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From Planetary Boundaries to national fair shares of the global safe operating space — How can the scales be bridged?

Photo: Rubén Moreno Montolíu, Earth, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0
Photo: Rubén Moreno Montolíu, Earth, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0

The authors of this paper have tried to develop a framework to apply the concept of planetary boundaries to national level decision making and to discuss what a country’s ‘fair share’ of Earth’s safe operating space could be.

The Planetary Boundaries approach was developed in the 2000s to create a framework in which quantitative global limits to the anthropogenic perturbation of vital Earth system processes could be debated and agreed upon. Specifically, the approach sets out to determine a ‘planetary safe operating space’ for human activities in which social and economic development can take place while the resilience of the Earth system in its entirety is safeguarded. While the concept has been widely taken up by researchers and nongovernmental organisations, to date, the authors of this paper note the growing demand for the planetary boundaries to be translated from the level of the entire planet, to smaller scales, so as to support sustainability decision-making.

In this paper, they propose a systematic conceptual framework for translating planetary boundaries to national or regional implementation, including biophysical, socio-economic, and ethical dimensions. See the figure below for a flow chart of the different translations steps and analytical tools which are part of the process. An important point made is that the impacts of consumption should be the focus of assessment when considering a country’s adherence to national targets.

This framework should help analysts and policymakers to identify meaningful national or regional policy targets aligned with the current planetary boundaries. They explore:

  1. the key challenges for translation across scales;
  2. possible approaches and tools for addressing these challenges;
  3. lessons learned from earlier studies.

In terms of creating fair national allocations of the planetary ‘safe operating space’, the paper distinguishes between two categories of environmental boundaries. For the first set, for those boundaries where global anthropogenic emissions budgets can be applied, the target setting is easier: a top-down allocation approach can often be used to create national targets, even if considerations of ‘fairness’ based on social, historical and economic factors may mean that there are different ways to partition the global budgets among countries.

In the second category of boundaries, including atmospheric aerosol loading, loss of biodiversity, altered biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, fresh water use, and land-system change, ‘human activities at the local scale are changing the planetary ‘system baseline’ by altering the spatial patterns of the fundamental systemic interconnections between components of the Earth system.’ Because the local conditions in such environmental processes vary significantly over space and time, creating national allocations of the planetary ‘safe operating space’ is far more complicated than sharing a global budget. Assessments need to be more specific and use available data on, for example, local resource scarcity and vulnerabilities, local critical loads for aerosols and nutrient use, or potential ‘hotspot areas’ with great importance for the resilience of the Earth system.


Fig.  A conceptual framework for translating the planetary boundaries to national or regional scale implementation copied from the paper.



The planetary boundaries framework proposes quantitative global limits to the anthropogenic perturbation of crucial Earth system processes, and thus marks out a planetary safe operating space for human activities. Yet, decisions regarding resource use and emissions are mostly made at less aggregated scales, by national and sub-national governments, businesses, and other local actors. To operationalize the planetary boundaries concept, the boundaries need to be translated into and aligned with targets that are relevant at these decision-making scales. In this paper, we develop a framework that addresses the biophysical, socio-economic, and ethical dimensions of bridging across scales, to provide a consistently applicable approach for translating the planetary boundaries into national-level fair shares of Earth’s safe operating space. We discuss our findings in the context of previous studies and their implications for future analyses and policymaking. In this way, we link the planetary boundaries framework to widely-applied operational and policy concepts for more robust strong sustainability decision-making


Häyhä, T., Lucas, P. L., van Vuuren, D. P., Cornell, S. E., & Hoff, H. (2016). From Planetary Boundaries to national fair shares of the global safe operating space—How can the scales be bridged?. Global Environmental Change, 40, 60-72.

Read the full paper here (open access).

You can read related research by browsing the following category of our research library: Carbon footprinting, and through the keyword categories: Ecosystems & ecosystem services; land footprint; Carbon footprint; environmental policy; Environmental accounting/costing.

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