Scientists find we are “well outside the safe operating space for humanity” in a new study meant to assess the health of our planet
In a recent study published in Science Advances, scientists have issued a warning about the detrimental impact of human activities on the Earth’s health.
The research reveals that human society has exceeded six out of the nine necessary boundaries for maintaining a healthy planet, pushing the environment into a precarious state. The study identifies nine primary “planetary boundaries” that serve as crucial indicators of the Earth’s well-being.
Unfortunately, humans have surpassed the limits in six of these categories: climate change, biosphere integrity (including biodiversity), freshwater availability, land use, nutrient pollution, and novel entities (such as human-made pollution like microplastics and radioactive waste).
Only ocean acidification, air pollution, and ozone depletion remain within acceptable limits. It’s important to note that these boundaries do not signify irreversible tipping points, but rather highlight the significant influence humans have on the environment.
Lead author of the study, Katherine Richardson, explains that crossing six of the nine boundaries is not an immediate disaster but serves as a wake-up call, akin to elevated blood pressure. It indicates a high risk and prompts us to take action to mitigate the impact on the environment.
The research, which draws from 2,000 studies, is hailed as the “first scientific health check for the entire planet.” The most concerning finding is that all four biological boundaries, which encompass living things, are already at or approaching dangerous levels.
Of particular concern is nutrient pollution, specifically the excessive presence of phosphorus and nitrogen in Earth’s waters. These elements, commonly used as crop fertilizers, lead to harmful consequences like algal blooms and the creation of ocean dead zones when they are released indiscriminately into ecosystems.
This study serves as a call to action for humanity to address these pressing environmental issues and work towards a more sustainable future.
The study highlights the interdependence of nine factors, showing that undermining one, such as climate, has a negative impact on others, including biodiversity. Conversely, strengthening one factor has a positive ripple effect on the others.
For instance, restoring land and forests to their late-20th-century levels would facilitate the absorption of more carbon dioxide, helping combat climate change.
According to Victor Galaz of the Stockholm Resilience Center, who specializes in climate governance and was not involved in the study, it is challenging to convey how these factors interact. People often fail to grasp that when they affect one factor, it can have unintended consequences on others.
The planetary boundaries framework establishes thresholds based on the conditions of the pre-industrial era—a period spanning 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch when humans hadn’t yet begun burning significant amounts of fossil fuels.
However, the metrics used in the study slightly exceed pre-industrial levels to account for Earth’s capacity to adapt to stressors.
For example, while carbon dioxide levels before the Industrial Revolution were 280 parts per million, the planetary boundary has been set at 350 parts per million. Presently, the global average of carbon dioxide exceeds 419 parts per million.
As Richard Richardson, one of the study’s researchers, explains, we are certain that humanity can flourish within the conditions that have prevailed over the past 10,000 years.
However, we are uncertain about our ability to thrive under substantial and abrupt alterations. Unfortunately, human activities are increasingly impacting the Earth system as a whole.
Scientists first defined the planetary boundaries in 2009 and reported that three of them had already been surpassed. In 2015, the framework was updated. This year’s update marks the first time that numerical limits have been set for all the boundaries, including previously undefined metrics.
One of the new aspects covered in the paper is the evaluation of “functional integrity,” which measures the productivity of plants and is a factor in the biosphere integrity boundary.
The researchers propose that humans should use no more than 10 percent of plant biomass to maintain a healthy level.
However, the current usage is around 30 percent, primarily for food and fuel, compared to just 2 percent prior to the Industrial Revolution.
This poses a challenge for those seeking to combat climate change by repurposing large amounts of biomass for fuel.
Increasing the use of plant matter for energy would lead to more deforestation and biodiversity loss, according to Richardson, as reported by Scientific American.
Despite this predicament, all hope is not lost in addressing Earth’s dire trajectory. The researchers point out that the ozone boundary is showing improvement, thanks to global efforts initiated by the Montreal Protocol in 1987. They emphasize that coordinated changes on a similar scale are necessary to tackle the other categories of planetary boundaries.