Setting Boundaries: A Framework for Preserving Earth’s Resilience

The Earth is in need of worldwide stewardship organized under quantified guiding principles. That was a major theme in the lecture by Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Center and Professor of Environmental Science at Stockholm University. He spoke on Tuesday, Sept. 19 for MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative’s first People and Planet lecture of the academic year.

“It’s the narrative of human survival,” Rockström said. “The ability to navigate the future for…at least nine, potentially even 10, billion co-citizens on Earth [by 2050], all with the same right to good lives. “

Rockström is best known for his 2009 proposal identifying specific limits to Earth’s various systems. He called these limits planetary boundaries and warned that should we exceed them, we may no longer enjoy the life-sustaining balance between nature and human progress.

The nine boundaries—which include climate change, biodiversity loss, the biogeochemical cycle on Earth, ocean acidification, land use, fresh water availability, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol levels, and chemical pollution—are meant as scientifically determined sustainability guidelines for governments and corporations.

Despite current political uncertainties, Rockström is hopeful. He sees a path forward in the Carbon Law, the idea of halving carbon emissions every decade. Many governments and businesses have already adopted the planetary boundaries framework to guide their decision making. The use of renewable energy sources is doubling every 5.4 years; continuing that rate of growth is a key strategy to phase out the use of fossil fuels and achieve full decarbonization of the economy by 2050, according to Rockström.

“We’re starting to see signs of planetary stewardship,” Rockström said. “For the first time ever, humanity has a road map for people and planet…The light at the end of the tunnel is real.”

by Stephanie M. McPherson