The Boundaries of the Planetary Boundary Framework

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

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.