In the Anthropocene with rising exponential pressures on our finite Earth system one very obvious issue arises, which is whether or not we’re running into resource constraints to the extent that we can talk of passing the peak of resource availability for humanity.
But if we add to that the recognition that we have to operate within a safe operating space of a stable Earth system an additional elements adds even to the peak, namely the need for a fair distribution of the remaining budgets with regards to each of the planetary boundaries.
Irrespective of whether the resources are coming to an end, we need to recognize that there’s just a finite, absolute amount of carbon left to be emitted into the atmosphere; nitrogen left to be used on our land to produce food; fresh water to be consumed without avoiding or trying to avoid that we cross tipping points with regards to ecosystem functions in basins.
And in this lecture we’re going to combine the analysis of the risk of us passing peak levels of resource availability, and the fair distribution and downscaling of planetary space within the analysis of our safe operating space of planetary boundaries.
Now this has very, very strong links to sustainable development because as soon as we recognize the risk of running out of resources, and as soon as we recognize we need to stay within global budgets of fundamental resources that determine our ability for social and economic development, we are in the realm of equity and just distribution of space, particularly in a world with 1 billion absolute poor and in a world that will soon have more than two new billion co-citizens on Earth predominantly born in what today is developing countries.
So this truly entering the realm of connecting the biophysical analysis with the issues of development. Now the journey we’ve made is absolutely extraordinary in terms of recognizing that we are in a situation where we need to consider resource constraints very seriously.
To the left-hand here, you have an illustration of the past 100 years of use of resources in the world. It is analyzed by combining the classical parameters that add up to human impacts on Earth, the so-called IPAT equation, impact equally population multiplied by affluence, multiplied by technology.
And here you see these entities expressed in terms of population numbers, technology is expressed in the number of patents registered, and affluence simply as world GDP. And if you look at that small, little graph on the lower left-hand corner that is the world in 1900, that is the turn of the century a little bit more than 100 years back, with a very small imprint in the world. In fact we had essentially no influence on the Earth system as a whole and we did not have any risks of hitting the ceiling in terms of resource constraints.
And then: bang! We move into the great acceleration with 3.5 billion people and we put into high gear of industrial development in the world and suddenly choof! We’re in the final huge box in the upper right-hand corner. And that’s the world of today, the world filled up with the junk originating from the over-consumption and the propelling of the modern industrial systems; societies that we all know.
What is so remarkable with this journey which you have to recognize is that we often blame population growth for causing this. In fact that’s not the predominant number. If you look at this analysis carefully you see that the largest influence is affluence, which is the number one driver of increased resource use.
So it is absolutely essential to recognize that when we operate the world, and try to transition into a safe operating space, we must address the fair sharing among all citizens on Earth of the affluence and the wealth that we are generating.
On the right-hand side you have a New Scientist summary of where we are on one element of resource constraints, which is particularly rare Earth metals, everything from aluminum and uranium, all the way to lysium, and different key metals that are used to get our mobile phones to work, and computers, and video systems, and cars.
And what is remarkable with this analysis is it shows that at our current pace of resource exploitation we will run into, or pass, the peak of resource availability within this century. In fact, for some metals even within decades. And this is a reminder that the discourse around peak of resources is a real one. And it’s not only about metals, it’s about phosphorus, it’s about oil, it is increasingly about everything that is the fundamental base from the Earth system building up our well being.
Now how does this translate into the economy? Well it starts to have an indent. In the lower left-hand corner here you see what is known to all of us, the fact that we’re leaving behind the era of cheap oil. In fact we see today the rising volatility of global oil prices is occurring at a very high level, between 75 and over a 100 in fact, sometimes a 110, a 120 US dollars per barrel of oil. This is a signal that we are at or approaching peak oil in terms of cheap oil availability.
In the upper left-hand corner you have the worrying graph of trend with regards to yield levels of key cereals, our staple food crops in the world, which shows as you see a slow but sure stagnation in terms of growth rates, not really keeping pace in the red line with population growth. A reminder that we do not know whether we’re running into a kind of peak when it comes to land and water resources related to food production.
And the large graph shows, and is the reminder, of what’s happening with commodity prices? Well over the past 100 years we’ve had shocks in the system. We had a shocking rise of commodity prices in the world with the big wars in the world, the oil shock in the ’70s. But look at the current world of the Anthropocene.
We enter the fundamentally globalized world of today, and we are stuck it seems in a permanent level of high commodity prices. All of this adds up to the conclusion that we need to consider resource constraints as a fundamental part of navigating the Anthropocene.
Now how does this relate to planetary boundaries? Well in some parts it does so one-to-one, but in other parts it doesn’t. And that distinction is really important to make. Take phosphorus, for example. Clearly evidence indicates that we may be running out of cheap phosphorus. Phosphorus, one should remember, is like oil; it’s a finite and mined resource. Are we transgressing phosphorus? Well yes, the evidence shows we are in a danger zone irrespective of whether or not we’re running out of phosphorus.
