Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space For Humanity

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24th September 2009, 07:39am - Views: 1159

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Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space for Humanity

STOCKHOLM, Sept. 24 /PRNewswire-AsiaNet/ --

    - Press release by the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm 

University, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, The Australian 

National University, University of Copenhagen and University of Minnesota

    New approaches are needed to help humanity deal with climate change and

other global environmental threats that lie ahead in the 21st century. A

group of 28 internationally renowned scientists propose that global

biophysical boundaries, identified on the basis of the scientific

understanding of the Earth System, can define a 'safe planetary operating

space' that will allow humanity to continue to develop and thrive for

generations to come. This new approach to sustainable development is conveyed

in the coming issue of the scientific journal Nature where the scientists

have made a first attempt to identify and quantify a set of nine planetary


    To view the Multimedia News Release, please click:

    "Human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt

global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live

and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical 'hard-wired'

thresholds in Earth's environment, and respect the nature of planet's

climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes," says lead

author Professor Johan Rockstrom, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre

at Stockholm University. "Transgressing planetary boundaries may be

devastating for humanity, but if we respect them we have a bright future for

centuries ahead," he continues.

    The group of scientists including Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Will

Steffen, Katherine Richardson, Jonathan Foley and Nobel Laureate Paul

Crutzen, have attempted to quantify the safe biophysical boundaries outside

which, they believe, the Earth System cannot function in a stable state, the

state in which human civilizations have thrived.

    The scientists first identified the Earth System processes and potential

biophysical thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable

environmental change for humanity. They then proposed the boundaries that

should be respected in order to reduce the risk of crossing these thresholds.

    Nine boundaries were identified including climate change, stratospheric

ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean

acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans,

aerosol loading and chemical pollution. The study suggests that three of

these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to

the biosphere) may already have been transgressed. In addition, it emphasizes

that the boundaries are strongly connected - crossing one boundary may

seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others.

    "What we now present is a novel framework through which our scientific

understanding of the Earth System can potentially be used more directly in

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the societal decision making process," says co-author Katherine Richardson,

Professor at the Earth System Science Center at the University of Copenhagen.

    The scientists emphasize that the rapid expansion of human activities

since the industrial revolution has now generated a global geophysical force

equivalent to some of the great forces of nature.

    "We are entering the Anthropocene, a new geological era in which our

activities are threatening the Earth's capacity to regulate itself. We are

beginning to push the planet out of its current stable Holocene state, the

warm period that began about 10,000 years ago and during which agriculture

and complex societies, including our own, have developed and flourished,"

says co-author Professor Will Steffen, Director of the ANU Climate Change

Institute at The Australian National University. "The expanding human

enterprise could undermine the resilience of the Holocene state, which would

otherwise continue for thousands of years into the future."

    Co-author Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber points out that the climate

system has clearly started to drift away from the familiar domain where

historic experiences apply. The risk of highly nonlinear changes in our

environmental conditions is sharply increasing outside that domain.

    "Observations of an incipient climate transition include the rapid

retreat of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, melting of almost all mountain

glaciers around the world, and an increased rate of sea-level rise in the

last 10-15 years," Professor Schellnhuber says. He is Director of the Potsdam

Institute for Climate Impact Research.

    The researchers stress that their approach does not offer a complete

roadmap for sustainable development, but does provide an important element by

identifying critical planetary boundaries.

    "Within these boundaries, humanity has the flexibility to choose pathways

for our future development and well-being. In essence, we are drawing the

first - albeit very preliminary - map of our planet's safe operating zones.

And beyond the edges of the map, we don't want to go. Our future research

will consider ways in which society can develop within these boundaries -

safely, sanely and sustainably," says co-author Professor Jonathan Foley,

Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

    Feature article in Nature, September 24 issue: "A safe operating space for

humanity", as well as individual commentaries and reader responses:

    Full scientific article: "Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the safe

operating space for humanity", and video interviews, graphics and further

background material:


    For interviews and further information, please contact:


    Johan Rockstrom, phone: +46-73-707-85-47,

    Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, phone: +49-331-288-2507, Email:

    Katherine Richardson, phone: +45-35324285, +45-28754285, Email:


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    Will Steffen, phone: +61-404-074-593, +61-2-6125-6599, Email:


    Jonathan Foley, phone: +01-952-715-9586; Email:

    Press contacts:

    Stockholm Resilience Centre: Ellika Hermansson Torok/Sturle Hauge

    Simonsen, phone: +46-73-707-85-47, +46-73-707-85-50, Email:

    Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: Uta Pohlmann/Patrick

    Eickemeier, phone: +49-331-288-25-07, Email:

    University of Copenhagen: Svend Thaning, phone: +45-35-32-42-81,

    +45-28-75-4281, E-mail:

    The Australian National University: Roz Smith, ANU Climate Change

    Institute, phone: +61-2-6125-6599, +61-2-402-286-325, Email: 

    University of Minnesota: Todd Reubold, phone: +01-612-624-6140, Email:

    SOURCE: Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University


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