Simplifying the science

In 2009, a world-leading team of Earth system scientists created the planetary boundaries framework. They identified nine processes that regulate Earth’s stability and resilience. Crossing the planetary boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt and potentially irreversible environmental changes that would be detrimental to our society. The planetary boundaries framework has had a profound effect on how we understand sustainable development. 

The perspective emerging from the planetary boundaries framework and the subsequent “doughnut” model–that sustainability is about enabling a good life for all within the planetary boundaries–has defined how we think about and approach contemporary sustainability challenges.

But the planetary boundaries framework has remained underutilised in the private sector–until now. While some companies have started to refer to the boundaries in their sustainability strategies, there is a huge potential for using this excellent scientific basis to accelerate positive change through actions from the private sector. 

That is what Planetary Possibilities is here to catalyse.

The planetary boundaries

Nine Earth system processes

1. Stratospheric Ozone Depletion

The first planetary boundary, stratospheric ozone depletion, is one whose history shows the power of global, transformative change.

When international organisations realised the damage chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had on the ozone layer (think hairspray and refrigerants in refrigerators and AC units), they mobilised and showed the potential for both businesses and Earth system processes to adapt and regenerate. By 1995, CFCs had been completely banned through the Montreal protocol. Now the ozone layer is on its way to recovery, and the companies that made early investments in less damaging alternatives came out ahead. Scientists consider the world to be well within this boundary today.

2. Biosphere Integrity

Biosphere integrity is one of the most crossed planetary boundaries. This boundary refers to biodiversity loss and species extinction.

According to WWF, we have lost 68% of monitored vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2016. Ecosystem services–meaning the benefits and resources provided by healthy ecosystems to society–are worth approximately $125 trillion USD a year. Put simply, biosphere integrity is essential for both life on planet Earth and business success. Modern agriculture is currently the main driver of losses in biosphere integrity. If companies, for example, within the food value chain embrace regenerative production systems and incorporate them into their business models, we can ensure biosphere integrity is protected for both environmental and economic success.

3. Chemical Pollution and the Release of Novel Entities

The third planetary boundary, chemical pollution and the release of novel entities, was recently quantified by scientists.

This boundary deals with issues such as the effects on our living environment from synthetic organic pollutants, radioactive materials, genetically modified organisms, antibiotic resistant bacteria, nano-materials and more. Scientists estimate that this is one of the most severely crossed planetary boundaries. Defending this planetary boundary means reducing emissions from toxic compounds and protecting living organisms.This is fundamental for current and future public health and a cornerstone for well functioning societies and businesses.

4. Climate Change

The fourth planetary boundary, climate change, is likely the boundary most people are familiar with. The science is clear – climate change is happening now and it is accelerating in all regions of the world.

An existential threat that impacts all facets of society and life, addressing the climate crisis is fundamental to success and survival in the Anthropocene. Setting science-based targets in line with the 1.5° climate goal is necessary for everyone. Is your organisation ready to stand up to make necessary, science-based changes for the climate through creating new business opportunities?

5. Ocean Acidification

The fifth planetary boundary, ocean acidification, is a planetary boundary directly connected to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide from industrial activity.

Rising oceanic acidity negatively impacts sea creatures whose growth is stunted and survival threatened. If this trend continues, ocean ecosystems will be further imperilled and food security, carbon storage, and protection from natural disasters will be severely harmed. However, the business world has the power to reverse this trend. Saving the climate means saving the oceans; accelerating a company’s movement towards net-zero, climate-positive operations will help both our climate and our oceans.

6. Freshwater Consumption and the Global Hydrological Cycle

The sixth planetary boundary, freshwater use, is a planetary boundary closely connected to the planetary boundary for the climate.

As industrial land management–particularly global agriculture–increasingly impacts global freshwater cycles, understanding the urgency of protecting this critical planetary boundary is key. As freshwater becomes more scarce due to disruptions of ancient cycles, catalysing businesses to mobilise their resources to protect this life-critical substance is essential for avoiding the crossing of this planetary boundary.

7. Land System Change

The seventh planetary boundary, land system change, is a planetary boundary closely related to the boundary for the climate.

“Land system change” refers to the destruction of forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other ecosystems for industry and agriculture. Severe damage against this planetary boundary has resulted in critical losses in biodiversity and negative impacts on water and biogeochemical flows. If businesses take bold, science-based steps towards protecting land and understanding its boundaries, we can build a prosperous planet for both ecosystems and the businesses that rely on them.

8. Nitrogen and Phosphorus Flows to the Biosphere and Oceans

The eighth planetary boundary is nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans.

The biogeochemical cycles of the elements nitrogen and phosphorus have been disrupted by industrial and agricultural processes, leading to eutrophication of lakes, rivers, and coastal waters with severe consequences for their ecosystems. Businesses can ensure this planetary boundary is not further crossed by adopting alternative industrial and agricultural processes and protecting vital ecosystems, such as wetlands.

9. Atmospheric Aerosol Loading

The ninth planetary boundary, atmospheric aerosol loading, is a planetary boundary that refers to aerosols’ impacts on cloud formations and patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as monsoon systems in tropical regions.

Industrial activity changes aerosol loading through pollution and land-use changes that produce dust, smoke, and haze. Businesses have a key role to play in the defence of this planetary boundary by reducing pollution and ensuring land-use changes avoid excess pollution.

Read the original planetary boundaries article to dive even deeper: