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Planetary boundaries

Economic prosperity and societal well-being depend on the planet’s capacity to provide resources and ecosystem services. Earth’s ability to do this is constrained; resources are not limitless and the capacity of ecosystems to provide services can be eroded. In short, the planet has boundaries and sustainable development cannot be secured without operating within them (Rockström et al., 2009). Environmental changes such as collapsing fisheries, climate change and biodiversity loss indicate that human demands are already influencing the regenerative and absorptive capacity of the biosphere. As demands on Earth systems further increase due to population growth and improved living standards, several studies suggest that the thresholds (bio-physical limits or boundaries) will be exceeded.

The biggest challenge for companies is to decouple growth from resource use and environmental impacts. The Planetary Boundaries concept provides a useful framework to align scientific developments to assist decision-making in this area. Within the Planetary Boundaries framework, 9 Earth system processes have been identified. If thresholds for these processes are exceeded, this will likely lead to irreversible and disastrous environmental change. The state of knowledge/science underpinning each process and to define the precise threshold varies and research efforts continue.

Our own research is aimed at finding ways to operationalise the Planetary Boundaries concept at the company and/or product level. We collaborate with several academic organisations to explore ways to integrate Planetary Boundaries and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCA is widely used by organisations to estimate the environmental impacts of products and services and to compare with other products aimed at delivering the same function. Planetary Boundary aligned LCA would ultimately allow us to identify products as sustainable or unsustainable relative to environmental thresholds.

Planetary Boundaries image credit: F. Pharand-Deschênes /Globaïa