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Posted on on November 21st, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (

The success is on the individual Nations level – “In a short span, many nations have pledged to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases by considerable amounts, well beyond any commitments they had made before,” notes a commentary appearing last month in Nature magazine (Oct. 22). “Norway, for example, offered this month to reduce its own emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Indonesia said it would curb its emissions over that same time by 26 percent below the levels expected under a business-as-usual scenario, with even stronger cuts possible under an international agreement. The European Union has committed to a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels and would increase that to 30 percent with a global pact. And, for the first time,” the commentary continues, “the U.S. Congress is moving {better said limping – sustainabiliTank editor} towards establishing laws that mandate emissions cuts.”

As Nature points out, though, promises are not achievements. Nevertheless, “they at least show that countries have started to analyse their own emissions seriously and to develop domestic agendas that would set them on course to meet their commitments. Such unilateral decisions are an essential starting point for an international agreement, and they suggest that countries are now ready to back up their rhetoric in a way that was not true 12 years ago, when they signed the Kyoto Protocol. {and a country like the US knew that the Protocol will not be ratified by a Senate that voted already by 95 – 0 that it does not want any part of it – editor}. This is now real progress, and it would not have happened without the pressure to produce a treaty,” states Nature.

Which is good news, because human society is going to need all the cooperation and commitment it can muster in coming decades as human populations undermine other biophysical thresholds and threaten Earth’s ability to provide for human life.


In Sweden, a team of Earth-system and environmental scientists led by Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre has already begun research “to define the boundaries of the biophysical processes that determine the Earth’s capacity for self-regulation,” a feature article in the September issue of Nature reported.

The scientists there are attempting to take a holistic look at planetary systems and how human demands on these systems are putting stress on the entire planet, states the article, titled “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.”

“We have tried to identify the Earth-system processes and associated thresholds which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change. We have found nine such processes for which we believe it is necessary to define planetary boundaries: climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading,” explain the authors.

The boundaries for three systems — climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and human interference with the nitrogen cycle — have already been overstepped with unknown consequences for the environment and human society, warn the scientists.

For the past 10,000 years, Earth’s environment has remained remarkably stable, with regular temperatures, freshwater availability, and biogeochemical flows fluctuating within narrow ranges. This period, known as the Holocene, has now been replaced by the Anthropocene, during which human activities have become primary sources of global environmental change.

“Now, largely because of a rapidly growing reliance on fossil fuels and industrialized forms of agriculture, human activities have reached a level that could damage the systems that keep Earth in the desirable Holocene state,” explain the authors. “The result could be irreversible and, in some cases, cause abrupt environmental change, leading to a state less conducive to human development.”

Not surprisingly, this process of identifying systems and thresholds requires many qualifications. The values chosen as boundaries by Rockstrom’s team are for the most part arbitrary, the boundaries do not always apply globally as local circumstances often differ, and “assigning ‘acceptable’ limits to processes that ultimately determine our own survival is risky as some of the suggested limits may be easier to balance with ethical and economic issues than others,” note Nature’s editors.

Nevertheless, the challenge is an essential one in much the same way carbon footprinting is: It helps to calculate, and respond to, the demands that production, consumption and wastes put on local, regional and global ecosystems.

With a better understanding of how Earth’s biophysical systems work, we can better craft land use, resource use, agriculture and emissions policies, both nationally and internationally.

“The evidence so far suggests that, as long as the thresholds are not crossed, humanity has the freedom to pursue long-term social and economic development,” conclude the authors.

The danger, of course, is that in our eagerness to grow our economies and exploit Earth’s bounty, we will push our planet beyond these thresholds — compromising the life quality of our children and grandchildren.

For better and worse, risk-taking is in our genes. We often push to the limit and when we do we win or lose big. So far we have taken the big payouts, leaving the losses to future generations.

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