Cyclists in Copenhagen

Cities and businesses will be able to align their sustainability efforts to specific environmental limits known as Earth system boundaries following the publication of a new set of guidelines.

An international team of researchers from the Earth Commission, including the University of Exeter’s Professor Gail Whiteman, outlined 10 principles and a protocol which ‘translate’ Earth system boundaries into budgets so that cities and businesses can incorporate them into their operations.

Earth system boundaries are limits within which the Earth system can function without incurring significant harm to people, and relate to the climate, the terrestrial biosphere, freshwater, nutrients and air pollution.

‘Translating’ is a process in which ESBs are converted into budgets that are more meaningful for stakeholders – converting them, for example, into budgets for volume of freshwater use per year, or amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied per hectare per year.

“Respecting ESBs requires concerted actions from diverse actors – including states, cities, businesses – based on a clear and shared understanding of their fair share of resources and responsibilities,” lead author Professor Xuemei Bai said, highlighting the importance of collaboration and shared commitment.

The study presents 10 principles for conducting this process of translation in an effective and fair manner. It argues that translation activities must be:

1) Scientifically rigorous – evidence based, with reproducible quantitative outcomes.
2) Transparent – the rationale for allocations is clearly explained and underlying assumptions and normative considerations are made explicit. 
3) Just – intergenerational and intragenerational equity is sufficiently incorporated. 
4) Systemic – potential consequences of the activity on other locations and parts of the Earth system are considered.
5) Sufficiently safe – appropriate buffers are in place. 
6) Context sensitive – local conditions are taken into account. 
7) Enabling – simple and universal enough to allow for alignment in different contexts. 
8) Incentivizing – actors who are ‘pioneers’ are emboldened to set more ambitious targets, while ‘laggards’ have suitable pathways to catch up.
9) Dynamic and time bound – targets are able to be updated and adjusted. 
10) Synergetic – synergies are maximised and negative impacts are minimised. 

Co-author Gail Whiteman, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School, said: “A key missing leverage point in climate action is the synergistic power of cities and big businesses working together to tackle climate change, biodiversity, water and other planetary pressures.

“Cities, businesses and other local actors are often overlooked in sustainability plans but their decisions have widespread environmental and social impacts. Our guidance and the 10 principles we set out here provide ground-breaking support to these keystone actors that they can contribute meaningfully to global efforts to live within safe and just boundaries.”

The study also presents a clear protocol to guide translation efforts, which takes stakeholders through the different decision points pertaining to specific physical characteristics of each Earth system boundary.

For instance, the authors highlight considerations relating to the spatial construct of the boundary (eg regional, local, ecoregion, biome, basin, grid), the state of the boundary (whether or not the safe boundary has already been transgressed and, if so, by how much and by whom), and the regenerative nature of the boundary (whether and how quickly the Earth system domain regenerates).

The protocol then offers guidance on temporal perspectives (whether a forward- or backward-looking approach should be applied) and the selection of appropriate sharing approaches that adequately consider equity and local contexts.

The 10 principles and protocol together provide guidance for the selection of suitable sharing approaches for allocating budgets and impact reduction responsibilities.

However, Professor Bai cautions: “Each allocation according to a sharing approach will inevitably come with its own trade-offs and inbuilt biases, where moving towards equity in one aspect can move away from attaining equity in another, and where choices in the sharing approaches might favour or disfavour certain actor types over others.

“Multiple sharing approaches often need to be incorporated into translation approaches to better approximate Earth system justice.”

The field of research exploring how ESBs can be translated across actors operating at different scales and in different contexts is still in its infancy.

This study provides the first comprehensive framework on translation, grounded in both science and justice, for cities and businesses to move towards reaching urgent global sustainability targets.

By developing common principles and a clear protocol, the paper aims to ensure ESB translation is robust, transparent, fair and comparable across domains and geographies.

Read the full article in Nature Sustainability here.

The Earth Commission, hosted by Future Earth, is the scientific cornerstone of the Global Commons Alliance, a coalition of scientists, philanthropists, civil society groups, businesses and innovators enabling collective action to safeguard the global commons.

This article is adapted from an original post on