Planetary boundaries point to an existential crisis – What are our alternatives?

By Sangeeta Jayadevan

One can draw an analogy between our planetary systems and that of the human body. Our body is a set of multiple complex systems – all intricately working together to support us in our activities.  Likewise, our planet has a complex set of interconnected systems, working together for it to function and serve as our life-support system. Our lifestyle has an impact on our health and could either be beneficial or detrimental to our health.  Our body is resilient to a great extent, but after a point, a poor lifestyle does take a toll and affect our health, both physical and mental. 

When we undergo a health test, our health is determined using a set of limits or safe ranges for different health attributes. For each test, there is a specific boundary that shows “if the value goes above or below this level, it is dangerous for you”. Planetary boundaries are just the same, except they determine the condition of our planet’s health.  Planetary boundaries have ranges within which humans can survive and thrive. As the planet exceeds one or more of its boundaries, the planetary systems go out of balance, putting humanity’s survival at risk.

Acceleration of human pressures 

Since the 1950’s there has been an acceleration in human pressures on the planet. The pressures are due to indiscriminate use of earth’s finite resources with a scant focus on regeneration and restoration. What are the human pressures we exert on the planet?  Population surprisingly, is not the main culprit. The primary driver is affluence and overconsumption by the top 20% of the economy. 

As many more countries move up the development ladder, the pressures on our planet will increase from the over-consumption of 1.5 billion today to 4-5 billion affluent people expected by 2050s. Our quest for infinite economic growth contradicts the planet’s health, straining the Earth’s finite and limited resources. The planetary boundaries are a scientific framework to help us understand which planetary systems are at risk. 

Let us consider two key planetary systems – Climate change and biosphere integrity. 

Climate change represents an existential threat  

Global warming is caused by the increased emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which in turn is due to the burning of fossil fuels. GHG levels have exceeded the safe threshold of 450 ppm established by scientists. We are now at over 500 ppm and on course to reach 560 ppm by 2050. 

Why is GHG such a huge concern? One can liken GHG to a blanket surrounding us. Every year we are dumping increasing amounts of GHG into the atmosphere which stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. The GHG blanket is getting thicker and increasing amounts of heat is trapped on the surface of planet Earth, resulting in its warming. 

Recent heat waves in India, Europe, USA bear witness to this. Extreme weather events like flooding in Pakistan, and droughts and wildfires elsewhere, are happening with increasing frequency. All this points to global warming far exceeding the capacity of Earth’s bio-geophysical systems to absorb excess heat. 

Nature in crisis 

While global warming is a well-known concept, the ongoing degradation of the biosphere (nature) is not as well understood. Nature is recognized as being at urgent global risk after years of degradation caused by human activities. A study in 2019 found that multiple ecosystems have collapsed or been adversely impacted due to human activities.  Humans are causing the decline of nature, its functioning and its diversity and this is increasing at a rapid rate. 

The biosphere is critical since it serves as our life-support system. It regulates climate, purifies air and water, prevents flooding, provides food, water and services for agriculture. Ecosystems such as rainforests regulate the carbon sinks and rainfall systems. All ecosystems work in balance to enable human life on this planet. Loss of biodiversity threatens these ecosystem services, further risking climate impacts and making food more expensive or scarce. 

Planetary boundaries

Planetary Boundaries Framework (PB) was published in 2009 by the Stockholm Resilience Institute and updated regularly. The framework looks at the Earth’s system in terms of nine big interacting systems and the boundaries give us guidelines for how far we can push the Earth’s system & how far we cannot. 

PB, depicted as a radar diagram, indicates safe and unsafe operating conditions.  As we start transgressing the boundaries we go through a zone of increasing risk. Transgressing boundaries risk setting off planetary tipping points which will cause our planet to drift off to an unstable state.

Climate change and biosphere integrity are part of the PB, and additionally, there are seven more systems that determine the stability of the planet.

Multiple planetary boundaries already transgressed

As of 2022, boundaries already transgressed are climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorous pollution), water, land-system change, and novel entities, which include pollution by plastics and other man-made substances. Novel entities also refer to the chemicals that we are pouring into the earth’s system at rates much higher than we can monitor or test before we pour them in.

Clearly, our current lifestyle models are unsustainable and we need to change them before it is too late.  The well-being and survival of future generations is at stake. 

Alternative pathways 

Globally, we are already moving towards a low-emission future with a focus on renewables,  electrification, and energy efficiency. However, reducing the overall demand for energy and finite natural resources is also essential. Scientists have proposed multiple economic models including the Circular Economy, ‘Degrowth’ with the provision of universal public services, and Green growth.

India’s preference is for a Circular Economy (CE) alike model called Mission Life – Lifestyle for Environment, set forth in our National Statement at COP26. Given Indians’ natural habits of frugality, reusing and recycling of resources, these principles will reinforce our cultural practices and hence, is likely to succeed. However, much more awareness, education, socialization and incentivization is required.

What is the CE model? 

Our unsustainable lifestyle is based on a linear ‘use-it-up-and-throw-it-away’ model. An alternative is the CE, where waste and pollution are minimized and products are kept in use for as long as possible, with use extended through repair and refurbishment. When extending use is no longer possible, the product is disassembled and its parts are recycled. Natural systems are allowed to regenerate. The CE is a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible. It aims to tackle global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution by design-based implementation of the CE principles. CE creates a resilient system at a much lower cost to the environment. As India develops, these principles will help decouple economic progress with energy and material consumption increase, serving both, us and the planet well.

Time is not on our side

Our survival requires the widespread adoption of lifestyle models that decouple economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. If we do not address this problem quickly, scientists predict that the consequences for life on Earth will be catastrophic, and irreversibly so in few cases. 

Sangeeta is an ex-IBMer with an interest in Climate Change and Earth Systems. She is currently volunteering with Statistics without Borders as Co-Chair, New Client Acquisition. She tweets at @SangeetaJayad.

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