Just a few days prior to today's launch of the second Planetary Boundaries report in Science, I sat down with Copenhagen University professor, Katherine Richardson for a one-on-one chat about the new findings of the report. Katherine discussed her experience empowering decision makers and sparking debates worldwide through scientific work, and shared her views on climate change negotiations, and future trends in global sustainability. She also had a clear message to those who refuse to see the limits of our planet.

Katherine is one of the twenty-six leading scientists who came together through the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and published the first Planetary Boundaries (PB) paper in September 2009.

FROM SCIENTIFIC PAPER TO GLOBAL GOVERNANCE AGENDA

The paper made history, becoming one of the most cited - more than 2500 academic citations - influential and acknowledged articles on environmental sustainability. It has helped to put the debate on climate change and depletion of resources high on the global agenda, and empower the demand for action. The framework of Planetary Boundaries was then endorsed and used as a reference point in policy and decision-making by the UN general assembly, UNEP and the European Commission, along with a long line of local governments, policy institutions and public authorities.

According to Katherine Richardson, the reason behind the broad institutional embrace was that, for the first time, all the data was compiled, organized and communicated in a way that made it accessible and understandable for members outside the scientific community, with specific emphasis on the political and decision-making community.

“To our great surprise, the paper's findings have been really picked up by the decision-making community and that caused me to do a great deal of thinking about the role of science in society. Although we often say our research is relevant for society, we usually “package” our results according to what we think others need to know or hear rather than packaging our results in a way that users actually find useful," Katherine explains.

"Politicians should never dictate which kind of research should we do, but they can have a say on how they want its results packaged, so it will be useful for them. And this is what the first Planetary Boundaries accidentally showed, it was packaged in a way they understood and could use. I think that this is what commits us to go and try to make it better, in the second Planetary Boundaries report.”

NEW DEVELOPMENTS

So now, six years after the first paper, the group of scientists has come together to reassess, develop, and publish the new Planetary Boundaries 2.0, which was published today in Science journal (15 Jan 2015). The timing of the publication is not coincidental either, taking place at the opening of a crucial year for climate change negotiations, as the world works its way towards COP20 in Paris and adoption of the UN post-2015 sustainable development agenda, and just days before the World Economic Forum opening in Davos, where BP2 will be presented.

Changes made from the previous version to the new one, include that some of the boundaries were re-adapted and expanded to be more inclusive (e.g. the chemicals and entities), while other boundaries were re-defined and adjusted to draw the boundaries of eco-system functionality (in particularly the in the field of biodiversity and land). Some new methods of measurement were also adopted.

One main point of criticism the previous paper received is the shortcomings in representing the interactions between the different systems. The new version is trying to rise up to the complex challenge and introduce the interconnectivity between the different earth systems. It does so by identifying two key core boundaries – Climate and Biosphere Integrity, while all the other systems are operating through these core systems. This help following and understanding the channels of influence and interactions between the energy on earth (represented by Climate) and the chemical and biological building blocks of the systems (represented by Biosphere Integrity).

ASSESSMENT REVEALS ETHICAL DILEMMAS

An additional novelty in the new paper is the introduction of the regional distribution in the assessment of each of the boundaries, in order to improve the ability to identify areas of high risk.

“The attempt to desegregate the risks from global to regional levels can be dangerous in a way, since it points out the ethics problem – if we can’t use more nitrogen than we are using today, but we know, that putting more nitrogen on Sub-Saharan soil will increase food production in this area, then somebody will have to stop or reduce the use of it in other areas… and maybe that someone should be from the areas of the red zones [areas with high levels of reactive nitrogen emission].”

As Katherine points out, the key influence of the PB concept doesn't lie within its scientific aspects, but rather within the ethical challenge it presents to our society.

“What Planetary Boundaries is really about, is equity. We have no international convention or body that acknowledges the fact that there is a limit to how much we can take out of the earth systems. And one of the reasons we don’t have that, at the moment you accept this fact, you open the discussion on how we're going to share what we have.”

BEYOND CARBON EMMISSIONS

This statement certainly holds the test of reality in the process of climate change negotiations. As Katherine points out, the easiest part is to estimate how much CO2 we are allowed to emit before hitting the 2 degrees target. The difficulty is the political discussion over who gets the right to emit them.

As Katherine previously hinted, the issue of climate change governance is far from being the only obstacle ahead. One of the many contributions of the Planetary Boundaries is that it provides its stakeholders with a holistic view of the state of the earth systems, underlining the areas and spheres of risks, and helping to gain perspective and review priorities.

The need for such a tool can be examined through the discourse over the carbon emissions vs. the one on nitrogen and phosphorus emissions. While the carbon emissions receive immense focus, the PB2 identifies that the nitrogen and phosphorus reactive emissions, which so far have managed to stay under the radar, are no less of a threat to the earth systems. Currently, modern agriculture is responsible for releasing dangerous amounts of reactive nitrogen, which is a group of gases affecting climate change, biodiversity, water quality, etc.

The only feasible manner to gain control over these emissions is to increase efficiency of nitrogen fixation in agriculture. Much like in the case of climate change, the technologies to address these problems are constantly developing, but the burning question is how the emissions of nitrogen will be distributed, who is going to enjoy the new technologies, and who is going to pay for them.

Once again, a constructive discourse around this issue must be taken, and Katherine foresees that soon we will witness an emerging global focus on nitrogen and phosphorus, just as we did on climate change.

“It's not only the carbon cycle, we are impacting, so we will have to deal with these problems again and again, because we are such a major force on this planet”.

FORECAST FOR PARIS

Despite the different earth boundaries presented in the second PB paper, Katherine predicts that the major immediate impact will still be within the climate change discourse. She points out that the climate change negotiations are pushing new territory in developing new tools for global management mechanism, and the need for this tool will continue to present itself in addressing other environmental challenges (such as the nitrogen and phosphorus).

Despite the challenge of developing a global management tool, and the criticism that followed the Lima climate talks, Katherine sounds optimistic towards the upcoming COP21 in Paris, in December this year:

“We always hear the press saying that this is not enough, about everyone’s efforts: the Americans, the Chinese, EU, etc. However, the fact is that President Obama has gone as far as he possibly can, and the Chinese have indirectly said: 'we accept the fact that our citizens will never be able to emit as much CO2 as citizens of developed countries'. So in a way, this breaks the stalemate on developed and developing countries, and that’s a long way we've walked over the past 5-10 years”.

As Katherine puts it, “we are now with our backs absolutely against the wall”, and though there is no reality in which we won’t be affected at all by climate change, she believes that this time around, our leaders in Paris will be able to crack this nut, and reach a practical agreement.

Katherine also predicts a growing focus and empowerment for action in the field of biodiversity, circular economy, and chemicals, in the coming years. She feels there is a general sense of growing acknowledgement and understanding that our resources on earth are limited, and we better do something about it.

As to the skeptics and deniers, claiming that there is no scientific evidence for the risk in surpassing earth's capacities, Katherine provides a simple answer: “The most downloaded photo on the Internet, is the photo of the earth from space, and this image clearly shows that the earth has no umbilical cord, and if it doesn't have one, then we must be limited in the resources and capacities we have within our closed system”.

The goal of PB is not to scare or to paint a gloomy picture of our future, even though it can be a bit difficult to see sometimes. The aim of this global scientific effort is to provide an efficient tool to assess the risks of our activities on earth, and to learn to recognize the warning signs before disaster strikes.

“We don’t try to dictate how society should operate and develop, we are doing the job of your bank accounter and say “OK, you've got this much money, and you can use it in many different ways, but remember, you can only use it once!””