Nature and Biodiversity

A safe and just future is everyone’s business. Here's why

Earth system change is causing displacement, loss of livelihoods and death, fuelling a dangerous cycle undermining social and planetary stability.

Earth system change is causing displacement, loss of livelihoods and death, fuelling a dangerous cycle undermining social and planetary stability. Image: NASA/Unsplash

Joyeeta Gupta
Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam and, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education
Johan Rockström
Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Earth system change is causing displacement, loss of livelihoods and death, fuelling a dangerous cycle undermining social and planetary stability.
  • The Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries set out how to avoid crossing irreversible tipping points, ensure decent lives and protect the global commons.
  • This safe and just space is the home of every business, economic and political opportunity worth pursuing today. Cities and businesses have a leading and transformative role to play in taking us there.

We are standing at the edge of an unparalleled juncture in modern history. A crossroads where our actions today will set the conditions of life for generations far into the future.

At COP28, the majority of countries across the world rallied for an orderly and just phase-out of fossil fuels in line with scientifically defined 1.5°C trajectories. Science - again – was clear on the numbers, and whilst the final agreement text contained significant gaps, there was a groundswell in business and civil society communities. They called for just fossil fuel phase-out, tripling renewables by 2030 and halting and reversing biodiversity loss, showing the appetite for transformational change exists.

Words must turn into reality. Now and fast.

If current CO2 emissions levels persist, we have only 7 years left of the remaining carbon budget for a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. As emission reductions have been insufficient to date, we will likely enter a period of “1.5°C overshoot” on the journey. Minimizing the magnitude and duration of that overshoot is crucial. This is to avoid significant harm to humans and other species, risks of irreversible changes in the climate in some regions, and the shocks to societies and economies that would follow.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

But working on reducing emissions alone won’t be sufficient

Human activities are pushing us ever closer to negative tipping points in the Earth system. This is already undermining the critical life-support systems of the planet and causing major injustices worldwide, which in turn exacerbate negative impacts on people and the planet. The climate crisis is inextricably connected with biodiversity loss, deadly air pollution and freshwater shortages, and increasing inequalities within and between nations.

In other words, Earth system change is causing displacement, death, and loss of livelihoods, fuelling a dangerous cycle which is undermining social stability, and placing further pressure on the planet.

None of these challenges can be overcome by working with ‘carbon tunnel vision’. Interconnected challenges need interconnected responses.

A transformative safe and just space

The good news is that positive societal and economic systems change is also possible.

Evidence shows people across the globe can live a decent life, avoid significant harm from Earth system change and safeguard the global commons, which are vital for our economies and societies.

In May this year, we published the Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries, which scientifically quantified social and biophysical limits across five (of the nine) planetary boundaries to avoid the crossing of irreversible tipping points and widespread impacts on human lives and other species.

One of the boundaries includes ensuring that 20-25% of every square kilometre in landscapes dominated by humans, such as farmlands, managed forests and urban areas, is given over to nature so that critical local ecosystem services can be secured. Often invisible and not accounted for in markets, these services are not ‘good to have’ but are essential to societies, economies and survival. This includes pollination, water quality regulation, pest and disease control, and the proven physical and mental health benefits provided by access to nature.

In new work, we’ve deepened the safe and just boundaries research by investigating minimum levels of access to resources. This quantification defines a safe and just foundation needed for everyone on the planet to live a decent life and escape from poverty. When brought together with the ceiling already defined in our earlier work (where all are protected from harm resulting from Earth system changes), the safe and just space between them starts to take shape.

Our findings, which will be published in the coming months, show that the more resources are overexploited, the wider the inequality gap and the harsher the consequences of earth system collapse will be for everyone and for generations to come, not just the most vulnerable today. No nation, market or community will be spared.

Avoiding the displacement of large numbers of people from uninhabitable zones, the collapse of ecosystems and the destruction of our life support systems is not a question of “us and them” or something “for the next CEO to deal with”, it’s about now, and about upholding dignified lives, safe markets, and demand for business continuity.

The numbers and insights from this forthcoming paper, combined with the Safe and Just Boundaries quantifications, can guide business leaders and policymakers to make 21st-century decisions that chart a course away from dangerous tipping points and endgames, towards a new era of abundance and balance for all nations, communities and economies.

Bangkok, safe and just biosphere
Image: Superflux
Amazon safe and just climate
Image: Superflux
Image: Superflux
Huai river safe and just freshwater
Image: Superflux
Earth system aerosols Delhi
Image: Superflux

The safe and just space is also the home of every business, economic and political opportunity worth pursuing today. Wide-scale transformations are required to bring us there, and businesses and cities in particular have a leading role to play. The fastest route is through four key areas of transformation: reducing and reallocating consumption, changing economic systems, technology and governance.

The Safe and Just Boundaries are designed to be downscaled into targets for companies, and cities and countries creating impact for economies and communities everywhere. The work has already started.

Seventeen companies, including Holcim, Nestlé and Tesco are already trailing the aligned science-based targets for nature alongside their science-based targets for climate. In doing so, they’re innovating and taking advantage of the brand new opportunities to future-proof their businesses in a rapidly changing world of compounding, interconnected risks. What they’re finding is that it’s not easy. None of this is.

It requires a multi-level holistic vision of how climate, biodiversity, nutrients, fresh water and aerosols connect and how people can equitably share these resources. Every business, financial institution and government needs clarity on this interconnectivity or they risk going over the edge, taking the rest of us with them.

Done well, the rewards are plentiful. Laser-like clarity on when and where to turn, and confidence of getting to that destination safely, minimizing harm to anyone or anything on the way is needed.

It’s time for leaders to turn on the headlights and grasp the opportunity to enter the safe and just space to avoid irreparable harm. It’s achievable with just transformations across all of society, and desirable because it will ensure all can thrive for generations to come.

Getting there is everyone’s business.

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