Montpellier — Using the scientific concept of 'planetary boundaries' as a basis for policy could justify new kinds of "environmental authoritarianism" and harm democratic, grassroots participation in policymaking, a conference has heard.
The planetary boundaries model identifies nine earth systems that, if human activity pushes beyond certain limits, would irrevocably transform the planet's environmental balance.
Highlighting relationships between ecosystems, the model shows how breaching one boundary - for example, the limit of 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide relating to climate change - will create pressure on other thresholds, such as the level of ocean acidification and the rate of biodiversity loss.
Since its initial publication by the journal Ecology and Society in 2009, the model has increasingly informed environmental policy discussions, according to Melissa Leach, director of global research charity the Institute of Development Studies.
But it risks maintaining a status quo of top-down policymaking at a time when new approaches are needed, Leach told a resilience conference earlier this month (7 May) in Montpellier, France.
"The problem isn't the paradigm itself as an area of science," she said. "The problem is when it gets taken up unquestioningly into policy and is aligned with tendencies to have government, market and techno-fixes that overlook important opportunities to build on bottom-up, grassroots action and innovation."
'Green grabbing' - the appropriation of natural resources in the name of environmental protection - has often been justified by arguments based on the planetary boundaries concept, Leach said.
As an example, she highlighted forest carbon-offset projects implemented by governments and firms as a way to cut global carbon dioxide levels. Such projects often deprive communities of local farmland or culturally significant spaces without offering any compensation, she added.
"This current wave of green grabbing is repeating the problems of the past, but now under the new banner of keeping within planetary boundaries," Leach said. "It builds on a long history of environmental protection being achieved at the expense of local livelihoods. Such schemes ultimately fail as they don't take into account the needs of local communities."
The concept ultimately needs to be used cautiously when used to inform environmental policy, she said.
"Planetary boundaries science is very important, but we need to see it as a means of opening up democratic discussion rather than a way of closing down on a single set of top-down solutions," Leach said. "My worry is that the concept is sometimes moving into policy worlds in a way that is legitimising new forms of environmental authoritarianism, which are going to end up proving both ineffective and quite unjust."
While planetary boundaries were ultimately omitted from the final statement of the UN's Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in 2012 - partly due to the difficulty of reaching political consensus on the exact limits - the concept is growing in influence within European Union (EU) policy circles, according to Umberto Pisano, a research fellow at the Institute for Managing Sustainability at Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria.
He said that the guiding document for EU environmental policy until 2020, the 7th Environment Action Programme, refers to the model, as does the development agenda released in 2013 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a UN research initiative set up following Rio+20.
"It's an emerging concept," he said. "There are some policymakers who are attracted to the approach because it's useful in identifying what to take into account when designing policy."
But Johan Rockström, who led the team of scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre that established the model, said it is better suited to navigate development issues than previous models of sustainable development that separate economic, social and environmental goals into 'three pillars' of development.
"It's a completely new paradigm for human interaction and growth. Instead of having three separate pillars, you have an economy serving societies that need to operate within science-based global sustainability criteria," he said.
If we can define a "safe operating space" for the planet, he said, the big question now is what kind of development will allow us to stay within that space.
But simply defining global limits does not help address local challenges, according to Mike Childs, head of policy, research and science at environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth.
"A community using irrigated water for crops is going to be more interested in how much water is available sustainably for them than the sustainable limits of the planet as a whole," he said. "You can't impose global solutions. You have to work with people at very different levels to identify solutions to environmental problems."
Ecology and Society 14(2): 32 (2009)