In 2009, Johan Rockström and several other scientists from institutions across the world came up with the planetary boundaries’ framework. The framework defined the safe operating space within which humanity could exist without putting themselves at risk. It also cautioned that breaching these environmental limits would be catastrophic for human life on earth. Even back then, three of the nine planetary boundaries had already been breached. These included climate change measured in terms of carbon dioxide levels beyond permissible levels in the atmosphere, biosphere integrity marked by a high rate of species extinction, and distortion of the nitrogen cycle adversely affecting the freshwater systems. The planet was therefore already at risk, and the more planetary boundaries were closer to being transgressed, the more vulnerable was human existence going to be.
Among the planetary boundaries addressing climate change has taken on special focus globally owing to its adverse impacts in the coming years. Recognising this at the COP 27 in November 2022 nations came together taking the historic decision to create a “Loss and Damage Fund” to help countries most vulnerable to climate change. Countries also committed to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C above the pre-industrial levels. The United Nations Secretary General at the COP 27 called for zero tolerance to greenwashing, emphasising that businesses and industries need to be more transparent and accountable when it comes to turning carbon-free. At the global level these are of course excellent initiatives when it comes to addressing climate change.
But climate change is just one of the planetary boundaries. What is critical is that we need to recognise that planetary boundaries are also interconnected. Across scales. Thus, taking three steps forward in addressing one planetary boundary at a global level, but two steps backward where another boundary is concerned at a regional scale is suicidal.
Take the case of India. At the COP 27, India lauded the setting up of the fund, and through its Long-Term Low Emission Development Strategy outlined its intention to transition from a fossil fuel economy to one run on renewable energy and biofuels. India also emphasised that it is in line with maintaining the required forest cover to enable for carbon sequestration. But at the same time there are several projects under consideration that could cause diversion of hundreds of square kilometres of forest land. These diversions are for several reasons—for linear projects such as roads, railways, pipelines and transmission lines, mining and quarrying, mineral prospecting, irrigation, hydel projects, and thermal power projects. Several of these projects are in biodiversity hotspots such as the Western Ghats, forests of northeast India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The cumulative impacts of these projects will be devastating without doubt on one of the planetary boundaries—biodiversity loss. At the local scale each of the projects, in addition to biosphere integrity, will without doubt breach multiple other planetary boundaries such as biochemical flows, land-system change, chemical pollution, and freshwater use.
What the planetary boundaries framework provides is a scientific basis for assessing the risk within which we can carry out our social and economic development activities at a planetary scale. But regions and countries have responsibilities to the planet too. Thus, as a country with a rising global influence it is India’s responsibility to ensure that it does take decisions that not only compromise the country’s environment but contribute to breaching boundaries at a planetary scale. Of course, this is true not just for India, but any country across the world. Political and economic decisions taken at a global scale to stay within interconnected planetary boundaries will be possible only if responsibilities and accountability are distributed among countries in a just and equitable manner. Collaborative actions to stay within the safe operating space is the need of the hour—and is the only sound investment to preserve and protect the earth and ensure continued existence of human life on it.
(The writer is Faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)
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