Four of nine planetary boundaries now crossed


Press Release by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research


Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity, says an international team of 18 researchers in the journal Science. The four are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles. The scientists say that two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are “core boundaries” – significantly altering either of these would “drive the Earth System into a new state”. The team will present their findings in seven seminars at the World Economic Forum in Davos (21-25 January).   

The concept of planetary boundaries, developed by a global community of scholars with participation of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and first published in 2009, identifies nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. The science shows that these nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System – the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which our societies depend. The new research confirms the original set of boundaries and provides updated analysis and quantification for several of them (see table at end). To achieve some of these quantifications, a PIK computer model (LPJmL) simulating human impacts on Earth’s water resources and ecosystems was key.

“Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries,” said lead author Will Steffen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Professor at the Stockholm University and the Australian National University, Canberra. “In this new analysis we have improved our quantification of where these risks lie.”

On the regional scale, even more boundaries are crossed

Even some boundaries that have not yet been crossed at the planetary scale were found to exceed regional tolerance limits, such as freshwater use in the western US and in parts of southern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. “The challenges for society to stay within several planetary boundaries require balanced policies,” said co-author Dieter Gerten of PIK. The boundaries are closely interlinked, and preventive measures relating to one of them can have negative repercussions on another one. “For example, if irrigation was reduced to stay below the boundary for freshwater use, cropland may have to be expanded as a compensation measure, leading to further transgression of the boundary for land-system change,” Gerten explained. “Implementing methods to use water more efficiently in agriculture can help sort out this dilemma and at the same time increase global food production.”

Regarding climate change, the team argue that carbon dioxide levels should not cross 350 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. The current level is about 399 ppm (December 2014), growing by about 3 ppm per year. “This boundary is consistent with a stabilisation of global temperatures at about 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels,” said co-author Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, who will present the new findings at the World Economic Forum. In December, nations will meet in Paris to negotiate an international emissions agreement to attempt to stabilise temperatures at 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. “Our analysis suggests that, even if successful, reaching this target contains significant risks for societies everywhere,” said Rockström. “Two degrees must therefore be seen not only as a necessary but also a minimum global climate target.”

Investigating the implications of global risks for national policy-making

PIK maintains an extensive collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre on the topic of planetary boundaries. Under the leadership of Wolfgang Lucht, Co-Chair of PIK’s department of Earth System Analysis, PIK is a founding member of the Planetary Boundaries Research Network ( to coordinate this science. PIK researchers led by Wolfgang Lucht have also recently launched a project funded by the German Environmental Agency (Umweltbundesamt) to specifically investigate the implications of planetary boundaries for national policy making.
Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E.M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S.R., de Vries, W., de Wit, C.A., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G.M., Persson, L.M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B., Sörlin, S. (2015): Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science (Express, online) [DOI:10.1126/science.1259855]Article:

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For further information please contact:

Jonas Viering
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Tel.: +49 (0)331 288 2507
Fredrick Moberg
Stockholm Resilience Centre

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Comment on “Four of nine planetary boundaries now crossed”

  1. If Charlie Hebdo had the sense of humor and was as consistently funny as the Potsdam Institute, their circulation would always be 5,000,000 per issue, if not more, rather than the usual 60,000.

    Now it is planetary boundaries, in color no less. The only one missing from this fictional set is the boundary for common sense. I can hardly wait for their presentations at the party in Davos. Cue the music! Bring on the dancing girls. The Davos crowd really likes their dancing girls.

    Potsdam’s fellow modellers haven’t got one right since they predicted and modelled the next Ice Age in the 1970s. Potsdam wasn’t around then so they missed the opportunity for even more erroneous modelling. Pity.

    “In this new analysis we have improved our quantification of where these risks lie,” says Will Steffen.” Well yeah, in as general a way as possible with accompanying models, charts and graphs which, oddly equate to input in, input out, as I and so many others have said before.

    I am reminded of all the models, studies and charts that are constantly revealed to be not only wrong but fraudulently researched. Like the polar bear researchers who try to dismiss the fact that polar bears are a conservation success story and are not threatened by climate change or extinction any more than I am. Okay, I am threatened with extinction.

    The polar bear population was 5,000 in the 60s. It is 25,000 today. You’d never know this from the polar bear researchers, who, like Potsdam, seem to have forgotten the most crucial part of their task, that is to say the unbiased collection and presentation of scientific data. An example of this unprofessional conduct came to light last fall. A new, allegedly peer-reviewed paper, much hyped by the ill-informed media, suggested a severe decline in polar bear population from 2004 to 2006, with only a modest recovery from 2007 to 2010, a drop of about 40%.

    Co-authors of the new paper included members of the American Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) who knew before even starting, from previous papers and research, that a polar bear population crash had occurred, and they knew why. Sea ice in the Southern Beaufort was unusually thick in the mid-2000s during the critical spring feeding period. Periodic thick spring ice is a phenomenon unique to this region and is known to have occurred every decade since at least the 1960s. Thick sea ice causes ringed seals (a polar bears’ favorite lunch) to move elsewhere to have their pups and thus become harder to find. Every time that this has occurred in recorded history, the food scarcity caused wide-spread starvation among polar bears. Mothers with cubs and young-adult bears were hit especially hard. No pups, no population growth. Gee, I’m a scientist!

