Children sitting at a round table in a school classroom

Credit Abir Abdullah / Climate Visuals Countdown

Humans are taking colossal risks with the future of civilisation and everything that lives on Earth, a new study published in the journal Nature shows.

Developed by an international science commission engaging more than 40 researchers from across the globe, the scientists deliver the first quantification of safe and just Earth system boundaries on a global and local level for several biophysical processes and systems that regulate the state of the Earth system.

For the first time, safety and justice for humanity on Earth is assessed and quantified for the same control variables regulating life support and Earth stability.

Justice, assessed based on avoiding significant harm to people across the world, tightens the Earth system boundaries, providing even less available space for humans on Earth.

This is extremely challenging, as the Earth Commission concludes that numerous of the safe boundaries are already crossed today.

Convened by Future Earth, the Earth Commission is the scientific cornerstone of the Global Commons Alliance.

“We are in the Anthropocene, putting the stability and resilience of the entire planet at risk,” said Professor Johan Rockström, Earth Commission Co-Chair, lead author and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“This is why, for the first time, we present quantifiable numbers and a solid scientific foundation to assess the state of our planetary health not only in terms of Earth system stability and resilience but also in terms of human wellbeing and equity / justice.”

Professor Joyeeta Gupta, Co-Chair of the Earth Commission, Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam and Professor of Law and Policy in Water Resources and Environment at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, said: “Justice is a necessity for humanity to live within planetary limits.

“This is a conclusion seen across the scientific community in multiple heavyweight environmental assessments.

“It is not a political choice.

“Overwhelming evidence shows that a just and equitable approach is essential to planetary stability.

“We cannot have a biophysically safe planet without justice.

“This includes setting just targets to prevent significant harm and guarantee access to resources to people and for as well as just transformations to achieve those targets.”

Danger zone

Dr Jesse Abrams, from the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, said: “This work represents one of the most holistic measurements of the finite limits of the planet that we live on.

“I think everyone is familiar with the 1.5°C boundary, but there are a whole host of other limits to our planet’s resilience and ability to provide the services that we so desperately depend on, which we quantify here.

“Perhaps more importantly, we expand the physical limits concept to also consider justice.

“When we take justice into account, we see that the 1.5°C target shrinks to 1°C.

“We are already past this at 1.2°C and are in the danger zone.

“We see that harm to humans really starts kicking off at around 1.2-1.3°C, with exposure to extreme heat and a higher occurrence of other extreme weather events – and this is only looking at climate.

“In addition to the climate boundary, we find that we are also beyond the boundary for six of the seven other domains.

“Furthermore, it is quite interesting to see that there are global hotspots where multiple boundaries are crossed.

“These often coincide with areas that are projected to be areas of population growth, potentially exposing millions of people to unsafe conditions.

“While this may sound like all is lost, it’s not and that is the most important message to take from this work.

“By understanding the limits of our planet, we can minimise threats.

“However, we have a short time to act – only immediate action will ensure a safe and just future for all beings on our planet.”

Dr David Armstrong McKay, also from Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, said: ”In this new Earth Commission assessment we build on the planetary boundaries framework, for the first time also assessing justice dimensions on the same units as the safe boundaries.

“We find that maintaining Earth system stability is necessary to prevent significant harm to people, and considering international and intragenerational justice as well makes several boundaries more stringent.

“Researchers from the University of Exeter contributed across the Earth Commission, including assessing climate tipping points and heat extremes for the safe and just climate boundary, as well as helping to set the nutrient cycle and biosphere boundaries.”

Health indicators for people and planet

The Earth Commission has quantified safe and just boundaries for climate, biodiversity, freshwater and different kinds of pollution to air, soil and water – and most have been breached.

For example, human activities are altering water flows, excessive amounts of nutrients are released into waterways from fertiliser use, and limited natural areas are left.

This poses existential threats for a stable planet, to ecosystems and their vital contributions to people.

The world has already passed the safe and just climate boundary, which is set at 1°C above pre-industrial temperature levels, as tens of millions of people are already harmed by the current level of climate change.

