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Planetary boundaries is the central concept in an Earth system framework proposed by a group of Earth system and environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University. In 2009, the group proposed a framework of “planetary boundaries” designed to define a “safe operating space for humanity” for the international community, including governments at all levels, international organizations, civil society, the scientific community and the private sector, as a precondition for sustainable development. This framework is based on scientific research that indicates that since the Industrial Revolution, human actions have gradually become the main driver of global environmental change. The scientists assert that once human activity has passed certain thresholds or tipping points, defined as “planetary boundaries”, there is a risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. The scientists identified nine Earth system processes which have boundaries that, to the extent that they are not crossed, mark the safe zone for the planet. However, because of human activities some of these dangerous boundaries have already been crossed, while others are in imminent danger of being crossed.

The nine boundaries are

  1. Climate change
  2. Biodiversity loss
  3. Biogeochemical - nitrogen and phosphorous
  4. Ocean acidification
  5. Land use
  6. Freshwater
  7. Ozone depletion
  8. Atmospheric aerosols
  9. Pollution

Planetary boundaries Steffan et al 2015.jpg

Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production United Nations Environment Programme; 2010

Environmental impacts are the unwanted byproduct of economic activities. Inadvertently, humans alter environmental conditions such as the acidity of soils, the nutrient content of surface water, the radiation balance of the atmosphere, and the concentrations of trace materials in food chains. Humans convert forest to pastureland and grassland to cropland or parking lots intentionally, but the resulting habitat change and biodiversity loss is still undesired. The environmental and health sciences have brought important insights into the connection of environmental pressures and ecosystem damages. Well-known assessments show that habitat change, the overexploitation of renewable resources, climate change, and particulate matter emissions are amongst the most important environmental problems. Biodiversity losses and ill health have been estimated and evaluated. This report focuses not on the effects of environmental pressure, but on its causes. It describes pressures as resulting from economic activities. These activities are pursued for a purpose, to satisfy consumption. Environmental pressures are commonly tied to the extraction and transformation of materials and energy. This report investigates the production-materials-consumption nexus.

Climate change

Biodiversity loss

Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment Tim Newbold, Lawrence N. Hudson, Andrew P. Arnell, Sara Contu, Adriana De Palma, Simon Ferrier, Samantha L. L. Hill, Andrew J. Hoskins, Igor Lysenko, Helen R. P. Phillips, Victoria J. Burton, Charlotte W. T. Chng, Susan Emerson, Di Gao, Gwilym Pask-Hale, Jon Hutton, Martin Jung, Katia Sanchez-Ortiz, Benno I. Simmons, Sarah Whitmee, Hanbin Zhang, Jörn P. W. Scharlemann, Andy Purvis; AAAS Science; 15 Jul 2016

Land use and related pressures have reduced local terrestrial biodiversity, but it is unclear how the magnitude of change relates to the recently proposed planetary boundary (“safe limit”). We estimate that land use and related pressures have already reduced local biodiversity intactness—the average proportion of natural biodiversity remaining in local ecosystems—beyond its recently proposed planetary boundary across 58.1% of the world’s land surface, where 71.4% of the human population live. Biodiversity intactness within most biomes (especially grassland biomes), most biodiversity hotspots, and even some wilderness areas is inferred to be beyond the boundary. Such widespread transgression of safe limits suggests that biodiversity loss, if unchecked, will undermine efforts toward long-term sustainable development.

Biodiversity falls below ‘safe levels’ globally UCL; 14 Jul 2016

Levels of global biodiversity loss may negatively impact on ecosystem function and the sustainability of human societies, according to UCL-led research.
“This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from UCL and previously at UNEP-WCMC.
“We know biodiversity loss affects ecosystem function but how it does this is not entirely clear. What we do know is that in many parts of the world, we are approaching a situation where human intervention might be needed to sustain ecosystem function.”
The team found that grasslands, savannas and shrublands were most affected by biodiversity loss, followed closely by many of the world’s forests and woodlands. They say the ability of biodiversity in these areas to support key ecosystem functions such as growth of living organisms and nutrient cycling has become increasingly uncertain.
The study, published today in Science, led by researchers from UCL, the Natural History Museum and UNEP-WCMC, found that levels of biodiversity loss are so high that if left unchecked, they could undermine efforts towards long-term sustainable development.

Biodiversity is below safe levels across more than half of world's land – study Adam Vaughan; Guardian; 14 Jul 2016

Analysing 1.8m records from 39,123 sites across Earth, the international study found that a measure of the intactness of biodiversity at sites has fallen below a safety limit across 58.1% of the world’s land.




