Stockholm (NordSIP) – Some four years ago this Laundromat was busy reading academic materials and watching TED talks about the concept of planetary boundaries, as part of yet another sustainability course. At the time, the work started by the late Will Steffen and his colleagues was incomplete, with data lacking on atmospheric aerosol loading, functional diversity within the biosphere, and pollution by novel entities. The boundary concept first published in 2009, with an update in 2015, was nonetheless alarming with biochemical flows and genetic diversity already shown in the red zone. The framework helped us sustainability students visualise how the planet is being threatened on multiple fronts, as we drift from the stable Holocene state towards a highly disrupted, unstable human-dominated state referred to as the Anthropocene.
Since then, the team of researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre has continued the work, putting flesh on the bones of the boundary framework in the form of real-world measurements. The results were published on 13 September 2023. It is not a pretty picture: six of nine planetary boundaries have been crossed, with pressure on all boundary processes increasing.
Humanity needs to operate within the green zone to maintain a healthy and stable planet. Unfortunately, we can already see the real effects of having breached these boundaries in the constant stream of extreme weather events hitting the headlines. Just over a year ago, floods submerged a third of Pakistan, affecting 33 million people. We have just seen entire towns in Libya wiped out by flood waters, and parts of Greece that were ablaze much of the summer were then suddenly hit by flash floods.
Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor in environmental science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University is a co-author of the latest research. “This update on planetary boundaries clearly depicts a patient that is unwell, as pressure on the planet increases and vital boundaries are being breached. We don’t know how long we can keep transgressing these key boundaries before combined pressures lead to irreversible change and harm,” commented Rockström.
Rolling the dice on novel entities
NordSIP’s Laundromat is a place to let off steam about greenwashing and the various efforts by corporations and governments to protect the status quo and thereby lead us all to hell in a handcart. The plastic industry is a case in point, and the researchers found that the introduction and accumulation in the environment of novel chemical compounds is partly related to microplastics. Worryingly, the planetary boundaries framework focuses solely on the effects of these novel compounds on the stability and resilience of the “Earth system.” The impact on human or ecosystem health is out of scope, and not fully known in most instances.
The researchers do put out a few words of warning in this respect: “Humanity has repeatedly been surprised by unintended consequences of this release, e.g., with respect to the release of insecticides such as DDT and the effect of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer. For this class of novel entities, then, the only truly safe operating space that can ensure maintained Holocene-like conditions is one where these entities are absent unless their potential impacts with respect to Earth system have been thoroughly evaluated.” In other words, our common track record of chucking stuff into the environment and hoping for the best is extremely poor. If in any doubt, we should stop. Meanwhile the likes of Coca Cola merrily continue churning out more than 100 billion single-use plastic bottles every year.
Here’s an idea: let us get Elon Musk started on a high-tech plan to project a regularly updated graphic of the planetary boundaries onto the moon. It will serve as a stark reminder to company CEOs and State policymakers of the consequences of their decisions in the run-up to COP28 – and may serve to keep Musk away from trouble for a while.