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Scientists identify “safe operating space for humanity”

Last Updated on Monday, 12 March 2012 14:20

road-to-copenhagenTo avoid catastrophic environmental change humanity must stay within defined 'planetary boundaries' for a range of essential Earth-system processes, argue Johan Rockström and his co-authors in a Nature Feature. If one boundary is transgressed, then safe levels for other processes could also be under serious risk, they caution. Seven expert commentaries respond to this proposal in Nature Reports Climate Change. Join the debate and listen to the podcast.

Society is coming to realise that the provisions of earth are finite and we are consuming at rates beyond what can be sustained, and we do not know with any precision how close we are to our limits or what happens if we cross them.

In the latest issue of Nature is a groundbreaking new paper called "Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space for Humanity." In it, a team of 28 scientists has identified 10 separate biophysical systems crucial to humanity's flourishing; for each system they have identified a "safe operating boundary" within which humanity must remain if it wishes to maintain the basic environmental conditions in which it evolved.

 The feature article can be read here. Seven expert commentaries respond to this proposal in Nature Reports Climate Change. Join the debate and listen to the podcast also from that link.

The scientists have identified the Earth-system processes and associated thresholds which, they believe, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change. They have found nine such processes for which they believe it is necessary to define planetary boundaries: climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading.

The following information has come from the article at The Stockholm Resilience Centre

The nine planetary boundaries

Stratospheric ozone layer
The stratospheric ozone layer filters out ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation will reach ground level and can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems. The appearance of the Antarctic ozone hole was proof that increased concentrations of anthropogenic ozone depleting substances, combined with polar stratospheric clouds, had moved the Antarctic stratosphere into a new regime. Fortunately, because of the actions taken as a result of the Montreal Protocol, we appear to be on the path that will allow us to stay within this boundary.

In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, it was concluded that changes in biodiversity due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, and the drivers of change that cause biodiversity loss and lead to changes in ecosystem services are either steady, show no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. These large rates of extinction can be slowed by judicious projects to enhance habitat and build appropriate connectivity while maintaining high agricultural productivity. Further research is needed to determine whether a boundary based on extinction rates is sufficient, and whether there are reliable data to support it.

Chemicals dispersion
Emissions of persistent toxic compounds such as metals, various organic compounds and radionuclides, represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. There are a number of examples of additive and synergic effects from these compounds. These effects are potentially irreversible. Of most concern are the effects of reduced fertility and especially the potential of permanent genetic damage. As an example, organism uptake and accumulation to sub-lethal levels increasingly cause a dramatic reduction of marine mammal and bird populations. At present, we are unable to quantify this boundary; however, it is nonetheless considered sufficiently well defined to be on the list.

Climate Change
We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar ice is almost certainly irreversible. From the perspective of the Earth as a complex system, this is one example of the sharp threshold above which large feedback mechanisms could drive the Earth system into a much warmer, greenhouse gas-rich state with sea levels metres higher than present. The weakening or reversal of terrestrial carbon sinks, for example through the ongoing destruction of the world´s rainforests, is another such interdependent tipping point. Recent evidence suggests that the Earth System, now passing 387 ppmv CO2, has already transgressed this Planetary Boundary. A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.

Ocean acidification
Around a quarter of the CO2 humanity produces is dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. Increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential building block used for shell and skeleton formation in organisms such as corals, and some shellfish and plankton species. This will seriously change ocean ecology and potentially lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has increased by 30%.

The ocean acidification boundary is a clear example of a boundary which, if transgressed, will involve very large change in marine ecosystems, with ramifications for the whole planet. It is also a good example of how tightly connected the boundaries are, since atmospheric CO2 concentration is the underlying controlling variable for both the climate and the ocean acidification boundary.

Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
The freshwater cycle is both a major prerequisite for staying within the climate boundary, and is strongly affected by climate change. Human pressure is now the dominating driving force determining the function and distribution of global freshwater systems. The effects are dramatic, including both global-scale river flow change and shifts in vapour flows from land use change. Water is becoming increasingly scarce and by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to have moved into the water-stressed category. A water boundary related to consumptive freshwater use has been proposed to maintain the overall resilience of the Earth system and avoid crossing local and regional thresholds ‘downstream´.

Land system change
Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, wetlands and other vegetation types are converted primarily to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind reduced biodiversity and has impacts on water flows as well as carbon and other cycles. Land cover change occurs on local and regional scales but when aggregated appears to impact the Earth System on a global scale. A major challenge with setting a land use-related boundary is to reflect not only the needed quantity of unconverted and converted land but also its function, quality and spatial distribution.

Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
Human modification of the nitrogen cycle has been even greater than our modification of the carbon cycle. Human activities now convert more N2 from the atmosphere into reactive forms than all of the Earth´s terrestrial processes combined. Much of this new reactive nitrogen pollutes waterways and coastal zones, is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms, or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. A relatively small proportion of the fertilizers applied to food production systems is taken up by plants. A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across thresholds of their own. A concrete example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico due to hypoxia caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest.

Atmospheric aerosol loading
This is considered a planetary boundary for two main reasons: (i) the influence of aerosols on the climate system and (ii) their adverse effects on human health at a regional and global scale. Without aerosol particles in the atmosphere, we would not have clouds. Most clouds and aerosol particles act to cool the planet by reflecting incoming sunlight back to space. Some particles (such as soot) or thin high clouds act like greenhouse gases to warm the planet. In addition, aerosols have been shown to affect monsoon circulations and global-scale circulation systems. Particles also have adverse effects on human health, causing roughly 800,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. While all of these relationships have been well established, all the causal links (especially regarding health effects) are yet to be determined. It has not yet been possible specific threshold value at which global-scale effects will occur; but aerosol loading is so central to climate and human health that it is included among the boundaries.

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