Embracing Planetary Boundaries: Part 2.


Daniel Nowak, Graduate Research Consultant

A shift in perspective.

In part one, I introduced the Planetary Boundaries concept as a compass to guide how we can develop and flourish within the limits of our planet. In part 2, I summarise the practical implications of embracing the concept.

What are we trying to sustain?

There are many definitions for sustainability that have been proposed over time. It is valuable to continually ask the question of ‘what are we actually trying to sustain?’ when practicing sustainability. The commonly accepted definition from the United Nations Brundtland Report (1987) is:

Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Planetary Boundaries offer insight on how we can deliver this outcome by providing a common platform for communication on how we can ensure good planetary health for future generations. This has already been influential in policy making, leading to international treaties such as the Paris Agreement, which is linked to the planetary boundary for Climate Change. In the built environment we can promote alignment with this boundary through ambitious Science Based Targets. Relating all environmental impacts to planetary carrying capacities can enable us to take a contextual approach to sustainability and help to ensure we are operating within the realms of what our planet is able to support.

Beyond Net Zero.

While anthropogenic Climate Change is perhaps the most pressing issue of our generation, the Planetary Boundaries show that environmental challenges cannot be considered in isolation. Thinking in terms of an entire Earth System is necessary to consider feedback between the boundaries. For example, designing timber into buildings has the potential to drastically reduce the embodied carbon impact but could risk shifting the burden to the Biodiversity and Land Use boundaries if forestry is managed unsustainably. This could then act as a driver for climate change through damage to ecosystems which act as carbon sinks. There is a high level of urgency to consider ‘embodied’ ecological impacts in building materials the same way we do with Whole Life Carbon so that the race to Net Zero does not come at a cost to nature.

Natural capital.

It is becoming increasingly clear that sustainable human prosperity cannot be achieved without the wellbeing of the natural environment. The field of Ecological Economics highlights the symbiotic relationship between nature and wellbeing on a finite planet through various provisioning systems such as the built environment. When assessing sustainability in the built environment we need to move towards this systems perspective to relate social provisioning to natural resource efficiency, rather than looking at them in isolation. By incorporating the critical value of natural capital into decision making, as well as recognising its intrinsic value, we can work towards regenerating nature and ensuring long term resilience.

People, planet and prosperity.

Alternative economic models such as Kate Raworth’s offer a vision for a balanced relationship between ecological limits and social outcomes. It shows the imperative to reduce our environmental impacts in tandem with increasing social equity to achieve long-term prosperity and wellbeing. In our approach to sustainability, we must also work towards addressing the social drivers of environmental degradation and explore the links with growth and inequality.

We must ensure that the race to Net Zero does not shift the burden onto the least well off in society, both locally and globally. Investigating, discussing and embracing models such as Doughnut Economics can challenge us to design a future where a good life is available for all within the Planetary Boundaries.

We will continue to research how we can lead the built environment to become an efficient, effective and equitable provisioning system. By using these concepts to think in terms of connected environmental and social systems, we can develop solutions that are inherently transformative and regenerative.