Rethinking our Planetary Boundaries in the Post-Corona Era: The Ball is in Our Court

By: Mohammad Kharrazi,  SEPID’s Sustainability Team Leader

The spread of the novel coronavirus causing the disease called COVID-19 has changed the lives of most human beings on this planet, not only temporarily but also permanently in terms of our attitudes towards human life on Earth. This virus has threatened us regardless of our wealth, social echelon, military might, nationality, and technical advances. COVID-19 has sounded the alarms regarding the limits of our infrastructures to contain the negative impacts that it has had on our daily lives and our future PLANS for this planet. This virus has had many unprecedented effects on the way we think about the life on Earth

The events subsequent to the emergence of COVID-19 draw our attention to the limits of our existence on Earth. In the industrial and post-industrial eras, we have collectively acted as if there are no limits to our activities on this planet, ignoring the many natural boundaries that we inevitably have to deal with. The notion of Planetary Boundaries introduced by a team of scientists led by Rockstrom and Steffen in 2009, has introduced these boundaries in a more systematic way (see the picture below).

As it can be seen from the figure, human intervention on Earth has caused us to already exceed some of these boundaries such as biogeochemical flows (mostly caused by excessive use of chemical fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorous) and biosphere integrity (quantified by E/MSY which means Extinctions per Million Species per Year) mostly caused by rapid extinction of many species on Earth for anthropogenic (human-induced) reasons; and many other boundaries are going to be exceeded soon, if we, as a species, are not going to change our attitude and behavior in coming years. Among the other boundaries that have an increasing risk of being exceeded are Climate Change and Land System Change, while in terms of Fresh Water Use the situation is grim in many parts of the world.

Global Warming is a result of excessive emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We have already exceeded the 1oc threshold in 2017 compared to the average pre-industrial global temperatures, and if there is no change in the course, we will soon reach the 1.5oc milestone and shortly after that the 2oc threshold. To digest these figures, it is important to note that each of these numbers is associated with very different circumstances for the life on this planet. The Paris Agreement (2015) got the commitment of most nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by various percentages, in order to keep the post-industrial global mean temperature increase to below 2 degrees; however, subsequent studies have shown that the natural events occurring between 1.5 and 2 degrees are very dramatic, which led the scientists to issue a report in December 2018 warning about those severe consequences and recommending to increase the international commitment so that instead of 2 degrees, 1.5 degree increase be set as the limit for mean global temperature increase.

Land system change is mostly caused by deforestation and urbanization to produce more food and to build more communities to accommodate for population growth. Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have primarily been converted to agricultural land as well as cities and industries. This land-use change has impaired Earth’s natural biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and on the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and other important elements. Forests play a particularly important role in controlling the linked dynamics of land use and climate.

The freshwater cycle can be greatly altered by human intervention for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use. Although at the global level, the freshwater planetary boundary may seem far from exceeding its limits, dry regions across the world are suffering from lack of sufficient freshwater. As such, man-made freshwater cycle changes has severely impacted the available freshwater resources both in terms of quantity and quality in those regions. The increasing lack of suitable freshwater resources has led to mass migration across these regions, which has caused in turn significant social and economic upheavals.

It has been estimated that perhaps 4 billion people today are fed as a result of chemical fertilizers. Much of the nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers is not taken up by the crops; and actually returns to the air and is carried downwind to other locations. Much of it enters the groundwater and rivers, with heavy concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous reaching the estuaries where rivers meet the oceans. These nutrients give rise to “algal blooms,” which are massive increases in algae in the estuaries that grow as a result of the high availability of the nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients. When these algae die, they are consumed by bacteria, which in turn deplete the oxygen in the water, giving rise to hypoxic (low-oxygen) dead zones and killing the fish and other marine life.

We depend on biodiversity for our food supply, our safety from many natural hazards (e.g., coastal flooding), countless construction and industrial materials, our freshwater, and our ability to resist pests and pathogens. When biodiversity is disrupted, ecosystem functions change markedly, usually in an adverse way. Humanity is massively disrupting biodiversity. We are doing so in countless ways, including pollution, land-use change, climate change, freshwater depletion, ocean acidification, and nitrogen and phosphorus flux. Many species are declining in numbers, genetic diversity, and resilience. Humanity is now causing the Earth’s sixth great extinction.

The Corona Virus crisis has not reached its peak yet at the global level, however, it has many lessons for us regarding Earth’s future crises. The current crisis is similar and at the same time different from the crises that could be caused by exceeding some of the planetary boundaries that were explained above. The similarities include global reach, interrupting normal daily activities, overstressing the infrastructure, and most important of all, not being taken seriously enough until it has turned into a crisis. One other important similarity is the need for international cooperation in order to eradicate the problem more effectively. As for differences, the source of COVID-19 is still anybody’s guess, some saying it is man-made and others believe it is the outcome of natural genetic processes. On the other hand, planetary boundary problems are known to be due to human activities and interventions. In terms of the pace of the phenomenon, Novel Coronavirus crisis has had a relatively fast pace and is expected to die down within the year. In contrast, planetary boundary problems are getting worse more slowly, giving us some time to avert them before they run out of control and when becoming a crisis, the magnitude of the problems arising would be much greater and much more difficult to deal with.

COVID-19 will be gone shortly after it has taken a heavy toll on our lives, spirits, societies, and economies; however, our take away from this period is more significant. After the coronavirus is gone, we can get back to our routines and ignore the many warnings that it has had for us; or in contrast, we can get more vigilant about the many more potential crises that are about to come and uproot the mankind from this planet. This latter take should bring the international community together more seriously, leading to more concrete actions to avert forthcoming planetary boundary crises by setting aside individual, national, and regional interests for the sake of universal good. It is up to us to decide which route to take. The ball is in our court.

References:

  • Sachs, J., “The Age of Sustainable Development,” Columbia University Press, 2015
  • Cain, M., Bowman, W., and Hacker, S., “Ecology,” Second Edition, Sinauer Associates, 2011
  • Stockholm University, Stockholm Resilience Centre website

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