Nature and Biodiversity

See why annual planetary boundary health checks will better inform leaders' decision-making

Planetary boundary health checks need to be ramped up

Planetary boundary health checks need to be ramped up Image: Shutterstock

Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Johan Rockström
Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Planetary boundary health checks take place every six to seven years – which is insufficient in light of the speed and scale of critical changes to Earth systems.
  • A new partnership announced at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos seeks to speed up the frequency and quality of these checks, helping decision-makers to respond more effectively to them.
  • This partnership harnesses a robust and tested methodology, the latest geospatial technology and world-class analytics and scientific modelling capabilities.

Extreme weather events, critical changes to Earth systems, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are the top long-term risks featured in the 2024 Global Risks Report. These risks are inter-connected and propelled by the climate crisis. Higher temperatures catalyse abrupt and irreversible changes to Earth systems and fuel more extreme weather events, which in turn trigger collapses in ecosystems that are not well adapted.

In a globalized world, these collapses are taking place on unprecedented scales, with speeds that will ramp up as they begin reinforcing each other, on our current emissions trajectory of 2.8 degrees centigrade. The first Earth system – Arctic summer sea ice – to have passed its tipping point took place in July 2023 and will begin turbocharging warming as dark ocean surfaces absorb rather than deflect sunlight. From glacier melt – resulting in sea-level rise to permafrost – resulting in faster rising emissions – the stability of our planet is being eroded.

Updates to the systems that monitor Earth’s wellbeing – from the IPCC’s Assessment Reports to Planetary Boundaries – take place every six to seven years. That’s the equivalent of a human going to see a doctor every six years for a health check-up – as their health deteriorates year after year. Without more frequent planetary boundary health checks, humanity will find itself on the back foot in responding to cascading risks.

The methodology for planetary boundary health checks

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2024 in Davos, climate scientists, the geospatial industry and communicators came together in recognition of the importance of returning Earth to a safe operating space. To inform the decisions needed at this time, more updated information is needed on a planetary scale to support informed decision-making of critical indicators.

The Planetary Boundaries Framework offers a compelling backbone for such an analysis. Planetary boundaries define the systems that maintain the Earth’s stable functioning. They provide a holistic view of the Planet's health and demonstrate how interconnected Earth systems are. For instance, solving the climate crisis whilst ignoring biodiversity collapses won’t work. Each system is interconnected with each other and holistic solutions that build in positive reinforcing effects are needed, rather than interventions that optimize for a single indicator.

We have already crossed 6 of our 9 planetary boundaries

planetary boundary health check framework
The evolution of the Planetary Boundaries framework. Image: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. Based on Richardson et al. 2023, Steffen et al. 2015 and Rockström et al. 2009

The opportunity to provide a comprehensive diagnostic tool for continuous monitoring of the entire Earth system, alongside more granular and regionally focused analysis is essential. The tool will help humanity to steward our planet towards a safer and more just operating space.

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The technology, analytics and modelling capabilities

Earth Observation technology has come a long way. With imaging systems, such as Planet and the European Space Agency (ESA), that give us a daily measure of critical indicators on Earth, far more is possible by offering regular updates.

In addition to the technology, data analytics capabilities continue to build, thanks to big data and more recently artificial intelligence. For instance, MIT’s Media Lab explores interdisciplinary data analytics for better decision making.

What’s more, scientific modelling has augmented in leaps and bounds to the point where data can be fed into systems of analysis that offer more accurate predictive capabilities – both in terms of data analysis and the reverberating effects of Earth system changes, which require complex language models and multilayered cause and effect loops.

One of the more complex indicators to measure is biosphere integrity – because natural systems are both intricate and systemically interlinked. The Crowther Lab is leading the way on integrated modelling and analysis of Earth's ecosystems, with its latest paper studying the potential of natural, biodiverse forests to help achieve our climate and biodiversity goals. This pioneering analysis utilizes vast ground-sourced and satellite datasets, allowing the assessment of the biological complexity (biocomplexity) of any area, relative to its natural state and creating a picture of the health of nature across the globe. This offers a robust approach to measuring this indicator.

This research, paired with PIK Potsdam’s framework and inputs from other geospatial providers, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), will help to offer a comprehensive view. In the medium term, getting a planetary boundary health check update could become both more regular and more granular in detail – to inform decision-making.

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The collaboration

The piece of the puzzle that has been missing from this architecture is cross-industry and cross-institutional collaboration. Many siloed data sets need to be aligned to analyse boundary measures and advance analysis, modelling and AI methods to support integrated near real-time assessments.

The partnership aims to create a virtual control room: a comprehensive dashboard displaying global quantifications of Planetary Boundaries, as well as high-resolution maps of the processes underlying systemic changes – both globally and in priority regions. The tool aims for near real-time monitoring and assessment. The first stage in this process will likely be an annual planetary boundary health check.

The control room would integrate transformational stories to support decision-making oriented to return humanity to a safe operating space. As such, it would offer a tough reality check on where we stand, whilst inspiring bold action towards a more stable and resilient planet through storytelling.

The partnership initiated in Davos includes the Crowther Lab at ETH Zürich, the Earth Commission, the European Space Agency, MIT Media Lab, Open Planet, PIK Potsdam and Planet Labs, in collaboration with the Earth Observation and Earth Decides communities.

Earth Observation is a group of leading data providers, users and related experts to advance Earth Observation’s transformative potential for climate and nature. Earth Decides is a diverse community of world-class experts and influencers who cultivate informed optimism among decision-makers in support of credible Earth-centred action – it also launched in Davos this year.

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