Safe boundaries for humanity

A recent article in the international journal Nature describes the „Safe planetary boundaries“ that humanity should stay within to avoid conditions that are not acceptable for the continued well being of humanity.

The human impact has become global, long-lasting, and potentially irreversible, and has become the major driving force on earth system processes such as water and nutrient cyles, stability of ecosystems, or global climate. The current era is therefore also referred to as „Anthropocene„.

The Anthropocene could be beneficial for humanity, if we were to stay within safe boundaries that will ensure that humans can develop for many centuries to come. Unfortunately, we have already transgressed several boundaries, endangering the future of humanity if we do not return into the safe zone as quickly as possible.

This is the general message from a paper that was recently published in the highly renowned  international journal Nature.

In this paper, Rockström and coauthors identified nine planetary boundaries that humanity should not transgress. These include: climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution.

According to their estimates, humanity has already transgressed three of these boundaries: climate change, loss of biodiversity, and nitrogen input into the biosphere. But of course it is extremely difficult to determine the concrete boundary conditions for these planetary systems, and the paper does not suggest that the concrete boundary conditins outlined are set in stone. Instead, the authors offer a starting point for further research and discussion. What hat becomes very clear is that humanity is in very severe trouble if we do not act immediately, because interactions among various systems might make single systems more vulnerable than expected.

One boundary that we have transgressed already is quite certain, climate change. With the current 387 ppm we have already passed the CO2 concentration that is considered safe: 350 ppm. For the first time scientists stated clearly that we cannot stay below a global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius if the global CO2 concentration stays above 350 ppm for a prolonged period of time. Clearly, it is time to be done with half measures and act according to the urgent call that scientists give us. Otherwise the Anthropocene will be referred to as  The Age of Stupid.

We have long known that there are limits to growth. But the paper by Rockström and coauthors describe these limits not as oppressing borders to limit our potentials. Instead, the authors give us a new, very important perspective: that of possibilities to grow, as long as we stay within safe boundaries. By defining a safe space for human societies to live in, they give us a new perspective on our potentials. Whereas many people still view the necessity of change towards a new, carbon-neutral and truly sustainable economy as a limit to their freedom, this paper will help develope a new thought process: that of great possibilities of staying free and safe within our limits. If we accept this basic fact, then changes might be much easier to accomplish.

For a detailed outline on the safe boundaries, please visit the Stockholm Resilience Center and Nature.

Maiken Winter

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