Humans threaten Earth’s stability; researchers see hope for balance
(CN) — A group of international scientists says humans are transgressing six of nine planetary boundaries that are vital for Earth to maintain the stability and resilience humans need to thrive, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.
“We know we have issues in all of these individual segments of the Earth system, but this is the only place where we put it all together and say, ‘Hey, you know, we’re not going to make the climate goals if we don’t also respect biodiversity goals and reforestation,” said lead author Katherine Richardson, leader of the Sustainability Science Centre and a principal investigator for the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen.
“What climate change and the biodiversity crisis are telling us now is that for our own sake, we need to manage our relationship with the global environment. And the 'planetary boundaries' is the framework. It’s a tool to be able to manage that relationship,” said Richardson in a telephone interview with Courthouse News Tuesday.
The planetary boundaries framework defines biophysical and biochemical systems that regulate the stability of the Earth's systems. Boundaries mark points where each system diverges significantly from the period between the last ice age and the industrial era — the “Holocene-like” interglacial state — which the team suggests is the best planetary state for people.
Trained as a biological oceanographer, Richardson got involved with how the ocean affects the rest of the Earth.
“Since the 1990s, that’s 30 years, I have been working with an international team trying to develop this new branch of science which is called Earth System Science," said Richardson, 69. It is really about trying to describe how interactions between biology, physics, chemistry and people create conditions on Earth — the impact of humanity on the function of life on Earth.”
The team, made up of 29 scientists from eight countries, identified nine processes that are critical for maintaining the stability and resilience of Earth. All segments are “heavily perturbed” by human activities, but according to the study, six of them need more immediate attention: biochemical flows; freshwater change; land system change; biosphere integrity; climate change; and novel entities, such as synthetic chemicals and nuclear waste, and biogeochemical flows, such as the movement of nitrogen through global element cycles.
The remaining three boundaries in better condition are ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol loading and stratospheric ozone depletion.
The researchers say they hope the framework will help scientists consider how different segments interact and impact each other, but “this will require the development of Earth system models that more completely capture geosphere-biosphere-anthroposphere interactions than is the case today,” the scientists noted.
For the last 10,000 years, Earth has been “incredibly stable,” according to Richardson. But since the Industrial Revolution, around 30 percent of the energy nature should have received has vanished.
“We are actually using too much biomass in the global community,” said Richardson.
The authors hope this updated planetary boundaries framework can serve as a renewed wake-up call to people that the familiar state of the Earth may not last. They want the framework to help guide sustainable development. Scientific insight into planetary boundaries does not limit but rather stimulates people to innovate toward a future where stable systems will be preserved and safeguarded, the researchers wrote.
When asked if there were any countries or regions that were doing most of the damage, Richardson didn’t hesitate to name the culprits.
“Interestingly enough, the real damage is being done by the wealthy countries,” Richardson said.
Richardson said she was busy fielding interview requests Tuesday, but she was wary about how media would interpret the report.
“I’m afraid the press is going to try and sell this as a doomsday type of thing," she said. "In fact, it’s not. I see it as being very positive. Knowledge is power and it gives us a handle. It’s a bank account. We don’t get rich by money,” Richardson said. “I really believe that the planetary boundaries framework is a very useful tool because it can be regarded as a bank statement of our resources.”
“You can’t party forever," the scientist added. "The fact that we’re transgressing these boundaries is showing us the party can’t continue unless we stabilize our relationship to these boundaries that we're using too much of. We have much of the knowledge, tools and technology that we need to do it; unfortunately, we haven’t yet adopted our economic and finance systems to make it pay to do what we know we need to do,” she said.