Simplifying the Planetary Boundaries

I have just got back from the annual Council meeting for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) where it was good to hear the new President, Peter Bakker, talking about a much more focused and serious response from the organisation to key issues such as climate change. During the week real challenge has come from the likes of Paul Gilding and Will Steffen of The Stockholm Resilience Centre. The latter is well known for the development of the Planetary Boundaries framework, which seeks to quantify the limits on a set of critical parameters impacting the stability of the conditions of the Holocene period (which has seen the development of human civilization during a 10,000 year period of relative global stability).

The nine Planetary Boundaries are shown in the figure above and are;

  • Stratospheric ozone depletion
  • Nitrogen cycle
  • Phosphorous cycle
  • Global freshwater use
  • Change in land use
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading
  • Chemical pollution
  • Climate change (level of CO2 in the atmosphere)

These have become a useful metric, but Will Steffen admitted that the complexity of the subject has been a challenge. A further challenge to simplify the structure has been posed back to the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They have taken up this challenge and revisited the approach, reducing it to three critical metrics. They are as follows;

  • Climate change – rather than just measuring this in terms of CO2 in the atmosphere, the metric is the global heat balance. Because of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the atmosphere is no longer in heat balance, rather there is more heat coming in than going out. This situation needs to be brought back into check.
  • Biodiversity – this is key to the production of goods and services from the biosphere, including most critically food for human consumption.
  • Introduction of novel entities – this is about the introduction of new “stuff” into the environment.  Perhaps one of the best examples of this was the use of Chlorinated Fluoro-carbons (CFC). These offered tremendous economic benefit but with no concept of the damage that would be done to the ozone layer. Will Steffen made an interesting observation about this and noted that we missed a major catastrophe almost by chance. CFCs could well have been BFCs or bromine based. Had this been the case, the more reactive nature of bromine would have devastated the ozone layer by the time the interaction was unravelled, with no chance of recovery. Fortunately this wasn’t the case, but the point was clear.

The nine boundaries work still stands and will continue to be critical to their thinking, with this new model more an “aide memoire” to the bigger picture.

P.S. This is becoming old news now, but in the same session at the WBCSD meeting, a comment was also made about Hurricane Sandy, its impact and climate change. The view expressed was that these are linked for three reasons;

    1. This was by far the biggest hurricane ever recorded north of the Carolinas. It was driven by increasingly warmer waters in the Atlantic.
    2. It should have tracked out into the Atlantic as many hurricanes have done, but didn’t because of a large blocking high pressure system. There is growing evidence that the appearance of such high pressure systems is linked to the change in ice cover in the Arctic. 2012 saw the lowest September Arctic sea ice cover on record.
    3. New York infrastructure was built in a different era. Even the 20cms of additional sea level over the past century made a significant difference to the water volume in the storm surge and the consequent flooding of lower Manhattan and other low lying areas.

C2ES also released a paper on this subject during the week, which you can view here.