We need to stop gambling with our planet - and our well-being - now

Respecting planetary boundaries can bring us back to a safe operating space where Earth’s life support systems are not at risk.

Climate change is likely to cause an increase in wet-bulb temperatures in India, which take into account the combined effect of humidity and air temperature. High wet-bulb temperatures feel much hotter for the human body, and are much more dangerous. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

This summer shattered records as the hottest season the world has ever seen, triggering droughts, fuelling devastating forest fires, unleashing torrential floods, and intensifying hurricanes to alarming levels. This devastation is unfolding at a rate that surpasses even our most dire predictions, and causing immense suffering, often for people who did not cause the problems. 2023 is on track to be the warmest year on record.

In an extraordinary moment of global unity, governments worldwide came together in 2015, and agreed to curb global warming. They committed to keep it well below 2°C and aim for 1.5°C - the flagship goal of the Paris Agreement. Since then, science has confirmed that 1.5°C is a limit, and anything beyond it poses both immediate and long-term threats to human civilisations.

While it’s heartening to see that 72 countries have net zero targets either enshrined in legislation or outlined as a goal in policy documents, our current trajectory puts us on track to surpass the 1.5°C limit by the early 2030s – breaching the Paris Agreement. This will impact the livelihoods of millions, cause increases in extreme events like floods, droughts and heatwaves, and put several tipping points, like the Greenland ice sheet at risk of accelerated and persistent melting.

Holding global warming as close as possible to 1.5°C will require much more than “only” phasing out fossil fuels and reducing all other greenhouse emissions. We can no longer ignore Earth’s other life support systems that we are rapidly destroying. It is very clear in the latest Planetary Boundaries science, unveiled in September, that if we do not collectively act to take care of the whole planet, we will be amplifying and speeding up humanity’s journey towards increasingly unliveable conditions in large parts of the world.

It is crucial to recognise that there will be no safe landing on climate if we don’t act now to bring the other planetary boundaries into a safe operating space. In other words, even if we phase out all fossil-fuels, overuse of water, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and land degradation can alone make us crash through the safe climate limit.

While it’s heartening to see that 72 countries have net zero targets either enshrined in legislation or outlined as a goal in policy documents, our current trajectory puts us on track to surpass the 1.5°C limit by the early 2030s – breaching the Paris Agreement. 

In 2009, 28 of the world’s top scientists came together to develop a new approach to understanding how our planet operates and ultimately sustains itself, known as the “Planetary Boundaries”. 

Planetary boundaries are the crucial limits that define the safe zone for our planet’s vital systems. These limits include factors like climate stability, biodiversity, and the quality of our water and air. Crossing these boundaries carries severe consequences, threatening the well-being of nature and ourselves.

Planetary Boundaries 3.0 shows that we have crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries, plunging past the safety threshold for a habitable planet into the danger zone. The latest science tells us that things are getting worse, not better, with eight of nine boundaries moving in the wrong direction.

The interconnected nature of the planetary boundaries means that deterioration in one can destabilise others, setting off a chain reaction of environmental degradation and detrimental impacts to communities. 

For example, one of the planetary boundaries is freshwater. This year it was revealed that global freshwater demand will outstrip supply by 40 per cent by 2030. We are misusing water, polluting water, and changing the whole global hydrological cycle. Our actions are already causing biodiversity loss, triggering forest fires and deforestation - impacting carbon reduction and leading to failed farming and ultimately displacement of people due to adverse weather and lack of reliable supply of freshwater for food and health.

We are gambling with our planet. We need urgent action now. 

Cooperation on a grand scale

Reversing the damage, bringing us back within the safe planetary boundaries, will require cooperation across humanity like we’ve never seen before. And it will require a new approach from governments.

In response to the science, the Planetary Guardians, a collective of committed leaders, has come together to be spokespersons for the need, from all governments, companies, and communities, to actively engage as stewards of the planet. The Guardians will elevate the science and work towards making the Planetary Boundaries a measurement framework for collective global action. 

The Planetary Guardians are calling for a whole-planet approach to restoring the stability of the Earth, one which expands the focus on climate change to mobilize the world to stay within a safe operating zone for all nine boundaries, including preventing nature loss, protecting freshwater systems, and transforming our agricultural systems.

To help embed this new approach, we will unveil a Planetary Boundaries Health Check each year, so that governments, businesses, and philanthropists can be guided by the science and coordinate our efforts.   

We’re at a pivotal moment as we fast approach COP28. It’s urgent for global leaders to act boldly. We must deliver results to the current agreements like the Paris Agreement, the High Seas Treaty, and the Global Biodiversity Agreement and with the little time we have left to change course, we need to use the Planetary Boundaries framework as a compass to ensure we bring ourselves back to a safe operating space where none of our Earth’s life support systems are at risk.  

We have no doubt this is possible. But it will require new leadership and collective action by all of us. It is of particular importance that women leaders step up dramatically and act to restore our planet’s harmony and secure a better future for everyone.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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