining development in the future. It also translates to exponential curves related to development.139

This is data showing a very similar exponential hockey stick curve, but showing water scarcity in the world. Over the same period as the Industrial Revolution we have almost, can you believe it, three billion people suffering from water scarcity, almost half of the world’s population. And the exponential curves you see in dotted lines here is a success story of trying to solve this problem. This is the expansion of dams, reservoirs, irrigation systems, boreholes, etc., showing that even though we have used technology as far as we ever can, we’re still chasing our own tail. We still have a very large proportion of people in the world suffering from water scarcity. So on top of all the challenges in the future we must recognize that we have an enormous challenge also related to the current situation in the world.

The same goes for energy. This is the exponential curve in energy use in the world, on the left-hand side originating from the Global Energy Assessment, a large assessment that was finished roughly 1.5-2 years back, showing that our economic development requires modern energy use. So we have this enormous challenge of a rising demand and use of energy, that we with nine billion people increasingly affluent must increase energy use, and at the same time we need a transition, shown in the right-hand graph, to a world which is largely free for emissions of carbon dioxide by mid-century to be able to stay below 2 degrees Celsius.130a

This is the grand challenge for humanity to be able to do this transition by bending these exponential curves in the Anthropocene.

But we’re not only facing negative exponential curves of pressures on the planet. We also have exponential curves of solutions, and, for example, to solve one of the world’s absolute largest challenges, the transition of the world’s energy system into a sustainable energy future, we are also seeing today almost a surprisingly rapid exponential rise of adoption of renewable energy systems.

And in these graphs you see examples of data showing the installations of solar PV systems and wind power systems just over the past twenty years. And up until just ten years back the rises were very slow, and now we’re on an exponential rise, which actually shows that for many economies in the world we’re starting to go to scale with renewable energy systems.

Exactly this opportunity of understanding the challenges, translating those to different forms of incentives and market-based regulations, policies, that can unleash innovation, not only in the energy system but also in terms of a transition to a sustainable food production, to a transition to circular business models in all types of industries, which can enable an exponential rise in sustainable solutions, which can enable us to bend the curves of negative change so that we enter the desired safe operating space of a stable planet.

Merging XV – Wicked Points

Os problemas incompletos traduzem questões contraditórias, com requisitos em transformação. Em geral são problemas sociais e culturais difíceis de se reconhecerem pela sua interdependência. Há quatro razões principais para esses impasses. A incompletude ou contradição entre os dados adicionados, o número de opiniões ou posições em jogo, os possíveis insuportáveis encargos financeiros e a natureza de intercalação desses problemas com outros problemas.

Em breve avancaremosmais neste  caminho.

Fronteiras XII – Mind Gap Teórico

O crescente número de crises desenvolveu uma nova especialidade em gestão de crises com envolvimento em especialistas ambientais. A ideia é criar novas maneiras de lidar com mudanças dramáticas nos sistemas ambientais. Gestão de crise como mudanças súbitas que envolvem espaços alargados, capazes de lidar com a surpresa.

A solução é a construção dum corpo espacializado em respostas sociais, capazes de atuar a diferentes níveis das administrações

No entanto, em cascata crises ecológicas não estão predestinados a levar a respostas que falharam. Não só um elemento central para a investigação em Estocolmo Resilience Centre, há um corpo crescente de literatura que explora o papel desempenhado pelas respostas sociais que constroem sobre a colaboração entre vários actores a vários níveis

“É impossível prever com precisão que tipo de crises ecológicas irão surgir no futuro ou quais os sectores que serão afectados. A única certeza é que eles acontecerão. Um desafio à investigação fundamental é, portanto, o de entender em que condições em que as instituições e o decisisores serão de lidar com a interação crises sociais e ecológicas e económicas.

Fronteiras XI – Tudo Está Ligado

A questão do aquecimento global tem sido vista como um processo linear, onde por efeito das emissões de Carbono e outros gases com efeito de estufa, o planeta tem vindo a aquecer. Os estudos estimam, que desde o início da Revolução Industrial, a temperatura média tenha aumentado no planete, em média, pelo menos 1 grau centigrado. Estima-se actualmente esse aquecimento, que é superior em determinados pontos, esteja a gerar o degelo das calotes polares, com efeito no aumento médio do nível das águas do mar, alterações no clima, com uma cada vez mais elevada ocorrência de eventos extremos, secas, inundações, ventos ciclónicos, etc.

A resposta que está a ser equacionada é que estes eventos podem ser preparados e a resposta, em situação de crise, podem remediar os danos. A questão é que não só estes eventos podem ocorrer sem que sejam detetados com antecedência, como podem gerar eventos em cascada, como quebrar gerais de produção de alimentos, alterações nos perfis dos factores de risco na saúde pública, novas espécies invasoras. O que temos vindo a perceber é que estes fenómenos estão interligados e geram efeitos em cascata, quer localmente, quer regional, ou em vários pontos do planeta.

Estes eventos extremos desafiam a tomada de decisões e capacidades de coordenação em vários níveis e ameaçam deixar os atores envolvidos em impases e situações de tensão para a a qual não existem respostas preparadas

Estas crises conhecem fronteiras e caracterizam-se por quando eclodem apanhar as partes interesasdas desprevenidas, ampliando os seus efeitos.

Fronteiras X – Crises sem fronteiras

As crises ecológicas súbitas podem gerar efeitos sociais devastadores e recomendam uma revisão nos processos de gestão de crises.

