Earth system interactions, as highlighted by the planetary boundaries framework, occur within and across natural, social and economic systems and shape global environmental change. This paper addresses the multi-level governance problem of coherently addressing key interactions between four Earth sub-systems – climate change, freshwater use, land use and biodiversity – taking into account concerns over problem shifting.

After discussing possibilities for regional downscaling of the boundaries, the authors explore challenges for the EU region to coherently address this particular set of interacting Earth sub-systems and reduce the risk of problem shifting. This analysis demonstrates that Earth system interactions can be governed, but that they likely require comprehensive packages of governance responses across both sub-systems and levels.

Three overarching governance functions are tentatively identified that directly or indirectly address Earth system interactions: reduction of system stress, risks and vulnerabilities; triggering and navigation of transformation of economic activity; and development of a diversity of options. Finally, the paper briefly discusses political and institutional challenges for developing, enabling and stabilising these governance functions.

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