Planetary Boundaries: A fourth danger line crossed

The Planetary Boundaries framework was first introduced in 2009, when a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists identified and quantified the first set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. A Jan 2015 update by the researchers say a fourth of these boundaries forests have been breached.

According to a report on the update in the Scientific American (Humans Cross Another Danger Line for the Planet):

Five years go an impressive, international group of scientists unveiled nine biological and environmental “boundaries” that humankind should not cross in order to keep the earth a livable place. To its peril, the world had already crossed three of those safe limits: too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, too rapid a rate of species loss and too much pouring of nitrogen into rivers and oceans—primarily in the form of fertilizer runoff.

Now we have succeeded in transgressing a fourth limit: the amount of forestland being bulldozed or burned out of existence (see map below). Less and less forest reduces the planet’s ability to absorb some of that carbon dioxide and to produce water vapor, crucial to plant life. And the ongoing loss alters how much of the sun’s energy is absorbed or reflected across wide regions, which itself can modify climate.

A separate paper published by the group in Anthropocene Review, titled The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration, updates a striking set of 24 graphs that show that almost all the damage to earth by humans has occurred since 1950, in lock step with rapid economic growth worldwide. This Great Acceleration of social, economic and environmental drivers basically says that although growing population adds stress to the earth’s systems, greater consumption through rising living standards is responsible for even more of the burden.

Read more about Planetary Boundaries research at the Stockholm Resilience Centre website.

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