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Human impacts on planetary boundaries amplified by Earth system interactions

Abstract

The planetary boundary framework presents a ‘planetary dashboard’ of humanity’s globally aggregated performance on a set of environmental issues that endanger the Earth system’s capacity to support humanity. While this framework has been highly influential, a critical shortcoming for its application in sustainability governance is that it currently fails to represent how impacts related to one of the planetary boundaries affect the status of other planetary boundaries. Here, we surveyed and provisionally quantified interactions between the Earth system processes represented by the planetary boundaries and investigated their consequences for sustainability governance. We identified a dense network of interactions between the planetary boundaries. The resulting cascades and feedbacks predominantly amplify human impacts on the Earth system and thereby shrink the safe operating space for future human impacts on the Earth system. Our results show that an integrated understanding of Earth system dynamics is critical to navigating towards a sustainable future.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual framework for planetary boundaries and their interactions.
Fig. 2: Interactions between the planetary boundaries.
Fig. 3: The role of interactions in the current state of the planetary boundaries.
Fig. 4: A safe operating space for human impacts on the Earth system.
Fig. 5: Effects of interactions between planetary boundaries on the shape of the safe operating space for human impacts on the Earth system.

Data availability

All data used in the manuscript’s analyses are available in the Supplementary Information (Supplementary Tables 1 and 2).

Code availability

All computations are fully described in Methods. Implementation in R of these computations is available upon request.

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Acknowledgements

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council Advanced Investigator project ‘Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene’ (grant ERC-2016-ADG-743080), the Swedish Research Council Formas (grant 2014-589), the Earth League’s Earth Doc programme, a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, Velux/KR Foundation (FP-1503-01714) and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (grant NE/R010811/1). We thank S. Cornell and R. Trebilco for their comments on drafts of the manuscript.

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S.J.L. and W.S. conceived the study. S.J.L., W.S. and W.d.V. developed the paper’s methodology. All authors contributed to the survey of literature. S.J.L. performed the modelling. S.J.L. and J.F.D. contributed to graphical representation of results. S.J.L. led the writing of the paper. All authors contributed to editing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Steven J. Lade.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Tables 1–3 and methods.

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Lade, S.J., Steffen, W., de Vries, W. et al. Human impacts on planetary boundaries amplified by Earth system interactions. Nat Sustain 3, 119–128 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0454-4

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