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SEI brief

Bringing EU policy into line with the planetary boundaries

This brief discusses how the planetary boundaries framework can be used to inform EU policy-making.

Holger Hoff / Published on 20 April 2017

Hoff, H., T. Häyhä, S. Cornell and P. Lucas (2017). Bringing EU policy into line with the Planetary Boundaries. SEI, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Dragonfly and frog
Europe’s biodiversity continues to be eroded resulting in ecosystem degradation. Biodiversity loss is part of the Planetary Boundaries framework. Photo credit: Dare Ferjan / EEA

The Planetary Boundaries framework proposes quantitative limits for human perturbation of critical Earth system processes, and a “safe operating space” within which human activity should attempt to stay in order to avert the risk of large-scale, possibly abrupt or irreversible environmental change.

The Planetary Boundaries framework can help in formulating policies and targets to operationalize the global environmental dimension of the 7th Environment Action Programme and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the EU. However, to do this the Planetary Boundaries need to be “translated” to the EU scale. This brief takes some first steps in doing so, using an equal-per-capita allocation approach. Furthermore, it uses the translated boundaries as benchmarks for EU environmental performance,, and offers a preliminary mapping of current EU environmental policy in order to identify possible entry points for mainstreaming the Planetary Boundaries.

Translating the Planetary Boundaries to EU level involves normative (political) decisions about how to apportion responsibilities and fairly allocate the global safe operating space. This requires an iterative dialogue and deeper cooperation between scientists and policy-makers.

The brief also offers an assessment of the EU’s performance against a selection of downscaled Planetary Boundaries. Based on equal-per-capita allocation of the global safe operating space, the EU does not appear to be “living within the limits of our planet”; it significantly exceeds its per capita “fair share” with respect to the climate change and biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus flows) boundaries. Furthermore, for the climate change, land use, biogeochemical flows and water use Planetary Boundaries, consumption per EU citizen exerts higher pressure on the Planetary Boundaries than the global average (see figure below).

SEI 2017 DB Bringing EU Policy Planetary Boundaries

The authors suggest that existing EU policy instruments provide numerous potential entry points for mainstreaming the Planetary Boundaries. However, they do not sufficiently address interactions between Planetary Boundary processes, nor the EU’s international environmental “footprint”.

Download the discussion brief (PDF, 500 KB)

Note: this brief was revised on 24 April 2017.

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