The fight against the deleterious effects of climate change involves everyone: individuals, businesses, government entities and scientists. In this detailed article, environmental experts describe constructive methods that can produce meaningful results, beginning now and stretching beyond Paris Agreement targets. Their approach embraces regulations and accountability for corporations and cities as well as fairness to the resource-starved regions hit the hardest by global warming. Humanity stares down fast-approaching tipping points that could make Earth far less habitable than it is today.
- Scientists have defined “biophysical global limits” within which humans can safely live.
- Critical science-based ESB objectives must be timely, actionable and measurable.
- Because complex choices define targets, common procedures are essential.
- Earth’s interactive system boundaries must be aligned with targets.
- Pathways to targets must acknowledge shifting plan dynamics.
- Resource sharing must adhere to principles of justice and equality.
- Governments must establish global regulations and policies.
- Financial and quality incentives will increase target adoptions.
Scientists have defined “biophysical global limits” within which humans can safely live.
The “planetary boundaries” scientists developed more than a decade ago encompass Earth’s biosphere, climate, water resources, ocean acidification, land use, aerosols, nutrients, ozone depletion, pathogens and pollutants.
A task force created in 2019 called the Earth Commission explores social and scientific viewpoints about these boundaries that are both safe and just. In 2023 this group of social and nature scientists will issue a publication delineating basic “Earth system boundaries” or ESBs. They base these limits on current scientific research and modeling, considering impacts on regional communities along with global aspects. Well before the planet reaches the Paris Agreement’s cap of 1.5°C to 2°C warming, millions of people will suffer climate change’s physical and economic effects.
“How much of the world’s phosphorus fertilizer should well-off London or struggling Dhaka rightfully access to produce food for their residents? How should responsibility for protecting the Amazon rain forest be apportioned among hundreds of distant cities and companies that source supplies from the region or benefit from its ecosystem services?”
Researchers work to identify the directives businesses and governments face to stay within ESBs, and to define their responsibilities in maintaining targets for resource conservation.
Critical science-based ESB objectives must be timely, actionable and measurable.
Earth system boundaries must be flexible as science progresses, reflecting evidence-based responsibilities and fairness while mitigating harm to affected populations. Cities and companies with abundant resources, or which cause comparatively worse damage, should help needier people survive.
Such fairness is uncommon today. For example, Bloomberg Terminal reports that only 22 of 500 companies rated highest for greenhouse gas emissions have set targets that reflect the “Science-Based Targets initiative,” a group of about 1,000 sustainability organizations and businesses. A few dozen follow other plans, but most have set no goals at all. Of 200 municipalities with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, 110 follow net-zero policies with Paris Agreement goals in mind.
“Scientists have three key roles – to develop methods, to make the processes and assumptions involved transparent, and to explore ways to hasten the adoption of science-based target setting.”
International organizations such as the UN should join with national governments to adopt these targets. Today, significant knowledge gaps exist between governments and businesses in supporting ESBs.
Because complex choices define targets, common procedures are essential.
Protocols, principles, measurements and methods must be clarified, so companies and cities can maximize resources and prevent some wealthy actors from exerting unfair influence.
First, parameters such as ocean temperatures and acidification must be related to needed actions. Human activities, natural occurrences and processes affect these parameters, making such relationships hard to quantify on regional scales. Identified targets, such as those concerning carbon emissions and deforestation, must be connected to companies and cities. This would be a complex and lengthy process.
“Determining the water footprint of a car manufacturer might require data on the production of 30,000 vehicle parts. For cities, evaluations of consumption footprints and impacts need to take into account where goods are produced, how they are made and from what.”
Resource responsibility and sharing must also be worked out, involving socioeconomic values and fair access.
Earth’s interactive system boundaries must be aligned with targets.
Natural processes such as thawing permafrost fuel climate change along with increasing human-made carbon emissions. At times, multiple pressure points combine to form tipping points sooner than expected. For example, when Amazon wildfires combine with regional tree loss accelerated by agriculture. Such events affect local and global populations. For example, increasing fossil-fuel production to counter Russia’s diminished supplies could lead to water and food insecurity in some countries.
Research reveals that 200 cities with the largest greenhouse gas emissions are home to 360 of the world’s top emitting companies.
“More than 50% of these cities and companies are in water-stressed areas, including Mexico City, Santiago, Beijing, Madrid, New Delhi, Rome, Istanbul in Turkey and Phoenix, Arizona.”
