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Operationalizing the concept of a safe operating space at the EU level – first steps and explorations

Living well within the limits of our planet – how can the Planetary Boundaries help operationalize this vision for Europe?

Holger Hoff / Published on 3 July 2018

Tiina Häyhä, Sarah E. Cornell, Holger Hoff, Paul Lucas and Detlef van Vuuren. 2018. Operationalizing the concept of a safe operating space at the EU level – first steps and explorations. Stockholm Resilience Centre Technical Report, prepared in collaboration with Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden.

Setting the Planetary Boundaries concept into a policy context helps integrate the global perspective and supports vertical and horizontal policy coherence. The Planetary Boundaries framework proposes quantitative limits for human perturbation of critical Earth system processes. In this regard, the planetary boundaries can be seen as defining a global “safe operating space” for human activity. The framework highlights the globally systemic interactions and impacts of the different Earth system processes. Crossing any of the boundaries at the global scale increases the risk of large-scale, possibly abrupt or irreversible environmental change.

globe earth planetary boundaries graph

This study has made an initial disaggregation, allocation and benchmarking analysis to the EU-28 level, for the planetary boundaries for climate change, biosphere integrity, land systems change, freshwater use, biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus), and novel entities (chemical pollution).

The following overarching insights relate to all 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” for most of the boundaries analysed.
  • From a consumption-based (footprint) perspective, Europe’s per-capita contribution to the different Planetary Boundaries is significantly higher than the global average.
  • Regarding past trends, decreases in Europe’s territorial pressures are mostly outweighed by increasing environmental pressures in other world regions, thereby externalising the EU’s environmental footprint. As a result, Europe’s total consumption-based environmental performance does not show an improvement trend for most Planetary Boundaries.
  • The social and ecological impacts of pressures on Planetary Boundaries can be more severe in the locations to which the pressures are externalized, compared to the same pressure exerted within Europe.
  • Data and information limitations present challenges, but the initial Planetary Boundary downscaling and benchmarking has been possible using available data, and is an informative exercise for both policy implementation and future research.

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