Actualmente assistimos a uma lista de crises. Guerras no Médio Oriente, a expansão do Estado islâmico no norte de África, Migrações intensas na Europa, Tensões na Ucrânia, problemas financeiros na Europa. Outras, menos visíveis ou notadas, são por exemplo epidemias súbitas, como a gripe asiática ou a epidemia de dengue no Rio de Janeiro, em 2008. Estamos perante crises locais, com efeitos regionais com impactos globais.

Será que estamos a lidar com esta crise de forma adequada? Até que ponto estes fenómenos estão ligados e exigem uma abordagem global? Quasi os efeitos que estas crises estão a ter nos diferentes níveis de resposta.

São processos a escala múltipos, que geram efeitos múltiplos e que exigem respostas integradas.

A ciência tem vindo a chamar a atenção para os pontos de ruptura e os limites do planeta e adverte que se verifica uma incapacidade das nações para lidar com os desafios de todo o planeta enfrentar o que se poderá vir a gerar com uma grave mudança das condições ambientais, com o seu potencial efeito em gerar crises sociais. Uma questão que tem merecido, na sociedade uma certa falta de atenção. Uma falta de atenção na academia e nos decisores políticos

Fronteiras IX – Ferramentas da Transição

Estando claro que existem condições para compreender os problemas que enfrentamos há que pensar em que tipo de ferramentas são necessárias para entender e conduzir as tendências de mudança que estão presentes.

Os velhos instrumentos de planeamento, em que as condições de partida e de chegada são estáveis, não nos servem para trabalhar sobre a mudança. Estamos a trabalhar sobre a transformação em diferentes sistemas, bio-fisicos, societais, económicos, tecnológicos, que ocorrem em ritmos acelereado. Há que procurar trabalhar sobre a resiliência dos grupos e seres humanos e suas organizações.

Isso exige uma profunda mudança no nosso sistema de conhecimento (aprendizagem e trabalho), no nosso paradigma de desenvolvimento económico, que deve passar a incorporar de forma mais central e explicita os limites do conhecimento e da sua ação na relação com as fronteiras do planeta.

A ideia do antropoceno é a de que já que são os humanos que conduzem o planete, eles devem fazê-lo dentro dos limites que assegurem a sobrevivência da espécie humana. Deveremos demonstrar que compreendemos os processos de transição para assegurar uma sustentabilidade global.

Fronteira VIII- Limites da ação humana

Vimos que vários ecossistemas do planeta carregam as marcas de ação dos seres humanos, em extensão e qualidade diferenciadas, é certo, mas ainda assim presentes. Sabemos que os padrões de produção, consumo e crescimento da população desafiam os limites do planeta. São estes os limites da ação dos seres humanos. Quais são os limites que enfrentamos:

O primeiro limite da ação é o nosso conhecimento. Somo na verdade a primeira geração que toma consciência de que a ação dos seres humanos produziu uma aproximação aos limites do planete. Não podemos pois ignorar que a nossa ação é sempre uma opção entre o modelo da insustentabilidade que nos conduziu até aqui ou procuramos um modelo que nos pernita transitar para um modelo de sustentabilidade biosocioambiental. Conhecemos isso e negar não é uma opção.

O segundo limite da ação é o da sua escala. Sabemos que a magnitude dos problemas e a sua complexidade é esmagadora. Mas também sabemos que as suas soluções são locais, variadas e que será esse somatório de boas práticas que permitirão resolver os diferentes problemas. É necessário procurar as sinergias positivas, para as pessoas e para o planete. Muitas dessas soluções são de natureza local e giram em torno de questões como a da agricultura, pescas, energia, da segurança alimentar. São soluções práticas para problemas globais que podem ser partilhados e experimentados em diferentes locais e escalas.

O terceiro limite é o da confiança no ser humano. Há razão para ter confiança e esperança no ser humano. Ele é inovador, adaptável, está preparado para resilver questões em conjunto. Há na diversidade de conhecimento uma elevada capacidade de resolução de problemas.

Fronteiras VI – A Transição

Falamos da evidência da necessidade da transição do modelo de exploração de recursos bio físicos (ambiente) e de organização societal (cultura). Uma transição de deverá assegurar a sobrevivência dos seres humanos e a distribuição justa (com equidade) dos recursos disponíveis. Nada disso será possível sem um processo económico. Um desenvolvimento económico sustentável.

Um desenvolvimento económico sustentável implica a manutenção do crescimento da renda e da sua distribuição pelo espaço. Implica assegurar a manutenção do acesso à terra para produção de alimentos, implica manter a qualidade da terra arável, acesso aos recursos marítimos e sua manutenção. São desafios para toda a humanidade em escala e em ritmo.

Sem pensar na forma como a economia se deve organizar para atingir esses objetivos é um desafio da transição

Fronteiras V – propósito

Enfrentamos como seres humanos no planeta um desafio global sem precedentes. Nós todos, criamos uma riqueza e bem-estar que nos retirou do flagelo da fome, do frio e da doença. Mas essa riqueza e bem-estar, não só tem até aqui estado reservado a uma parte da humanidade – os mais ricos; como nos conduziu a um profunda crise planetária.

Temos várias evidências, empíricas e científicas, que nos indicam que a atividade humana esta a alterar profundamente o nosso planeta. Estamos na fronteira e exploramos os limites da nossa sobrevivência.

Nos próximos postais vamos reflectir sobre estes limites e sobre os modos como podemos transforma-los a nosso favor