Humanity has reached a saturation point on planet Earth. There is no atmospheric space left to safely add more greenhouse gases, we cannot lose more intact nature or wild species, the oceans are at or beyond biological carrying capacity. We are hitting the planetary ceiling of hard-wired processes that regulate the stability and determine the livability on Earth. For the first time we face the risk of destabilizing the entire planet.
Earth system science has come a long way in understanding the bio-geo-chemical and physical strengths and weaknesses of how the land, atmosphere, oceans and all life interact. Our most recent Planetary Boundary health check shows that 6 of 9 biophysical systems and processes that regulate the state of the planet have transgressed their boundary level and are outside of the safe operating space for humanity. This puts us at risk of permanently undermining the livability for all humans, in terms of everything from water, food, and health to security. Of the 16 large climate tipping point systems on Earth, 4 are likely the cross their tipping points at 1.5°C of global warming. These are the Greenland Ice sheet, the West Antarctic Ice sheet, tropical coral reef systems, and abrupt thawing of permafrost in the Arctic. If this occurs, we would commit future generations to 10 meters sea level rise, permanently ruin the livelihoods for 500 million people depending on coastal tropical reef ecosystems, and trigger feedbacks that would accelerate warming even further. It would not cause an abrupt collapse, but push planet Earth further away from the stable state that our civilization, our modern world, relies on.
But keeping the planet safe is not sufficient for human prosperity and equity. The latest science shows that humanity’s operating space on Earth shrinks even further if human justice is considered. The safe boundary for climate is to avoid exceeding 1.5°C, but well before this, evidence shows that unacceptable levels of harm will hit millions of people across the world. The just climate boundary is set at 1°C, confirming that since we reached 1.2°C of warming so far, we are already deep into the climate-justice crisis.
Scientifically, we today have a good handle on the pace required to face this urgent challenge. Global emissions need to be cut by half by 2030, and reach net-zero for the entire world economy by 2050, in less than 30 years. For nature, loss of species must be halted now, and the world to be on a nature positive trajectory (building more nature than losing) by 2030.
This means that the world is no longer in the realm of incremental and linear change. Instead we need to bend the curves towards positive change, implying exponential change across sectors and geographies. Acceleration and scaling transitions to sustainability are the only two guiding principles to avoid unmanageable outcomes, and to completely fail on universally agreed upon world development targets, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
But equally important as the pace of change, is the need for systemic and unified approaches. I would argue that there are three major challenges in this regard:
1. It is not enough to decarbonize the global energy system. The other Planetary Boundaries, on land, biodiversity, nutrients, water, and pollutants, can on their own, make us crash through the 1.5°C limit. Our only chance of a safe climate landing is a unified approach where we simultaneously return back to the safe space for all Planetary Boundaries, in particular the biosphere boundaries of biodiversity, land and water.
2. We are so close to failing on avoiding climate disaster that we do not only need speed and scale. We also need concerted efforts on all fronts. It is a major mistake in the current climate action debates, when big actors with interests in the oil, gas, and coal industry, use investments in nature based solutions or technologies for carbon dioxide removal (CDR), as “offsets” for the inability to phase out fossil-fuels. This will not work. Science is clear on this point – we need to phase out fossil-fuels AND restore nature to secure carbon sinks in soils and forests, AND to invest in CDR technologies. Additionality is the word of the day, not substitution.
3. The remaining global carbon budget for a 50% chance of holding the 1.5°C line is down to crumbs, adding up to a meagre 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 6-7 years of global emissions at the current pace. This gives us no choice, but to have all countries, businesses, citizens across the entire world working collectively and unified to solve the planetary crisis.
These factors, together, call for an immediate step-change not only in effort and investment, but also in unification and universality, which fully adopts principles of scaling solutions and securing equity. The first UN Global Stocktake Report in the run-up to COP28 unfortunately confirms that we are far from this positive tipping point. Even if all the NDCs are implemented we will still emit 40% too much GHGs in 2030. We are 20 billion tons/yr of GHG emissions off the mark, for a world that today emits some 50 billion tons/yr. We cannot continue with double standards on fossil-fuels and renewable energy, or as a majority of countries are doing today – continue to sit on the fence, with green rhetoric but grey actions, which adds to the perception of widespread greenwashing.
