Beyond planetary boundaries: towards Earth systems justice

July 4, 2023
Broadening the shared value system of planetary boundaries

The Planetary Boundaries Framework has a prominent place in climate action research and policies. For instance, it is incorporated by the Rio+20 Summit's work on sustainable development and has been adopted by the One Planet Thinking Initiative, led by the World Wildlife Fund. Planetary boundaries indicate the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate. They are built on the premise that human actions impose substantial risks of destabilizing Earth systems, which decreases the safe space for global societal development. The framework does, however, not take into consideration that boundaries may not be inherently just for all humans. After all, creating a safe space does not imply that it will be equitable for everyone.

In the first half of 2023, the researchers of the Planetary Boundaries Framework published two new studies that define and operationalize Earth systems in relation to justice (ESJ). They show “how boundaries may need to be adjusted to reduce harm and increase access, and challenge inequality to ensure a safe and just future for people, other species and the planet.” Building on the planetary boundaries framework, they have proposed target levels on safety and justice, with the aim to minimize exposure to significant harm (widespread severe existential or irreversible negative impacts on countries, communities and individuals from Earth system change). They differentiate three types of justice: 1) interspecies justice and Earth system stability (rejecting human exceptionalism), 2) intergenerational justice between generations, and 3) intragenerational justice between countries, communities and individuals. Broadening the scope to safety and justice, they expand on the shared value system that is needed to inspire and drive climate change action. Instead of solely emphasizing safety, they recognize Earth system stability and resilience are interconnected with human well-being. They acknowledge that accessibility to resources and vulnerabilities to climate risks vary across species, locations and generations.

ESJ research gives substance to the Deep Transitions Framework

The Deep Transitions Framework embraces this shared value system of safety and justice, and the acknowledgement that planetary stability and wellbeing are inseparably linked. The Deep Transitions Framework includes seven guiding principles for a healthy, just and equitable planet based on ongoing research and promising developments. While five of the principles are more clearly defined and tangible, the planetary perspective and societal wellbeing serve as overarching values and are therefore less easy to define. They are, however, needed to guide public and private decision making to overcome the deeply rooted problems of ecological degradation and socio-economic inequality. The planetary perspective recognizes humans as being a part of nature, instead of apart from nature. Societal wellbeing is an all-encompassing goal; to safeguard wellbeing amongst all species that are here today and in the future. The Earth Systems Justice (ESJ) research relates very much to the two value-based guiding principles. I will elaborate on the connection by linking the themes[1] driving the principles to the characteristics of the ESJ research. This not only helps explain how the two studies relate to each other, but also gives substance to the less tangible principles of the framework. 

A planetary perspective is shaped by the acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of people and nature, and their interrelatedness. The ESJ research embraces this acknowledgement in its research, relating anthropogenic activities to the stability on Earth systems, whereafter it analyses the effects of these (in)stabilities on safe and just societal development. Because the researchers include interspecies justice, they place the non-human in their scope as well. Also, the planetary perspective is driven by worldwide solidarity and a sense of community. The researchers showcase the importance of “an equitable sharing of nature’s benefits, risks and related responsibilities among all people in the world, […] to provide universal life support.” The call for sharing benefits, responsibilities and universal support emphasizes the sense of worldwide solidarity and community. Another theme giving shape to the planetary perspective is the need for inter- and transdisciplinary and systemic perspective in sciences. The ESJ research takes on this perspective. It is conducted by a transdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists from the Earth Commission. This Commission, established in 2020, is an international team that builds on existing research such as the IPCC. They are therefore uniquely positioned to bring transdisciplinary research to life, and make it relevant for policy agendas and decision makers across different countries. 

The principle of societal wellbeing is pushed by the development of definitions and models to measure (elements of) wellbeing. Because the ESJ research offers a quantitative foundation for safeguarding global commons, it helps further define the scope and definition of wellbeing and how to measure it. Another theme within societal wellbeing is the realization of equitable opportunities on primary life domains like food, care, energy et cetera. The concept of justice in scope of the ESJ research is used to stimulate just access to food, water, energy, and infrastructure. Not only for current generations, but also without harming future generations’ access. This stimulates equitable opportunities for the entire world, rather than the privileged. Societal wellbeing inherently means that society (both humans and non-humans) are made resilient for sudden shocks and changing environments, so human development can flourish. The aim of the ESJ study is to ensure planetary boundaries reduce harm and increase wellbeing, meaning that the ambition for human flourishing is at the core of the research.

The shared value system can raise a critique

Thus, the ESJ research shows that these two principles of the Deep Transitions Framework are gaining momentum in crucial scientific research. However, building a shared value system where human values of safety and justice are at the core can raise a critique. The ecological and societal crises we are facing are symptoms of damaging human activity, there is no doubt about that. The way we reduce everything non-human to human language and manageable situations has brought us to where we are today. One might say it is very anthropogenic to put justice and safety in the center of the analysis, as if humans are the only focal point on this planet. However, we must not forget that interspecies justice is included in the ESJ research, meaning the values are not only meant for humans. Also, as per fellow thinktank members Julia Rijssenbeek and Martine Dirkzwager Wu's upcoming article, some anthropomorphism is inevitable. “Humans can only think and speak from a human point of view.” They argue that we can observe and learn from other species through technologies like nanotech, but we cannot erase our differences with the non-human. Thus, the work on Earth Systems Justice, and the aim of the Deep Transitions Framework, might be the next best thing to bring the interrelatedness between humans and planetary systems together and spur climate action.

About the author(s)

With an eye on sustainability and societal well-being, Vivian specializes in the development and facilitation of solutions for fundamental sustainable transitions in society and the economy. Together with partners and clients within and outside the organization, she translates the FreedomLab framework on Deep Transitions to concrete workshop methods, business model innovations and investment opportunities. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she conducted research on how systems thinking and a paradox perspective can resolve conflicting tensions in corporate sustainability. Next to the development and operationalization of the framework, she is the driving force behind the creation of a sustainability strategy for all of Rasile Group's entities.‍

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