Only one Earth: Enabling transformative change to stay within our planet’s natural boundaries

Green transition 2 June 2022 Samantha Deacon

Humanity is living well beyond its means on our planet, which now faces both climate and biodiversity crises. The challenges - and solutions - are connected. On World Environment Day 2022, we explore the ways forward.

Articles
8 min
 

The theme for World Environment Day this year is ‘Only one earth’. No one can argue with that. Yet humanity is consuming key resources 1.75 times faster than our planet’s natural resources can regenerate them. In effect, we are using 1.75 planets!

Sweden is the official host of World Environment Day this year, and it seems fitting to reflect on the Stockholm Environment Institute’s concept of planetary boundaries. The concept is based on the idea that humanity flourished under the conditions on Earth in the 10,000 years leading up to the industrial revolution. The researchers set out key environmental thresholds that should not be breached for fear of pushing Earth out of its “safe operating space for humanity”, in their words.

A recent study  identified a dense network of interactions between the planetary boundaries. For example, land use change can lead to carbon emissions that increase atmospheric carbon dioxide affecting climate change. Unfortunately, once interactions are considered, they lead to an amplification of impacts, resulting in a shrinking ‘safe operating space’ for future human impacts on the Earth’s systems. 

However, this interconnectedness also means reducing impacts on one planetary boundary may lessen impacts on others.

Facing twin crises

Planetary boundaries is a compelling concept, but has three flaws, according to experts . 

  1. It omits that some natural resources are finite and cannot be recovered once a limit is reached. 
  2. There is an issue with scale. Some boundaries relate to global issues, such as climate change, but others are only global if local problems are widely replicated, in aggregate, such as nitrogen fertiliser run-off from agricultural land. 
  3. The concept cannot address modern environmental problems, such as oceanic ‘plastic soup’, because they do not pre-date the industrial revolution and therefore have no basis for a boundary threshold.
 

Still, it is clear that the planet is in both a climate and biodiversity crisis, for which the challenges and solutions are connected. We know the drivers of nature loss, we know we need to consider entire ecosystems, and we need to transform the rate of planetary change through changing behaviours.

Play a part in transformative change

Last year on World Environment Day, the United Nations proclaimed 2021-2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, aiming to prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. According to the UN, meeting this goal could help reduce poverty, combat climate change, and prevent a mass extinction. 
Since that call to action, we have seen positive changes but there is an urgent need for transformative actions. Three actions stand out:

1. Climate action is in legislature and nature action needs to follow

Governments can agree on global targets. For example, the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature sends a united signal to step up ambition for nature, with more than 90 world leaders committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Governments need urgently to implement the ten commitments under the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and help secure a nature-positive world in this decade.

2. Companies must do more, faster

Businesses are encouraged to take action by signing up to develop science based targets for nature (SBTN) and advocating for ambitious nature policies. Financial institutions are developing a framework and guidance for disclosure and reporting on impacts and dependencies on nature through the Task Force for Nature-related Financial Disclosure (TFND). 

Ramboll is a member of the TNFD Forum and is working with companies to deliver their nature positive ambitions and commit to targets in line with SBTN. The challenge is making global aspirations relevant to a business’ value chain, sites, and operational activities. Read how we help clients be nature positive here

3. We all must play our part 

As individuals we must be accountable. This means choosing brands that demonstrate sustainability, committing to reduce our own environmental impact, and listening to the next generation who deal with the consequences of our resource choices today. There is a wealth of information online on how we can take action, including ideas from WWF and the UN.

We need urgent and enduring action

Whether we subscribe to planetary boundaries or more recent nature positive ambitions, this year’s World Environment Day shows us we need an integrated understanding and approach to ecosystems for their restoration and to create resilient societies.

We need to tread more lightly by reducing rates of consumption supported by circular economy approaches and conserving more to achieve the global goal of nature positive by 2030.

Samantha Deacon is Principal for Ecological Services at Ramboll. She leads the company’s Biodiversity and Ecosystems strategy and Nature Positive campaign.

Did you know? 

  • The concept of planetary boundaries was published on the cusp of the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit, meant to herald a new era of living in harmony with nature.
  • The Global Footprint Network measures how fast we consume resources, such as energy, timber, food, fisheries, land for settlement, and waste generated. It also compares them to the rate nature can absorb our waste and generate new resources. Their findings show that by consuming planetary resources at a rate beyond sustainable levels, we are consuming those resources 1.75 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate them. 
  • This year’s theme for World Environment Day is Only one Earth, which focuses on ’Living sustainably in harmony with nature’. 
Norra Djurgårdsstaden: Biodiversity in the Swedish capital

Ramboll has recently worked on a major investment in sustainable urban development in Norra Djurgårdsstaden, in Stockholm, to create a pleasant and functional urban environment with a focus on biodiversity. Ramboll's landscape architects have been involved in several zoning areas relating to the port and watercourses and creating ecological networks, especially for insects and fungi that depend on the forest oak. Existing oaks have been saved, and newly planted oaks allow species to ‘commute’ through the neighbourhood. Read more here (in Swedish). 

Photo: Jansin & Hammarling/Stockholms stad

Norra Djurgårdsstaden contains several green passages with walkways, like this one on Jaktgatan. Courtesy of the City of Stockholm, Photo: Jansin & Hammarling/Stockholms stad.

References:

Lade SJ, Steffen W, De Vries W, Carpenter SR, Donges JF, Gerten D, Hoff H, Newbold T, Richardson K, Rockström J. Human impacts on planetary boundaries amplified by Earth system interactions. Nature Sustainability. 2020 Feb;3(2):119-28.

Lewis SL. We must set planetary boundaries wisely. Nature. 2012 May;485(7399):417-.

Top image: Nature positive action is needed urgently to prevent, halt, and reverse loss of ecosystems, enabling species and habitats to regenerate. (Image credit: Ramboll, based on a concept by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

To contact the editor of this article email: Devapriyo Das

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