In response to climate change, biodiversity loss and new regulation, the concept of planetary boundaries has risen to prominence as a critical framework for understanding and addressing our impact on Earth. First published in 2009, planetary boundaries define the safe operating spaces within which humanity can thrive without risking severe environmental consequences. Historically, they have been utilised in scientific and policy areas but in the face of the climate emergency and biodiversity loss, they are now making their way onto corporate agendas.
Using the planetary boundaries lens forces us to go beyond the carbon tunnel vision that many organisations have had when considering sustainability, to look at wider biophysical earth systems. In this blog post, EcoAct’s Kimberley Lasi explains what planetary boundaries are, why they matter for businesses, and the benefits of integrating planetary boundaries into your business strategy.
Planetary boundaries, a concept introduced by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, represent nine crucial Earth-system processes, ranging from climate change to biodiversity loss. The boundaries are limits associated with each of these processes within which human activities must remain to ensure a stable and habitable planet. These boundaries serve as guardrails for sustaining life on Earth. Exceeding them can lead to catastrophic environmental and social consequences, jeopardising the well-being of current and future generations.
The areas assessed within the Planetary Boundaries framework are[i]:
|Earth System Process
|Threshold Avoided or Influenced
|Co2 Concentration (ppm Co2)
|Loss of polar ice sheets; Regional climate disruptions; Loss of glacial freshwater supplies; Weakening of carbon sinks
|Radiative forcing (W/m2)
|Stratospheric Ozone Depletion
|Stratospheric Ozone concentration (Global Average, Dobson units)
|Severe and irreversible UV-B radiation effects on human health and ecosystems.
|Atmospheric aerosol loading
|Overall particulate concentration in the atmosphere (interhemispheric difference in AOD)
|Disruption of monsoon systems; human health effects; interacts significantly with other boundaries including climate change and freshwater.
|Global mean saturation state of calcium carbonate in surface seawater (omega units)
|Conversion of coral reefs to algal-dominated systems; Regional elimination of some marine life; Slow variable affecting marine carbon sink.
|Phosphorous inflow to ocean and regional flow to erodible soils (Tg of P year−1)
|Avoid major oceanic anoxic event with impacts on marine ecosystems.
|Nitrogen amount removed from atmosphere for industrial and intentional human use (Tg of N year−1)
|Slow variable affecting overall resilience of ecosystems via acidification of terrestrial ecosystems and eutrophication of coastal and freshwater systems.
|Blue – Human induced disturbance of blue water flow
|May affect regional climate patterns; moisture feedback; biomass production and carbon uptake buy reducing terrestrial systems and reducing biodiversity. Interaction with climate change, N and P cycles and biosphere boundaries.
|Green – Human induced disturbance of water available to plants (% land area with deviations from pre-industrial availability)
|Land system change
|Global: area of forested land as the percentage of original forest cover; biome: area of forested land as the percentage of potential forest (% area remaining)
|Trigger of irreversible and widespread conversion of biomes to undesired states.Primarily acts as a slow variable affecting carbon storage and resilience via changes in biodiversity and landscape heterogeneity.
|Functional – energy available to ecosystems (NPP) (% HANPP)
|Slow variable affecting ecosystem functioning at continental and ocean basin scales.Significant impact on many other boundaries including climate change, freshwater, N and P cycles and land systems.
Massive loss of biodiversity unacceptable for ethical reasons.
|Genetic – Extinction rate measured as E/MSY (extinctions per million species-years)
|Percentage of synthetic chemicals released to the environment without adequate safety testing.
|Currently viewed primarily as a placeholder for boundaries under investigation that have been combined under this heading. Thresholds leading to unacceptable impacts on human health and ecosystem functioning possible but largely unknown.May act as a slow variable undermining resilience and increase risk of crossing other threshold.
The planetary boundaries were re-calculated in 2023, showing that we have exceeded the safe operating threshold of six out of nine planetary boundaries and that pressure is increasing across all boundaries with the exception of ozone depletion.
The importance of planetary boundaries cannot be overstated. By staying within these limits, we can safeguard the Earth’s ecosystems, ensure the availability of essential resources, and mitigate the effects of climate change. Exceeding these boundaries results in a slew of ecological problems, including biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, and deforestation, among others. These challenges, in turn, impact global stability, human health, and, of course economic prosperity.
Our global economy is dependent on Earth’s systems. Ecosystem services provide us critical benefits that provide the building blocks of society.
Our entire economy is built on a foundation of these ecosystem services which are often undervalued or taken for granted – and it is these systems that are at risk. A study by the World Bank showed that collapse of just four ecosystem services would result in 2.7 trillion USD GDP decline per year by 2030.
Businesses and organisations have a profound influence on the planet’s health. Their operations affect resource consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, they’re closely connected to the Planetary Boundaries. Businesses that neglect these boundaries may face a host of risks, from reputational damage to supply chain disruptions and increased regulatory scrutiny. However, those that engage with planetary boundaries proactively find unique opportunities for growth and resilience.
Integrating planetary boundaries into business strategy is not just an act of altruism; it can significantly benefit organisations. By aligning with these principles, businesses can reduce operational costs, enhance their brand reputation, access emerging markets, and drive innovation. Sustainability practices promote long-term viability and position companies as responsible stewards of the environment. Not only that, but regulatory frameworks are moving more in the direction of Planetary Boundaries and encourage us to explore the interconnected nature of risks and impacts in all areas of sustainability.
The Transition Planning Taskforce (TPT) encourages us to look at interdependencies and trade-offs, The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) covers a range of topics that integrate some of the key planetary boundaries as well as governance and social issues and ISSB IFRS 1 and IFRS 2 goes beyond carbon to encourage reporting of any ESG-related risk or opportunity.
There is currently no single accepted standard for integrating planetary boundaries into your organisational strategy. Though the most widely discussed methods are downscaling and upscaling.
Whichever method you choose, applying the principles of planetary boundaries within your organisation requires a structured approach. Here are some things to consider:
Planetary boundaries offer a vital framework for navigating the complex and interrelated challenges of environmental sustainability. Their relevance to businesses is evident, as they provide opportunities for growth, innovation, and long-term resilience. Organisations that embrace these boundaries are not only contributing to a sustainable future but also positioning themselves as leaders in a rapidly changing global landscape.
If you would like to learn more about how EcoAct can help your organisation align with the principles of planetary boundaries, please get in touch to speak to one of our experts.
[i] Source: Adapted from Rockström et al. (2009). Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. ECOLOGY AND SOCIETY. 14. 10.5751/ES-03180-140232.
Katherine Richardson et al. Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries.Sci. Adv.9,eadh2458(2023).DOI:10.1126/sciadv.adh2458
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