Planetary Boundaries, Food and Humanity

Planetary Boundaries: Due to the complex interaction between human activities and the ecosystem, humanity’s food system is facing severe threats.

words by Jagadish Wagle (Jesi) of INCOMESCO

Let me take an opportunity to talk about Planetary Boundaries (PBs), food and humanity. Due to the complex interaction between human activities and the ecosystem, humanity’s food system is facing severe threats. The data show that, after 1950, a massive change in climate has occurred, sweeping across the surface in a most challenging way. The changing natural settings of ecosystems, due to human activities, have increased the risks of sudden collapse and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, in the face of severe biodiversity loss and changes in ecosystem services.

Johan Rockström is a Professor in Environmental Science
Johan Rockström is a Professor in Environmental Science.
Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

PBs represent a conceptual framework of the effect of ongoing unlimited human activities on the limited capacity of the earth. There are nine planetary boundaries identified. The nine PBs regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system. In 2009. the concept was introduced first by a group of 28 scientists led by Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC). Further, the United Nations former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon endorsed the concept of planetary boundaries on 16 March 2012. The scientists proposed quantitative planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing the boundaries increases the risk of sudden environmental changes. Now, the planetary boundaries framework has generated enormous interest in science, policy, and practice. The nine planetary Boundaries are:

  • Stratospheric ozone: filters ultraviolet rays (UVR) coming from the sun, which would otherwise place the system is at risk.
  • Biosphere (biodiversity) integrity: infinite human activities affecting eco-systems risk disintegration of natural biodiversity.
  • Chemical: emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds, and radioactive materials can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms.
  • Climate: severe climate change and increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 have been noticed since 1950.
  • Ocean: increasing amounts of CO2 ultimately dissolve in the oceans and forms carbonic acid by altering the ocean chemistry. The increased acidity reduces the number of available carbonate ions.
  • Freshwater: freshwater is severely affected by climate change and human activities such as deforestation, agricultural need, urbanisation, and industrialisation. Human activity is the most dominant driving force in depleting the availability of this resource.
  • Land system: Land is fragmented for real estate, agriculture and industrialisation purposes. Deforestation and drought result. Landslides are becoming larger and more frequent.
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus: Nitrogen and phosphorus are important elements for the growth of plants. Due to human activities, the natural cycle of biodiversity, biochemicals such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus has been changed, risking serious consequences.
  • Atmospheric aerosol: The influence of aerosols on climate system through the interaction with water vapor affects cloud formation, atmospheric circulation, and monsoon systems.

The planetary boundary can be understood more easily from the image below.

Red: beyond zone of uncertainty (high risk) Yellow: In zone of uncertainty (increasing risk) Green: Below boundary (safe) Grey: Boundary not yet quantified.
Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

In the figure above, the green area represents human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow area represents human activities that may or may not have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the grey areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined (Rockström, J., et al., 2009; Steffen, W., et al., 2015). Due to unlimited human activities on earth, two of the nine planetary boundaries (Biochemical flows and Biosphere integrity) have already crossed their limitation and pose a great threat of sudden collapse.

Let’s take the example of a balloon to illustrate the concepts of input and limitation. If air is continuously pumped into a balloon, it must at some point burst. That point is the extreme end of the balloons limitation, the point at which any additional input results in disaster. Hence, there is an urgent need for finding a safe space to perform controlled human activities (population growth and food production) within our limited resources. It is important to understand negative (trade-offs) and positive (synergies) interaction across the systems and how to prevent harmful outcomes. So, exploring a safe place has been the greatest challenge of the sustainable development discourse.

The concept of “safe space” has been further explored in a post at INCOMESCO. I invite you to join me there and share your thoughts.


Rockström, J., et al., 2009. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity

The nine planetary boundaries

Steffen, W., et al., 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet

How Defining Planetary Boundaries Can Transform Our Approach to Growth

Planetary boundaries research

Let the environment guide our development | Johan Rockstrom

A fundamental misrepresentation of the Planetary Boundaries framework

Climate chaos to continue in 2018, UN chief warns; will the world rise to challenge? 

We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN 

An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways

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