Ever since the concept of planetary boundaries has been published I felt a bit torn between admiration and distrust. Admiration because the assumption of a safe operating space for economies is well-grounded in earth system science, and the authors have a good take in making some of those key boundaries explicit. But there’s always been a sense of mistrust either because any concept aiming at the management of global public goods requires an almost insatiable belief in global governance and like-minded actors. Facing the decline of the Kyoto Protocol and sweeping waves of resource nationalism such belief is hard to carry on.
I was thus honoured to be invited to a workshop in Brussels* seeking to discuss the policy dimension of such planetary boundaries. My own research on the global resource nexus underlines some strategic strengths of the latter: Looking at interlinkages across essential resource inputs (energy, water, food, land, minerals) the resource nexus is closer to actors on the ground, it helps to realize business opportunities through resource efficiency of all kinds, and it would spot security concerns over access to resources, such as the ones emerging in the South Chinese Seas.
Being together with experts over two days here is what I’ve learned through discussions and conclusions at the workshop:
- There is good recent evidence on global tipping points;
- Research translating the safe operating space into boundaries for countries has been done and will continue;
- The authors of the planetary boundaries will publish an update that will be more explicit on regional stress multipliers and its implications.
Are such findings likely to be strong enough to create a political momentum within countries, in the EU, and internationally? I wish it would, but I doubt.
One of the lessons learned over the last years, in my view, is that environmental research needs to be translated into and communicate with transition strategies. There is no point in having environmental policy objectives without an explicit acknowledgement of social aspirations and other purposes inherent in human beings.
The great strengths of the current debate about Sustainable Development Goals is its aim to overcome the prevailing dichotomy of the Millennium Development Goals and to identify goals that exploit synergies between social, economic, political, and environmental ambitions. The great opportunities of eradicating worldwide poverty by turning natural endowments into markets for resource efficiency – including better water and food management – is worth to be pursued.
National policies have a role to play in addressing feasible pathways for eco-innovation, in starting processes of deliberations with stakeholders, and in pushing markets via intelligent incentive systems. Towards such role, a national sustainability strategy should have a visible stream dealing with an integrated vision, with incentives, actors and institutions, and with policies. It may also act as a platform on a few cross-cutting pathways such as blue green infrastructures (integrating water, waste water, nutrients and energy management), resource-light vehicles (integrating car-related CO2 emissions into delivering sustainable mobility), cascading use of biomass with bio-gasification, large-scale metals recycling at international scales, etc. There should also be an index that identifies sustainability gaps at a national scale with breakdowns for individuals and industries.
The concerned scientist will probably continue to argue that this won’t stop ecosystems from deteriorating and, eventually, to collapse. And that’s a justified assessment. Upgraded research on the dynamics of environmental change deems necessary. But it will be good to integrate the socio-economic dimension and, indeed, look at national sustainability policy as an opportunity to act.
Prof. Dr. Raimund Bleischwitz, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources
The Global Resource Nexus: Managing Markets Under Stress video - Prof Bleischwitz for the Transatlantic Academy
*International Expert Workshop “Safe operating space. State & Perspectives as a Concept for National Policy”, held in Brussels on the 23rd-24th January 2014, organised by the Network of European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils (EEAC), the Advisory Council for Sustainable Development (CADS), and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).
Barnosky, A.D. et al. (2012): Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere, in: Nature 486, 52 – 58, doi:10.1038/nature11018
Abstract: Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.
Hey, C. (2012): Safe Planetary Boundaries: A new environmental policy frame? Contribution to the “2012 Berlin Conference on Evidence for Sustainable Development” 5-6 October, 2012. Available at: http://www.berlinconference.org/2012/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/hey_safe-planetary-boundaries_a-new-environmental-policy-frame.pdf
Nykvist, B., Person, A., Moberg, F., Persson, L., Cornell, S., Rockström, J. (2013). National Environmental Performance on Planetary Boundaries. A study for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Report 6576. Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. June 2013.
Pisano, U.; Berger, G (2013). Planetary Boundaries for SD. From an international perspective to national Applications. ESDN Quarterly Report N°30. October 2013. Available at: http://www.sd-network.eu/quarterly%20reports/report%20files/pdf/2013-October-Planetary_Boundaries_for_SD.pdf