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Humans have surpassed almost every safe limit to keep Earth habitable

In the face of growing concerns about the planet’s sustainability, a group of more than 40 international scientists, under the banner of the Earth Commission, have presented alarming findings. The study suggests that humans have surpassed almost all the protective boundaries that ensure Earth remains a safe and habitable environment. 

The research points towards the grim reality that we, as a species, are propelling our planet towards irreversible destabilization due to unsustainable resource extraction and consumption.

Safe and just limits

The research, published in the prominent scientific journal Nature, involved a meticulous analysis of multiple facets of our environment such as climate, biodiversity, freshwater, and diverse forms of pollution affecting our air, soil, and water. The scientists set out to define “safe and just limits,” parameters that work towards maintaining the planet’s equilibrium, protecting other species, minimizing significant harm to humans, and fostering inclusive human development.

Of the eight Earth System Boundaries (ESBs) recognized in this study, the researchers found that we have crossed seven, with only aerosol pollutants staying within tolerable limits. The team reported that we have gone beyond the just limit of 1°C in terms of climate change, although we are still within the safe limit of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial global average temperature.

The human cost of these transgressions is already being observed, the scientists warn. The changing climate has affected tens of millions of people, revealing “significant societal impacts.”

Irreversible tipping points may be “unavoidable”

Professor Johan Rockstrom of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who led this extensive study, expressed deep concern over the findings. He stated: “The results of our health check are quite concerning. Within the five analyzed domains, several boundaries, on a global and local scale, are already transgressed.”

“This means that unless a timely transformation occurs, it is most likely that irreversible tipping points and widespread impacts on human well-being will be unavoidable.” He further emphasized the necessity to avoid this grim scenario to ensure a safe and just future for current and future generations.

Action is urgently needed

Despite the agreement among UN member states since 2015 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and protect biodiversity in 30% of the world’s land, sea, and freshwater areas, the Earth Commission scientists indicate we are far from achieving these targets. They argue for a sweeping global transformation across all ESBs to ensure human well-being.

This transformation, they suggest, should not be isolated but systemic, addressing the economic, technological, and political drivers of Earth’s degradation. Additionally, it should promote equitable access for the impoverished through the reduction and reallocation of resource use.

Study co-author Professor Joyeeta Gupta from the University of Amsterdam emphasized the essential role of justice in humanity’s survival within planetary limits. 

“Justice is a necessity for humanity to live within planetary limits. This is a conclusion seen across the scientific community in multiple heavyweight environmental assessments,” said Professor Gupta.

“It is not a political choice. Overwhelming evidence shows that a just and equitable approach is essential to planetary stability. We cannot have a biophysically safe planet without justice.”

Mitigating the damage

The scientists aim for their research to guide businesses, cities, and governments in setting science-based targets when tackling issues such as human exposure to climate change, biodiversity decline, water shortages, ecosystem damage due to fertiliser overuse along with unequal access, and health damage from air pollution.

Professor Gupta warned of the immediate risks beyond potential future tipping points. “Damage is already happening to millions of people at 1°C of climate warming.” She also emphasized the need for immediate action to phase out fossil fuels and accelerate work towards meeting Paris Agreement goals. 

“By setting our climate Earth System Boundary at 1C we are not advocating that the world should adopt this ambitious target, but we are exposing the injustice inherent in current world targets,” said Professor Gupta.

More about climate tipping points

Climate tipping points represent a threshold in the earth’s climate system, beyond which a small change in human activity can have significant, and sometimes irreversible, effects on the climate. The term “tipping point” refers to the idea that once these boundaries are crossed, the changes become self-sustaining, and potentially lead to a new, often less hospitable, state.

Melting ice caps

One of the most well-known potential tipping points is the melting of the polar ice caps. Ice is white and highly reflective, meaning it reflects much of the sun’s heat back into space. As the ice melts due to increasing global temperatures, it leaves behind darker water or land, which absorbs more heat, which in turn causes more melting. This is known as a positive feedback loop, and it can lead to runaway ice melt.


Another potential tipping point involves the release of methane from permafrost. Permafrost is frozen soil that contains large amounts of carbon in the form of organic material. When permafrost thaws due to rising temperatures, microbes in the soil decompose the organic material, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. This leads to more warming, more thawing, and more methane release, creating another positive feedback loop.

Climate tipping points are a topic of ongoing scientific research, and there is still much uncertainty about when these thresholds might be reached, or what the exact consequences would be. However, the consensus among scientists is that crossing these thresholds could lead to serious and potentially catastrophic changes to the earth’s climate system.

The concern of scientists is that these tipping points might be reached sooner than we expect, particularly if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate. That’s why researchers like those from the Earth Commission are advocating for urgent action to mitigate the effects of climate change and prevent these tipping points from being reached.


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