    1974 conditions were just as severe as in 2004-2006 and a similar crash in polar bear numbers occurred. More importantly, the 1970s polar bear population decline was followed by a rebound in numbers, a fact known to the authors. A cut-off date of 2010 would, however, produce a misleadingly-low population estimate. Ta da! Once again, when you have the answer the questions are easy to formulate. Modelling at its best, input in, input out. A 2012, survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found numbers higher than they had been since 2002. This fact was missing from the newspapers, press releases and interview statements. Nothing new there.

    So why did the authors terminate their study period at 2010, when data from field work was available until 2013 in a prior paper? They must have known that cubs born in 2007 would not have been old enough to produce cubs themselves by 2010. The authors had to have realized a cut-off date of 2010 would produce a misleadingly low population estimate. All too typical of “researchers” with a point to prove and a grant to get. But hey, the model worked!

    It’s just one example but I like polar bears and they’re on our Toonie, a $2 coin.

    So what could possibly be next for Potsdam, the Interplanetary Boundary, the Space Time Continuum Boundary and the Time Warp Boundary or, heavens forbid, the Cosmic Bunny Hole? Have they themselves have no boundaries in their never ending quest for money and bureaucratic control?

    Dieter Gerten refers to “preventive measures…”tolerance limits” and “balanced policies.” There it is. Just give us more control and more money and all will be well.

    The Planetary Boundary People argue that “carbon dioxide levels should not cross 350 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere.” With the current level at 399 methinks that were it at 299 “the team” would have demanded that it “should not cross 250.”The only consistency is the constantly moving and changing boundaries, limits and maximums allowable until we all die from one “extreme” or another. I mean it has to be something “extreme” as the warming thing hasn’t worked out too well what with temperatures not rising at all now for more than 17 years. I notice it has been scrubbed from the literature lately only to be replaced by “climate change.” Am I to take it then that I might just freeze to death before the earth is absorbed into the sun in a few billion years? (I know, I’ll be dead by then.)

    In December 2015, world nations will meet in Paris to negotiate an international emissions agreement. Be still my heart! The countries that matter will sign but not follow. What else is new? A fine trip to a delightful place and another luxury hotel, oh well. Welcome to Kyoto 2, or is it 3? Hopefully Canada will free up a secretary from the Embassy to take notes. They say an attempt will be made to stabilise world temperatures (planetary boundary wise) at 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. “Two degrees must therefore be seen not only as a necessary but also a minimum global climate target,” says Johan Rockström.”

    Those in the northern climes might have some disagreement with that. Since the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850, the world has warmed slightly or we would still be in the Little Ice Age. There are many who would appreciate a little more than 2 degrees. Maybe the Eskimos would like to stop drilling holes in the ice and fighting with the growing population of polar bears for seals and fish. Maybe they’d like to farm. Has anybody asked them? Me, I like winter but I’m guessing many do not.

    The flawed and hopeless IPCC has commissioned many models to see if global warming would reach dangerous levels this century. The consensus has been a resounding ‘no’. Even the IPCC!

    It makes very little sense in 2015 to work oneself into a knot about a very small, and highly implausible set of circumstances that just might occur in 2100 or beyond that, if climate sensitivity is much higher than all reliable evidence suggests, would produce only marginal damage to the world economy. Even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage. It is all if, maybe, perhaps and rigged model after rigged model.

    As more and more of us populate the planet, the more emissions we generate through breathing, driving, heating, making stuff and the like. That figures. Man-made climate change then becomes more real but still not likely to do much harm, let alone prove to be the greatest crisis facing humankind. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees.

    The only scenario among their many models that produces much more than 2 degrees, like 3.5 degrees of warming in 2081-2100, is based on wildly implausible assumptions, all modelled of course. This is a world of “continuously increasing global population” so that there are 12 billion of us on the planet. Where is the elbow room? This is a billion plus more than even the hapless United Nations expects. In fact, the world population growth rate has been falling for 50 years and is on course to reach zero, that is to say stable population, around 2070. Pass it on.

    The world in this wild model is also assumed to be burning 10 times as much coal as we do now. This would mean producing 50% of the world’s primary energy from coal, compared with about 30% today. In this scenario, oil is assumed to have become scarce and liquid fuel would be derived from coal. Nuclear and renewable technologies would contribute little and fossil fuel technologies would continue to dominate. If this is true, why are we spending so much money on these new technologies like wind and solar, to name but 2 heavily subsidized black holes?

    Abundant natural gas is displacing coal on a huge scale in the United States. Think of all the innovation that happened in the 20th century. Do we really think there will be less in this century, or the next? Carbon dioxide emissions have plummeted thanks to the revival and rapid development of cheap nuclear power. The price of solar power is plummeting, gigantic methane-hydrate gas resources are being discovered on the seabed, energy efficiency is rocketing upwards and the population growth rates continue to fall fast in virtually every country in the world. The one thing we can say about the IPCC disaster model is that it is very, very implausible. It would make a great script for a sci-fi film though.

    The modelled world of the future is much, much richer. It achieves this by free trade, massive globalization and lots of investment in new technology. All the things the eco-warriors keep saying it opposes because they will wreck the planet. Hey, don’t believe me. Read the IPCC reports. Look at the pretty models.

    Clearly, I have no faith in IPCC reports and their accompanying models. Last year however, 2 were more interesting than the others. One said that the cost of climate change is likely to be less than 2% of GDP by the end of this century. The other said that the cost of decarbonizing the world economy with renewable energy is likely to be 4% of GDP. Who does something that causes more harm than good? Easy, people who live on other people’s money, that’s who.

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