Research Article

Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet

Science  13 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6223,
DOI: 10.1126/science.1259855

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Crossing the boundaries in global sustainability

The planetary boundary (PB) concept, introduced in 2009, aimed to define the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate. This approach has proved influential in global sustainability policy development. Steffen et al. provide an updated and extended analysis of the PB framework. Of the original nine proposed boundaries, they identify three (including climate change) that might push the Earth system into a new state if crossed and that also have a pervasive influence on the remaining boundaries. They also develop the PB framework so that it can be applied usefully in a regional context.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1259855

Structured Abstract


There is an urgent need for a new paradigm that integrates the continued development of human societies and the maintenance of the Earth system (ES) in a resilient and accommodating state. The planetary boundary (PB) framework contributes to such a paradigm by providing a science-based analysis of the risk that human perturbations will destabilize the ES at the planetary scale. Here, the scientific underpinnings of the PB framework are updated and strengthened.


The relatively stable, 11,700-year-long Holocene epoch is the only state of the ES that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies. There is increasing evidence that human activities are affecting ES functioning to a degree that threatens the resilience of the ES—its ability to persist in a Holocene-like state in the face of increasing human pressures and shocks. The PB framework is based on critical processes that regulate ES functioning. By combining improved scientific understanding of ES functioning with the precautionary principle, the PB framework identifies levels of anthropogenic perturbations below which the risk of destabilization of the ES is likely to remain low—a “safe operating space” for global societal development. A zone of uncertainty for each PB highlights the area of increasing risk. The current level of anthropogenic impact on the ES, and thus the risk to the stability of the ES, is assessed by comparison with the proposed PB (see the figure).


Three of the PBs (climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and ocean acidification) remain essentially unchanged from the earlier analysis. Regional-level boundaries as well as globally aggregated PBs have now been developed for biosphere integrity (earlier “biodiversity loss”), biogeochemical flows, land-system change, and freshwater use. At present, only one regional boundary (south Asian monsoon) can be established for atmospheric aerosol loading. Although we cannot identify a single PB for novel entities (here defined as new substances, new forms of existing substances, and modified life forms that have the potential for unwanted geophysical and/or biological effects), they are included in the PB framework, given their potential to change the state of the ES. Two of the PBs—climate change and biosphere integrity—are recognized as “core” PBs based on their fundamental importance for the ES. The climate system is a manifestation of the amount, distribution, and net balance of energy at Earth’s surface; the biosphere regulates material and energy flows in the ES and increases its resilience to abrupt and gradual change. Anthropogenic perturbation levels of four of the ES processes/features (climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, and land-system change) exceed the proposed PB (see the figure).


PBs are scientifically based levels of human perturbation of the ES beyond which ES functioning may be substantially altered. Transgression of the PBs thus creates substantial risk of destabilizing the Holocene state of the ES in which modern societies have evolved. The PB framework does not dictate how societies should develop. These are political decisions that must include consideration of the human dimensions, including equity, not incorporated in the PB framework. Nevertheless, by identifying a safe operating space for humanity on Earth, the PB framework can make a valuable contribution to decision-makers in charting desirable courses for societal development.

Current status of the control variables for seven of the planetary boundaries.

The green zone is the safe operating space, the yellow represents the zone of uncertainty (increasing risk), and the red is a high-risk zone. The planetary boundary itself lies at the intersection of the green and yellow zones. The control variables have been normalized for the zone of uncertainty; the center of the figure therefore does not represent values of 0 for the control variables. The control variable shown for climate change is atmospheric CO2 concentration. Processes for which global-level boundaries cannot yet be quantified are represented by gray wedges; these are atmospheric aerosol loading, novel entities, and the functional role of biosphere integrity.


The planetary boundaries framework defines a safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth system. Here, we revise and update the planetary boundary framework, with a focus on the underpinning biophysical science, based on targeted input from expert research communities and on more general scientific advances over the past 5 years. Several of the boundaries now have a two-tier approach, reflecting the importance of cross-scale interactions and the regional-level heterogeneity of the processes that underpin the boundaries. Two core boundaries—climate change and biosphere integrity—have been identified, each of which has the potential on its own to drive the Earth system into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.

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