Scientists evaluate activities that incorporate ESBs, to learn what drives the resultant impacts. Palm oil, for example, is used for a wide variety of products such as cosmetics, detergents and food. If a company buys palm oil from Borneo, it should investigate the resulting changes in land use, climate change and biodiversity loss, and report those findings. Reduced imports and replacement products should also be studied for their environmental effects. Such analyses must prioritize information about hotspots such as the Arctic and the Amazon Basin.
Pathways to targets must acknowledge shifting plan dynamics.
Many sustainability targets converge on a date, such as 2030 or 2050. But how humanity gets there is equally important. A linear reduction in carbon emissions from now to the year 2050 is projected to result in less global warming than allowing higher emissions over time, then quickly reducing them. Better observations and modeling may necessitate changes in acceptable limits. For instance, if Greenland’s ice sheets begin to melt faster, emission limits would require tightening.
Environmentalists must consider how fluid social contexts create vulnerabilities and impacts. Examples of these social contexts would be burgeoning populations, economic inequality and political unrest.
“If resources are shared equally across every person globally, Lagos’s share should grow if its population quadruples by 2100, as estimated. But if the global population also rises, that share would be proportionately less.”
Population shifts and business trends must also be considered. Increased urbanization jeopardizes biodiversity in more than 90% of Earth’s 200 most threatened ecosystems. To counter those pressures, ESBs can be strengthened, or extended, creating space for impending failures.
Some ESB targets may be hit early through timely, dynamic goals checked and reported on a regular basis. The Glasgow Climate Pact, adopted by almost 200 nations in 2021, may prove useful. It demands that Paris Agreement signers update their climate goals each year.
Resource sharing must adhere to principles of justice and equality.
To be equitable, ESB targets must take into account consumption levels, incomes and capabilities along with environmental impacts. Cities with high emissions and consumer consumption should adopt more stringent targets. People of all socioeconomic strata should enjoy adequate access to food, water and energy.
“Using available data on the domestic water footprint per person, we found that 14 of the most populated 100 urban areas, including Dhaka, Karachi, Lagos, Kinshasa and Addis Ababa, cannot provide even the basic requirement of 100 liters of clean water per capita per day for drinking, cooking and hygiene.”
Companies should weigh their economic value versus environmental impacts on local communities. Definitions of “values” and “fairness” differ from region to region, but stakeholders can evaluate these concepts through the lens of globally accepted justice principles.
Governments must establish global regulations and policies.
Giving corporations and governments incentives to adopt ESB targets is a daunting task. Many global agreements such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals are voluntary. But the UN could promote public awareness by adding ESBs to its policy agenda, and convening panels that challenge governments and cities to set targets. Since these entities typically report to different legislative bodies, geographical conglomerates could be formed to create more powerful opportunities for environmental synergy.
The Science Based Targets Network and the World Economic Forum provide ways for cities and companies to work together in addressing environmental issues. Other groups include the C40 Cities network of mayors, Local Governments for Sustainability, the We Mean Business Coalition, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy. Yet such collaborations continue to meet resistance.
“As with climate and other sustainability measures, strong legislation along with the threat of lawsuits…and reputational pressure might be needed to bring cities and companies on side, by affecting access to investment, revenues and consumer demand.”
Getting cities and businesses to work together on climate issues can prompt entire countries to follow. Japan’s government adopted net-zero emissions targets after most of its large cities did so.
Financial and quality incentives will increase target adoptions.
Placing trademarks on services and products can raise awareness. The European Commission’s climate platform encourages dozens of cities to adopt climate-neutral status by 2030. Each receives a special designation label, plus financial and technical support. The UN and related organizations could follow suit. Powerful financial incentives will play a large role in securing target ESB adoptions.
“Rabobank in the Netherlands rewards high-performing dairy farmers in biodiversity conservation with better credit rates. French banking group BNP Paribas offers loans to companies or projects that demonstrate positive and measurable social or environmental impacts.”
The bottom line: People must exist within strict, science-based planetary resource boundaries. Equitable allocations of critical resources along with accountability are essential to preserving Earth for human habitation.
About the Authors
Xuemei Bai is distinguished professor of urban environment and humane ecology at the Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University. Anders Bjørn is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental and Resource Engineering, Technical University of Denmark. Şiir Kılkış is senior researcher at the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. Oscar Sabag Muñoz is science translation lead at Science Based Targets Network, New York. Gail Whiteman is professor of sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School. Holger Hoff is transdisciplinary interface manager for the Field of Excellence Climate Change Graz, University of Graz. Lauren Seaby Andersen is senior scientist in the Earth system analysis department at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Johan Rockström is director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and professor of Earth system science at the Institute of Environmental Science and Geography, University of Potsdam.