Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries


New research quantifies the conditions needed for communities and economies to thrive – and provides guide for leaders to operate within Earth’s finite limits.

New research published today in Nature defines a set of Earth System Boundaries that scientifically quantify safety of people as well as stability of the planet – which until now have not been measured in the same units. This work builds on existing knowledge and marks a leap in understanding of how to protect the planet’s finite resources and create the conditions necessary for communities and economies to thrive.

Co-authored by over forty leading natural and social scientists from the Earth Commission, and led by Prof. Johan Rockström, Prof. Joyeeta Gupta and Prof. Qin Dahe, the Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries provide a scientific foundation for assessing the stability and resilience of the planet and the connection therein with human wellbeing. These Earth System Boundaries can guide companies and governments in evaluating risks, performance and opportunities as they navigate urgent efforts to achieve a net zero, nature positive and equitable future, especially in combination with just transformation practices.

The Earth Commission was established by the Global Commons Alliance – a coalition of 70+ leading organisations working to safeguard the global commons, including the World Economic Forum, World Business Council For Sustainable Development, The Nature Conservancy, Capitals Coalition, and Future Earth – which hosts the scientific secretariat of the Earth Commission.

The Earth System is made up of many interconnected processes that keep our planet stable or, when disrupted, radically alter its ability to provide a habitable environment. The Earth Commission’s research explores processes in climate, air, water – both ground and surface water – biodiversity – within natural ecosystems and working landscapes – and fertilisers – both nitrogen and phosphorus.

While previous research such as the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ have studied the ‘safe’ limits of these processes, this is the first to incorporate ‘justice’ into scientific analysis, using the same units of measurement. This means the scientists identified limits at which humans are protected from significant harm resulting from planetary changes. These ‘just’ boundaries are in some places more stringent than the ‘safe’ boundaries. Additional work from the Commission identifies the conditions needed for people to access resources for a dignified life.

Almost all of the Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries have been breached, adding urgency for accelerating action to meet existing sustainability goals, including the Paris Agreement for climate, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. This science emphasises that these goals must also be achieved in a just manner.

Prof. Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-author of the report, said: “All the models today that take us to net zero assume that nature will continue to provide buffering capacity against global warming. There are nine biophysical processes and systems that regulate the state of the Earth System – the Planetary Boundaries – the Earth Commission took six of these and scientifically quantified them with safety and justice considerations to indicate a safe landing zone for people and the planet. Working holistically across these domains is crucial to our ability to reach net zero.”

Prof. Joyeeta Gupta, Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam and co-author of the report, said: “Justice is a necessity for humanity to live within planetary limits. This is a conclusion seen across the scientific community in multiple heavyweight environmental assessments, including our own. It is not a political issue. Overwhelming evidence shows that a just and equitable approach to both goal setting and transformation to achieve the goals is essential to planetary stability. We cannot have a safe planet without justice. Anyone building a resilient company, institution or nation for the long term must work towards this future.

Figure 9: Limits of a Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries.

A call for leadership

As the most up-to-date understanding of the planet’s limits to supporting thriving societies, the Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries are set to become the scientific underpinning for the next generation of sustainability targets, expectations and actions. For example, the Science Based Targets Network – a group of organisations providing tools for companies to transform their impact on nature – has just released its first iteration of targets for water and land, which are informed by the scientific literature, and are now being road tested by seventeen major companies. By designing sustainability efforts around the Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries and just transformation, business leaders will be able to stay 

This emerging science quantifies both the influence of humans on the Earth System, and the influence of the Earth System on humans. Building on existing frameworks, it integrates a justice perspective for the first time – which includes minimising human exposure to significant harm, and ensuring access to the resources needed for a dignified life and freedom from poverty for everyone. By quantifying these conditions in the same units of measurement as the conditions for stability, the scientists say they have defined the Safe and Just Boundaries.

Of the eight Earth Systems, human activities have pushed seven beyond their Safe and Just Boundaries and into the risk zone – threatening both planetary and human health. This highlights the urgent need for global leadership, rapid decision-making and just transformation toward a ‘Safe and Just space.’

Transforming our economies to operate within the limits of the planet offers huge opportunities for business leaders to stay ahead of regulatory scrutiny, meet the expectations of an increasingly conscious consumer and stakeholder base, and protect the communities, economies and natural resources upon which their operations depend. These boundaries allow leaders to see a more complete picture of the risks they face and supercharge their sustainability efforts, with a comprehensive framework for measurement and action that can be applied across markets, at both national and regional level. Global businesses including AB InBev, Carrefour, GlaxoSmithKline PLC, H&M Group, Holcim Group, Nestle and Tesco are now setting science-based targets for nature alongside their climate targets, informed by the same science that Earth System Boundaries have drawn from.

This work is more prescient than ever following the recent IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, which stressed that – despite the richest 1% of the world’s population being responsible for double the CO2 emissions of the poorest 50% – climate change has increased inequality, and will continue to do so without action. This science will equip leaders to build justice and human wellbeing into their decision-making on sustainability.