Downscaling Planetary Boundaries: One Nation’s Attempt

The term “planetary boundaries” has been thrown about a lot these past few years, since its debut in Nature in 2009. But what exactly are planetary boundaries?
 
 
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BY ALISON SINGER  | JULY 19, 2013 

The term “planetary boundaries” has been thrown about a lot these past few years, since its debut in Nature in 2009. But what exactly are planetary boundaries (PB)? Essentially, the concept assigns a planetary tipping point, “beyond which the planet and its ecosystems might enter new states, some of which are likely to be less hospitable to our current societies.” In other words, not a boundary we want to cross. Of the original seven quantified PBs, we have already exceeded three: biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle, and climate change, as Carl Folke discusses in his chapter in State of the World 2013.

We have already exceeded three planetary boundaries, according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

 

Planetary boundaries have become a popular framework with various stakeholders, but in our fragmented (through geographic and political borders) global society it is difficult to apply the concept to political or individual action at smaller scales. Sweden’s report, National Environmental Performance on Planetary Boundaries, is a first attempt to scale down the planetary boundaries to a corresponding set of national boundaries, recognizing the interconnectedness of Sweden and the rest of the world.

In order to evaluate its role on the planetary boundaries, Sweden largely relied on consumption-based indicators, which capture the environmental effects of Sweden’s economy both nationally and internationally. Scaling planetary boundaries down to a national level required establishing per capita boundaries, which allows for the absolute measure of a country’s performance instead of its performance relative other nations.

The report suggests that downscaling to national levels is possible for climate change, the nitrogen cycle, freshwater use, and land use change, though the authors warn of the many potential challenges of downscaling. A lack of data and disaggregation difficulties have thus far prevented downscaling of the other boundaries, though the report offers some alternative indicators that could be used to quantify national boundaries. The data demonstrate that very few countries operate within their per capita boundaries for climate change (based on carbon dioxide emissions). Sweden, for example, exceeds the boundary by a magnitude of around five. India, on the other hand, is operating within the national boundary, but is likely to exceed it quickly based on the country’s current rate of development.

The boundary for freshwater use, which unlike that of climate change has not been exceeded on a global scale, suggests that most of the nations studied operate well within the national boundary, though it is important to note that freshwater supplies often transcend political boundaries, and can therefore complicate national boundary measurements. It is evident that downscaling planetary boundaries to a national level can offer some important insight into which environmental issues are most important on a national scale.

The report examines 61 countries in terms of their performance on the planetary boundary issues. This analysis shows countries that face similar challenges, whether it be high emissions or land use change due to excessive urbanization, and may be used as a basis for international cooperation. While it intuitively makes sense that nations facing similar challenges should discuss potential cooperation, it is important to keep in mind that cooperation relies on many other issues, such political relationships and levels of economic development, as well as other non-state actors that may have different views on the benefits of cooperation (such as the fossil fuel lobby).

Finally, the report addresses whether or not international efforts are already being made to address planetary boundaries. They find that there is serious engagement with planetary boundaries, but the implementation of goals has been problematic. Effort, energy, and finances are being spent on international efforts, but implementation and outcomes are not being realized. The report reminds us, however, that international cooperation is not the only method for addressing planetary boundaries, and some issues may be best addressed at regional or national scales.

 

Alison Singer is a research intern for the Worldwatch Institute’s Environment and Society Program.