The Boundaries of the Planetary Boundary Framework

Updated: Jan 8

In 2009, a group of 29 scholars argued in a Nature article that we can define a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ through a set of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ that humanity must not cross. Since then, the concept of planetary boundaries has gone viral in academic debate, and it has influenced research projects worldwide. Not surprisingly, then, the concept has come also under heavy scrutiny. Numerous critics have taken the floor and contested either the

framework, or its implementation and use, or both. Partially because of this critique, the proposition of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ has undergone various reformulations and updates by a network of scholars specializing in ‘planetary boundary research’.

What is today’s overall significance and impact of the notion of ‘planetary boundaries’ for earth system science and earth system governance?

Planetary Boundaries Framework via Stockholm Resilience Centre

This year I have done with my Utrecht colleague Rakhyun Kim a systematic review of all conceptual, analytical, prescriptive and critical work around the proposition of scientifically determined planetary limits to the ‘operating space’ of human societies. We conducted a citation analysis drawing on the Web of Science, starting off with citations to three key publications by the original planetary boundary theorists. We covered the major lines of criticism from earth system science, development studies and science and technology studies, and also looked into several applications of the framework, for example attempts to downscale the planetary boundaries to, say, an entity like Switzerland. We also wrote about the implications of planetary boundaries for dominant paradigms such as economic growth, sovereignty and the anthropocentrism/ecocentrism debate. At the end of our review, we explored the most recent incarnation of the planetary boundary framework as ‘earth system targets’ supported by a group of academics called the ‘Earth Commission’.

We conclude that simply in terms of citations and the huge debate that this concept has sparked, the planetary boundary framework undoubtedly redefined the scientific discourse. The proposition of nine planetary boundaries reinitiated older debates on planetary limits but added a new imaginary that reached beyond complex scientific papers to the world of policymakers and green activists.

Numerous elements of the boundary concept helped in this success.

The planetary boundaries provided a powerful visualization of a simple, intuitively understandable framework.

It combined positive and negative framings with a consolidating core message that yes, there are a few boundaries that we must not surpass, but there is also a remaining ‘operating space’ that can be safely navigated by societies and decisionmakers. The rise of ‘planetary boundary thinking’ was also supported by the parallel emergence of the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ as the description of the current ‘human-made’ epoch in planetary history. The planetary boundaries were propagated as the normative ‘target corridor’ for human activities in the

Anthropocene – if the Anthropocene discourse saw humans as the driving force on planet Earth, the planetary boundaries were framed as the direction: as the guard rails of the speed train of human development.

The planetary boundaries also had a strong integrating impact on the global change research community; many scientists from diverse backgrounds could find themselves and their work in the boundary framework. As the normative frame for human actions in the ‘Anthropocene’, the planetary boundaries even found some support by social scientists, notably governance scholars and lawyers, who tried to think through how such boundaries could find their expression in actual institutional practice.

But in the end, the concept of planetary boundaries has also shown its limitations and faces its own boundaries.

Most importantly, it still seems to lack support in the Global South. In the end, the planetary boundaries concept cannot shed their conceptual links to earlier discourses of ‘global limits’, without adding a strong narrative of global justice and redistribution. It probably did not help that the idea was originally propagated by a self-select group of Northern professors, raising the question of who will eventually decide over the societal ‘operating space’ in the Anthropocene. Planetary-scale tipping points into dangerous new states of the earth system must be studied by science, and the science findings need to inform legitimized, widely accepted UN-led bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But in the end, the global targets that our societies will need to adopt must be defined in political processes in which all political stakeholders – especially from the Global South – are fairly


While many proponents and researchers affiliated with the planetary boundaries

idea simply seek to advance human understanding and help prevent global

disaster, the political processes that build on the boundaries tend to veer into a

Platonian idea of ‘philosopher kings’, a world where the operating space of

humankind is decided by professors – not by the people. Only when the

planetary boundaries approach manages to distance itself from Platonian

technocracy and a ‘global limits’ discourse that is seen in the South as unfair

given past colonialism and current Northern overconsumption, will the justified

debate on the risks of planetary tipping points gain the global political support

that it needs.

The full article – ‘The Boundaries of the Planetary Boundary Framework: A

Critical Appraisal of Approaches to Define a “Safe Operating Space” for

Humanity’ – is open access. Download it here.

© 2020 Frank Biermann