Pioneering science reveals set of ‘earth system boundaries’ that can secure a safe and just planet for all

By Earth Commission Co-Chairs Johan Rockström and Joyeeta Gupta.

Note: this article was first published on WEF Agenda on Jan 18th, 2023.

  • Human activity is pushing Earth to the brink of a dangerous climate tipping point.
  • Immediate action is needed to safeguard humanity’s future and protect our planet.
  • Groundbreaking research sets out a framework of ‘earth system boundaries’ to keep the planet stable.

We are taking colossal risks with the future of civilization. We are destabilizing the interconnected systems – our global commons – that ensure a stable and resilient planet, a prerequisite for human prosperity and equity for all.

The Arctic is warming four times faster than the global average. Sea ice is shrinking and we’re likely to see an ice free Arctic before 2050. This will be irreversible.

Changes in the Arctic are already affecting weather in the Northern Hemisphere. The jetstream is stalling, resulting in extreme weather. The deadly mega storm that recently pummeled the US is one example of what a stalled jet stream feels like to people on the ground.

Changes in the Arctic also affecting permafrost, upon which many towns and communities are built. Permafrost is now thawing, releasing more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. This is irreversible.

Greenland is losing trillions of tons of ice every decade. This ice loss is accelerating, and Greenland contains enough water to raise sea levels by 7 metres. The cold freshwater released by Greenland is slowing the major circulation in the Atlantic Ocean which controls the thermostat of Europe. This is irreversible.

The Atlantic Ocean current affects rainfall over the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon – one of the most important stores of carbon on Earth – is drying out and losing its ability to store carbon.

And the slowdown of the Atlantic circulation is also likely contributing to the collapse of parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and parts of East Antarctica, which hold enough water to raise sea levels 10 metres.

The geographical distribution of global and regional tipping elements, colour-coded according to the best estimate for their temperature thresholds, beyond which the element would likely be ‘tipped’. Figure designed at PIK, based on Armstrong McKay et al., Science (2022).

 

If the world breaches 1.5C, we are likely to trigger at least five tipping points, including the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet and loss of the world’s tropical coral reef systems. This will be devastating for future generations. It will literally change the world, and yet every month we use 1% of the remaining carbon budget for 1.5ºC.

Without immediate action our future will not be safe and nor will it be just. In times of crisis, humanitarian corridors open up to allow safe passage out of danger zones. These corridors come and go, and not everyone can use them. This century, we need a permanent humanitarian corridor for everyone, one that takes us away from the danger zone and into a safe and just space

Groundbreaking science outlines long-term safe and just corridor for humanity

The Earth Commission – which we have the privilege to co-chair with Qin Dahe – has scientifically quantified, for the first time, a long-term safe and just corridor for humanity at a global scale.

This new quantification, soon to be published, has defined a set of boundaries, like the 1.5ºC limit for climate, but for a much broader set of biophysical domains, all of which are critical for the world economy, social stability and for human wellbeing.

We call these the “safe and just Earth System Boundaries”. We define “safe” as ensuring stable, resilient, biophysical conditions on Earth, like those of the last 10,000 years, that have allowed humans to prosper.

We define “just” as minimizing human exposure to significant harm from Earth-system change, and ensuring access to resources for a dignified life and escape from poverty for everyone.The safe and just boundaries provide the world with a viable corridor on Earth, and enable us to identify transformatory pathways of living within that corridor. This is the first quantitative scientific foundation for safeguarding the global commons for all people, now and into the future.


“By centering justice at its heart, this new science represents a quantum leap in our ability to understand Earth’s capacity to sustain life, and the role we humans play as guardians of our only home and each other.”

— Johan Rockström and Joyeeta Gupta.


By centering justice at its heart, this new science represents a quantum leap in our ability to understand Earth’s capacity to sustain life, and the role we humans play as guardians of our only home and each other.

And because even these boundaries may involve injustices for some, the journey towards living within them necessitates a just transformation.

Meeting the needs of current and future generations, while staying within the safe and just boundaries, is, in our view, non-negotiable. It is also possible. But it won’t be easy. We will have to transform our societies and the global economy. This means halting luxury carbon consumption and luxury biosphere consumption. It means creating new business models that focus on circularity, regeneration and justice.

A world economy that operates within safe and just Earth System Boundaries is the most important business opportunity of our lifetime. And, it is possible to operationalise these boundaries across all sectors of the economy.

The Earth Commission is part of a bigger ecosystem of changemakers – the Global Commons Alliance (GCA), which the Forum and other business networks are also part of. GCA created the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) to work with businesses and cities, and has already started the urgent work of translating these boundaries into targets. Companies can start taking no regrets actions now.

All of us can and must evolve our targets, commitments and actions in line with the safe and just boundaries now. We can and must evolve them to work holistically across climate, biodiversity, water, fertilizers and air pollution. We can and must evolve them to integrate justice. We can and must get within the safe and just corridor.

We are 8 billion people alive today. Will we and our children be able to live within the safe and just corridor?

The answer is up to us. This breakthrough science, which moves beyond climate, can be operationalised by everyone. If we do nothing, or the bare minimum at this pivotal moment, we and our children – even if they are wealthy – will live in a danger zone.

If businesses and governments commit now to enormous and just transformations in order to operate within the safe and just boundaries, then our children will have a future worth living for.