Coastal dead zones, global warming, excess algae blooms, acid rain, ocean acidification, smog, impaired drinking water quality, an expanding ozone hole and biodiversity loss. Seemingly diverse problems, but a common thread connects them: human disruption of how a single chemical element, nitrogen, interacts with the environment.
Nitrogen is absolutely crucial to life — an indispensable ingredient of DNA, proteins and essentially all living tissue — yet it also can choke the life out of aquatic ecosystems, destroy trees and sicken people when it shows up in excess at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong form. And over the past century, people have released so much of this type of nitrogen — known as reactive nitrogen — that scientists say we’ve passed the limit of what the planet can safely handle.

Can the World Find Solutions to the Nitrogen Pollution Crisis? Fred Pearce; Yale Environment 360; 6 Feb 2018

The world is using nitrogen fertilizer less and less efficiently. A greater proportion than ever before is washing into rivers and oceans. An environmental catastrophe looms, nitrogen scientists say, and the world urgently needs to develop strategies to prevent it.
Post-war physicists fearing nuclear apocalypse came up with the Doomsday Clock. In the 1980s, biologists contemplating ecological meltdown began talking about “biodiversity” loss as a way to tag and measure the crisis. Soon after, climate scientists recast concern over global warming with a warning that within a century it would lead to temperatures greater than any in human history.
Now, it is nitrogen’s turn.
Last month, in a seminar room at New York University, a score of nitrogen experts from around the world began drawing up scenarios of what a future nitrogen-soaked planet might look like – and to devise simple metrics for encouraging a global effort to head off disaster.
They met as part of the International Nitrogen Management System, a five-year, $60-million research project from the UN Environment Programme and the Global Environment Facility, that is intended, says its chief Mark Sutton, as nitrogen’s equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The bottom line, many there concluded, was that we must halve the amount of nitrogen we dump into the environment by mid-century or our ecosystems will face epidemics of toxic tides, lifeless rivers, and dead oceans. And that to do that will require, among other things, almost doubling the efficiency of nitrogen use on the world’s farms.


Freeze-thaw effects on phosphorus loss in runoff from manured and catch-cropped soils Bechmann ME, Kleinman PJ, Sharpley AN, Saporito LS; Journal of Environmental Quality; Nov 2005

Concern over nonpoint source P losses from agricultural lands to surface waters in frigid climates has focused attention on the role of freezing and thawing on P loss from catch crops (cover crops). This study evaluated the effect of freezing and thawing on the fate of P in bare soils, soils mixed with dairy manure, and soils with an established catch crop of annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum L.). Experiments were conducted to evaluate changes in P runoff from packed soil boxes (100 by 20 by 5 cm) and P leaching from intact soil columns (30 cm deep). Before freezing and thawing, total P (TP) in runoff from catch-cropped soils was lower than from manured and bare soils due to lower erosion. Repeated freezing and thawing significantly increased water-extractable P (WEP) from catch crop biomass and resulted in significantly elevated concentrations of dissolved P in runoff (9.7 mg L(-1)) compared with manured (0.18 mg L(-1)) and bare soils (0.14 mg L(-1)). Catch crop WEP was strongly correlated with the number of freeze-thaw cycles. Freezing and thawing did not change the WEP of soils mixed with manures, nor were differences observed in subsurface losses of P between catch-cropped and bare soils before or after manure application. This study illustrates the trade-offs of establishing catch crops in frigid climates, which can enhance P uptake by biomass and reduce erosion potential but increase dissolved P runoff.

Ocean acidification

Leading Ocean Scientists Recommend Immediate, Coordinated Action Plan to Combat Changes to West Coast Seawater Chemistry Scripps Institution of Oceanography; 6 Apr 2016

Global carbon dioxide emissions are triggering permanent changes to ocean chemistry along the North American West Coast that require immediate, decisive action to combat.
That action includes development of a coordinated regional management strategy, concluded a panel of scientific experts including Andrew Dickson, a professor of marine chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
A failure to adequately respond to this fundamental change in seawater chemistry, known as ocean acidification, is anticipated to have devastating ecological consequences for the West Coast in the decades to come, the 20-member West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel warned in a comprehensive report unveiled April 4.

