A graphic depiction of the updated planetary boundaries framework

A graphic depiction of the updated planetary boundaries framework. Click to enlarge. Source: Steffen et al. (2015).

The analysis, produced by an international team of 18 researchers, including Linn Persson of SEI, finds that the planetary boundaries for climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen) have been crossed.

Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call “core boundaries”. Significantly altering either of these “core boundaries” would “drive the Earth System into a new state”.

Persson, a Head of Unit in the SEI Stockholm Centre, contributed to the analysis of chemical pollution that is covered in the ninth planetary boundary, novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).

Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment (by affecting atmospheric processes and climate).

Nine planetary boundaries

  1. 1. Climate change
    2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
    3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
    4. Ocean acidification
    5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
    6. Land-system change (e.g. deforestation)
    7. Freshwater use
    8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere)
    9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, micro-plastics)

Yet industries and individuals continue to pollute the environment with chemicals, many of them with unknown effects. In recent years there has been a growing debate about the global scale effects of chemical pollution, leading to calls for the definition of criteria to identify the kinds of chemical substances that are likely to be globally problematic.

“The planetary boundary concept highlights a missing aspect in current chemical hazard and risk assessments: there is not yet an aggregate, global level analysis of chemical pollution,” says Persson. “Researchers and policy-makers need to develop improved methods to identify and handle planetary scale chemical hazards. And it is important that decision-makers, in both the public and private sector, press ahead with efforts to regulate chemical pollution and support new methods to understand how chemicals interact through the environment up to the global level.”

Finding solutions
The article suggests some precautionary and preventive actions. These could include a stronger focus on green chemistry, finding synergies with risk-reducing interventions in other fields such as occupational health, and investing in science to better understand and monitor for disruptive effects from novel entities as early as possible.

“The conclusion is that we must develop new methods in order to improve current chemical hazard and risk assessments, before large-scale production and usage begins, with potential threats to the population and the earth systems”, Persson says.

The challenge to the research community is to develop the knowledge base that allows the screening of chemicals, before they are released into the environment, for properties that may predispose them towards becoming global problems. Policy-makers, producers and users on a global level can start by following already implemented legislation on chemicals, in order to minimize the risk of spreading chemicals into the environment and increase the risk to human health, especially in less developed countries.

A growing body of work
This new Science article builds on a large body of scientific work critically assessing and improving the planetary boundaries framework since its original publication in 2009. SEI was at the forefront of developing the framework and has since worked on several projects focusing on global governance, down-scaling and practical applications of the framework, and policy engagement.

An ongoing research project led by SEI’s Holger Hoff looks at how the planetary boundaries framework could inform policy-making in Germany and across Europe. The results will include recommendations for implementation, policy and research.

SEI has also contributed to research on individual boundaries, such as for chemical pollution and freshwater use. Click on related publications in the top corner to read SEI publications about planetary boundaries.

Read the Science article (external link)