For nitrogen we’re certainly not at peak. There is an endless amount of unreactive nitrogen in the atmosphere, but we are clearly loading reactive nitrogen at a level, which is taking us into a danger zone of tipping points.
Climate change, the same. We are seeing evidence of peak, particularly on oil, but we’re also in a danger zone with regards to climate change.
So this is an example of how the comparison of the two concepts can be done to guide also sustainable development.
Therefore it falls naturally to then ask the question: how does the planetary boundary analysis address the issue of distribution among nations and citizens in the world?
And what we’ve done for this analysis is to try for those boundaries that do operate truly across scale to try and spatially distribute the analysis at the appropriate level where each boundary operates.
And this falls naturally, for example, the land boundary, which of course land use change occurs locally and adds up to the global level. Nitrogen is applied at the local scale of a farmer’s field, or wasted in a waste water treatment plant in an urban region, but adds up to problems at the larger scale. Same for fresh water; same for biodiversity loss; same in fact for aerosol loading, which operates entirely at the regional scale where soot, and black carbon, and emission of pollutants changes rainfall patterns not at the global scale, but at the regional scale.
So it’s clear that planetary boundaries have direct relevance across scales, and we’re increasingly exploring how to downscale the relevant boundaries to the level where they operate at their local ecosystem level.
And several initiatives are taking along these lines. Interestingly, for example, an effort of downscaling the responsibility for the global boundaries at the national scale illustrated here by one report trying to translate boundaries to the context of a nation, in this case Sweden.
There’s also scientific efforts of trying to advance the theory on how can you in fact translate the global boundaries into the regional scale of large biomes? And finally even efforts at the larger policy level of bringing forward what does global boundaries mean in this case for the European Union in terms of operationalizing environmental policy? So all examples of trying to connect the scales from global to regional.
What we’ve done is actually tried to do it within the analysis of how do the boundaries operate in maintaining resilience at different scales? And here are just a few examples of the advancements in this area.
So the global boundary on biodiversity loss and biosphere integrity was originally set as the maximum allowed amount of number of extinctions we can allow ourselves on Earth. But now we’re able to downscale this to look at the maximum Amount of biodiversity loss in different ecosystems, and do that in a way that can increasingly address both the number of species, but also the ecological functions they represent, and project that across time, and thereby be able to identify the hotspot regions in the world where we need to very, very rapidly transition into a sustainable management of ecosystems, but we can also see the areas where in fact we’re doing progress already on staying within a safe operating space.
Importantly we can do this also for the interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle. And if you map out the global boundary of phosphorus, the global boundary of nitrogen, and apply it to where it is actually originating from, which is predominantly in the applications on agriculture land, what appears that is not surprisingly an overuse of boundary, in fact a transgression into a danger zone, in the richest nations in the world, where we have the hotspots in terms of overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus, while you see the parts of the world that so far stay very clearly within a safe operating space.
And this addresses heads-on the distributional issue of the boundaryes. It shows for example in this case that poor developing nations in Africa have a right and a need to increase their use of nitrogen and phosphorus to be able to raise food production, and can still do so within a safe operating space. While the rich nations in the world actually need to drastically reduce the use of nitrogen and phosphorus, and particularly phosphorus because it’s also one of these resources that are [is] hitting peaks.
Same with fresh water. Here we can analyze basin by basin where are we taking out too much fresh water? Here it’s no longer a clear cut issue of north, south division in terms of overuse. Here’s rather recognizing that the interface between social well being, nations being more or less poor or rich, but also those regions that are more or less endowed with high degree and good access to fresh water.
So what you’re seeing here is, for example, that the well developed parts of [the] western United States are in fact transgressing the regional basin-scale boundary for fresh water, but similarly parts of India where overuse of water is related very, very closely to inherent water scarcity.
Finally on land use we then can explore much more in detail how much of our current temperate, boreal and rainforests do we still have standing? How much of this do we need to have standing to enable a resilient Earth system? And where are we in terms of hotspot regions in the world? Showing, for example, that we need to very rapidly address sustainable management of temperate forests, boreal forests, and the real hotspots about safeguarding that we have remaining, thriving, and resilient rainforests in the world.
So in conclusion, our analysis of planetary boundaries defining a safe operating space shows we need to be really precautious. In fact the analysis indicates that way before we reach a peak level of overuse, we may have to seriously consider boundaries beyond which we risk crossing tipping points that can undermine our abilities to thrive in the future.
But my conclusion is we need to put these analyses together, recognizing both peak resources and the global budgets that we now need to distribute in a fair way among all citizens in the world to truly have not only a safe sustainable development but also a just sustainable development.