To add to the challenge. We are losing Earth resilience. Terrestrial ecosystems on land are increasingly shifting from sink to source, due to water scarcity, deforestation, disease, land degradation and fires. The Ocean continues to absorb 90 % of heat and 25 % of CO2 from human emissions, but there are increasingly signs of massive stress on marine systems. When we need a strong planet more than ever – to buffer the stress caused by fossil-fuel burning and land use change, we are in an all-time-low in terms of Earth’s capacity to buffer our climate debt.
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All of this implies that the world needs to set its “Earth shot” right – a world that lands safely within Planetary Boundaries by 2050. It means bending the global curves of continued damage of Earth’s biophysical organs and move along exponential pathways to prosperity and equity on a stable and resilient planet. Here follows a few guiding pillars on this journey:
1. We have come to the end of the road of incremental and linear change. The urgency we face is not only about unacceptable risk. We are also running out of time because we might lose the few options we still have as Earth degradation changes our deck of cards. Exponential transformations are required, where innovations, new technologies, new business models, structural changes in how cities and societies are designed and run, are integrated with principles of circularity and equity. Critical here is that innovations and solutions are embedded with regulations and policies that make sustainable life choices easy for citizens. Pricing everything that breaches Planetary Boundaries and subsidizing science-aligned sustainable behavior is necessary. Today, we do the opposite by ploughing in over 5 trillion $/year in subsidizing planet damaging behavior.
2. The first global stocktake has now been delivered for climate, but must be carried out for all Planetary Boundaries. We have budgets for safe levels of freshwater, natural land, biosphere integrity, pollutants. They are finite and equally important for the outcome of human development. In short, the world needs to measure and manage the entire planet, a true “planetary stewardship” to have a chance of positive human development, anywhere in the world.
3. A global reform in governance is required, where all nations develop and adopt principles of how to collectively manage all the global commons that regulate the stability of the climate system and the Earth system as a whole. Today only four global commons are considered in the legal or institutional framing, namely, the high-seas, Antarctica, outer Space and to some extent the atmosphere. These are considered global commons, primarily because they are located outside of national jurisdiction, i.e., they are owned by nobody, and thereby by everybody. This premise, based on how to deal with collective use of common pool resources, must now be widened, to include the biophysical systems that we all depend on for the stability of the planet. My suggestion is to start with the climate tipping elements, e.g., the heat circulation in the ocean, the large rainforest systems, and the Greenland ice sheet.
4. Accelerating exponential change at a global scale can be achieved through positive (social) tipping points, where the incentives, solutions or levers of change, shift so fundamentally that the social feedback decisively moves societies along a new – sustainable trajectory. For example, when electric mobility becomes cheaper and provides better access and higher quality than the combustion engine. Or when healthy food alternatives cost less, taste better and provide better health outcomes. Such social feedback shifts can tip the entire logic on the global market (as with the disruptive step-change experienced with the introduction of the iPhone on January 9, 2007). We need to explore and invest in reaching such positive tipping points.
5. As shown by the Earth4All report, the 50 year update of the Limits to growth, there will be no safe landing for humanity within Planetary Boundaries without transformations in human justice and wealth distribution between rich and poor. Poverty continues to rise in the world, and the only way to get the vast majority of citizens and societies onboard a “race to sustainability” is if this race provides chances of positive leaps in human wellbeing, particularly for the most vulnerable.
All of this is incredibly challenging. Particularly in a world plagued by distrust, geo-political turbulence, shaky economies, and massive challenges just to uphold transparency, truth and democratic principles. But the sustainability transformation holds a winning joker card. In the midst of all the Earth risks, and the need to comply with science aligned targets, we have ample and rising evidence that sustainability is the only window still open, to achieve prosperity and equity for all now and in the future. In many economic sectors, sustainable innovations and solutions provide more competitive and cost-efficient offers to people. We are at the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel driven global economy. In fact, our challenge is not whether we will be phasing out fossil-fuels, it is whether we are going to be too late. Sustainability is no longer an environmental issue only. And it is certainly not about sacrifice and trade-offs. It is the path towards a modernity2.0. Time to put in a high-gear and start delivering.
Johan Rockström is a Professor of Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam and the Director Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
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