Planetary Boundaries - Challenges for Science, Civil Society and Policy

Weltkugel, Globus, Asien, Afrika, Africa, Globe, World, Blue Marble, Earth, NASA

The Planetary Boundaries Framework is a new approach within Earth Systems Science which identifies nine large-scale processes that are vital for the stability of the planet. It illustrates and quantifies risks for these processes, when transgressing critical boundaries or guardrails. These risks comprise of, for example, the changing climate, alterations in biosphere integrity, land system change and human impacts on biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphor flows). Crossing any of the nine boundaries through human activities risks potentially abrupt and/or irreversible change of the Earth System and ultimately an inhospitable planet for humanity. The Planetary Boundaries Framework thus depicts a safe operating space for sustainable development – within the boundaries – and quantifies the risks associated with crossing the boundaries.

In 2009, the framework was developed by a group of scientists led by Johan Rockström. In 2015 the framework has been updated and complemented with latest available science on all of the nine boundaries (Steffen et al. 2015). Since 2009, the framework has increasingly been used by think tanks, governments and supranational organizations – for example by the European Union in its 7th Environment Action Programme (“Living well, within the limits of our planet”). At the same time, the framework has been critically discussed – problems highlighted are for example the insecurities related to the thresholds and their transgression, as well as the downscaling of the boundaries for national and regional contexts.  

In this context, an adelphi led consortium assessed the operationalization and political implementation of the Planetary Boundaries Framework in the German context, e.g. for the update of the national sustainability agenda, for the national integrated environment programme and the national integrated nitrogen strategy. adelphi, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) analysed the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for using the framework in the realms of science, society, politics and the economy. The research project’s goals were to (1) assess the state of art of the framework regarding conceptualization, quantification and downscaling, (2) the implications for the national political implementation, (3) the continuation of a dialog process regarding the Planetary Boundaries Framework as well as (4) the development of recommendations for politics and science.

Publications of this project