Land Use


NASA Satellites Reveals Northern India's Groundwater dropping at one foot per year due to irrigation and other human activities Next Big Future; 3 Apr 2016

NASA Satellites Unlock Secret to Northern India's Vanishing Water NASA; 12 Aug 2009

Beneath northern India’s irrigated fields of wheat, rice, and barley ... beneath its densely populated cities of Jaiphur and New Delhi, the groundwater has been disappearing. Halfway around the world, hydrologists, including Matt Rodell of NASA, have been hunting for it.
Where is northern India’s underground water supply going? According to Rodell and colleagues, it is being pumped and consumed by human activities -- principally to irrigate cropland -- faster than the aquifers can be replenished by natural processes. They based their conclusions -- published in the August 20 issue of Nature -- on observations from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).
"If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water," said Rodell, who is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

A Bamboo Tower That Produces Up To 25 Gallons of Water In A Day by Capturing Condensation Goods Home Design

Ozone depletion

Atmospheric aerosols

Chemical pollution

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust Tim Maughan; BBC Future; 2 Apr 2015

Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia is a toxic, nightmarish lake created by our thirst for smartphones, consumer gadgets and green tech

Highly efficient heavy metal ions filter Science Daily; 25 Jan 2016

In November 2015, Brazil experienced an unparalleled environmental disaster. When two dams broke at an iron ore mine, a poisonous cocktail of heavy metals was sent pouring into the Rio Doce, reaching the Atlantic some days later. The consequences were devastating for nature and humans alike: countless fish, birds and animals died, and a quarter of a million people were left without drinking water.
This case demonstrates that water pollution is one of today's most serious global problems. No satisfactory technical solution has been found for the treatment of water contaminated with heavy metals or radioactive substances. Existing methods used to remove water from heavy metals, for example, have several disadvantages: either they are too targeted at a specific element or their filter capacity is too small; additionally, they are often too expensive.
Now, a solution may have been found in a new type of hybrid filter membrane developed in the laboratory of Raffaele Mezzenga, Professor of Food and Soft Materials at ETH Zurich. This technology not only has an extremely simple structure, but also comprises low-cost raw materials, such as whey protein fibres and activated charcoal. Heavy metal ions can be almost completely removed from water in just a single pass through the filter membrane.

Efficient removal of uranium, other heavy metals from water Science Daily; 10 Dec 2013

A new and efficient method for the removal of uranium and other heavy metals from water has been developed at the University of Eastern Finland. Chemec Ltd., a Finnish chemicals industry company, has purchased the rights in the invention and will introduce the method to the commercial markets. Binding metal ions to a solid material, the CH Collector method can be used within the mining industry, and also in the removal of emissions caused by the chemicals and metals processing industries.
Chemec's CH Collector method is a potential solution to issues relating to the dangers and recovery of uranium, which have been a topic of much debate in Finland lately. Uranium is a mildly radioactive and poisonous heavy metal, which is naturally occurring in some parts of the Finnish bedrock. When mining other metals such as gold, uranium may be present as an impurity in mining waste waters. A complete removal of uranium from solutions is difficult due to the fact that uranium takes different forms depending on the acidity of the solution. The removal of other heavy metal emissions such as lead, mercury, cadmium and zinc from waters is also challenging.

Air pollution

Study: More than 6 million could die early from air pollution every year

Choking Our Health Care System With Coal Conca; Forbes

19 April 2016: EU membership delivers cleaner air Stephen Tindale; Climate Answers; 19 Apr 2016

Ozone Pollution Grows, but It Can Be Fixed Dave Levitan (Ensia); Scientific American; 22 Feb 2018


Ground-level ozone, or O3, is a hazard to human health and the environment, causing respiratory problems and exacerbating asthma while also harming some vegetation and wildlife. Created when by-products of combustion interact with sunlight, it may cause more than a million deaths each year around the world, along with tens of billions of dollars in crop losses.
From a technological standpoint, this is a fixable problem. Available — though sometimes costly — solutions for scrubbing ozone precursors from smokestack emissions exist. In fact, the U.S. auto industry has already managed to cut vehicle emissions of ozone-exacerbating pollutants more than 99 percent over a few decades, thanks in large part to regulations that required changes to gasoline formulation as well as engine technology. In the U.S., past progress includes a 31 percent decrease in the national average ozone concentration from 1980 to 2016. Emissions of the precursor pollutants have showed similar declines in other parts of the world such as Europe, but large portions of the population still are at risk of dangerous exposures.

Ocean pollution

Where Plastic Goes, Coral Disease Follows Andrea Thompson; Scientific American; 30; Jan 2018

In the relatively pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef marine disease ecologist Joleah Lamb spent years looking for the ways human activities—from pollution that warms the ocean to commercial fishing to scuba diving and other tourist activities—could affect how often the legendary corals off the Australian coast get sick.
One thing she and her team did not see much of was plastic trash. “So it wasn’t something I thought about a lot,” Lamb says. That changed when she and colleagues began studying the reefs off Indonesia, Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia. They were floored by the ubiquity of diapers, water bottles and plastic bags littering the fragile ecosystems. The researchers kept a record of the detritus they came across in their work in the region—and the data shows that after plastic comes into contact with a reef, the coral is 20 times more likely to be afflicted by disease.