Professor Rockström added: “Our results are quite concerning: Within the five analysed domains, several boundaries, on a global and local scale, are already transgressed.

“This means that unless a timely transformation occurs, it is most likely that irreversible tipping points and widespread impacts on human wellbeing will be unavoidable.

“Avoiding that scenario is crucial if we want to secure a safe and just future for current and future generations.”

Professor Dahe Qin, Co-Chair of the Earth Commission and Director of the Academic Committee, Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: “The Earth system is in danger, as many tipping elements are about to cross their tipping points.

“So far, 17 tipping elements are identified in scientific literature, among them, nine are cryosphere-related.

“The Asia High Mountain Cryosphere (AHMC) is fast changing and close to becoming a new tipping element, which can impact the regional social-economy.”

Global target setting has focused on climate change and limiting global warming well below 2°C and aiming at 1.5°C according to the Paris Agreement.

Science also clearly shows there is a need to manage all the other biophysical systems and processes on Earth that determine the liveability on the planet.

Wendy Broadgate, Earth Commission Executive Director and Future Earth, Global Hub Director, Sweden, said: “The Earth system is an interconnected set of biophysical processes that operate across regions and scales.

“Interference in one part of the world can have enormous impacts in other regions.

“Using Earth Systems Boundaries as an entry point for holistic and transformative action will support impactful and just progression towards a safe and just world.”

Justice tightens the available space for humans

The new study builds on authoritative scientific evidence defining the biophysical conditions to maintain a stable planet to underpin life on Earth (“safe”) as well as assessing how significant harm can be avoided to humans and other species.

Past scientific attempts to define environmental boundaries, such as the Planetary Boundary framework, have looked at the global conditions needed to maintain a stable planet and safeguard life on Earth.

Steven Lade, Lead author and Research Scientist, Earth Commission Secretariat at Future Earth, Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, said: “The new research provides safe and just earth system boundaries for five critical domains that play a key role in life support and Earth stability.

“It also explores what’s needed to minimise significant harm to humans as a result of changes in the Earth system and sets boundaries at scales relevant for assessment and management of the conditions of biophysical systems such as the biosphere and freshwater.”

Safe boundaries ensure stable and resilient conditions on Earth, and use an interglacial Holocene-like Earth system functioning as a reference point for a healthy planet.

A stable and resilient Earth is dominated by balancing feedbacks that cope with buffer and dampen disturbances.

Cutting edge science on climate tipping points feature as one major line of evidence to set safe boundaries.

Just boundaries minimise human exposure to significant harm.

The Commission defines significant harm as: widespread severe existential or irreversible negative impacts on countries, communities and individuals from Earth system change, such as loss of lives, livelihoods or incomes, displacement, loss of food, water or nutritional security, chronic disease, injury or malnutrition.

Professor Gupta added: “Our safe and just boundaries will guide target setting, but must also be realized through just transformation processes that ensure minimum access to resources for people.”

The Safe and Just boundaries take the stricter of the two quantified levels to identify the Safe and Just Earth System Boundary.

Science for real-world application

The Earth Systems Boundaries will underpin the setting of new science-based targets for businesses, cities and governments to address the polycrises of: increasing human exposure to the climate emergency, biodiversity decline, water shortages, ecosystem damage from fertiliser overuse in some parts of the world coupled with lack of access elsewhere, and health damage from air pollution.

In a time of increasing scrutiny and expectations, the resilience and success of businesses, cities and governments will depend on their ability to accurately measure and improve their impact on people and planet – and target opportunities within the finite limits of the planet.

Broadgate said: “A safe and just transformation to a manageable planet requires urgent, collective action by multiple actors, especially in government and business to act within Earth system boundaries to keep our life support system of the planet intact.

“Stewardship of the global commons has never been more urgent or important.”

Rockström concluded: “With this global scientific assessment, we provide all stakeholders with scientific boundaries that can enable a prosperous and equitable world development on a stable planet, a better future for people and planet.

“This new science functions as input to the development of science-based targets.

“These can be adopted by cities, businesses and countries to address the systemic global crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, nutrient overloading, overuse of water, and air pollution.”