Climate Action

Risks to Earth systems are rising. The good news? Businesses are taking action

A view of the earth from space: Six out of nine planetary boundaries have been breached indicating climate tipping points across Earth systems.

Six out of nine planetary boundaries have been breached indicating climate tipping points across Earth systems. Image: Unsplash/Javier Miranda

Johan Rockström
Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)
Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
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  • Increasing risks to vital Earth systems are causing businesses to step up on climate action due to tangible implications to their bottom lines.
  • On 17 May 2024, the Tyler Prize for environmental achievement recognized the planetary boundaries framework, a science that codifies risks to Earth systems.
  • The nine planetary boundaries offer insight into the kind of policy and corporate action needed, providing a health check on the planet, which is in marked decline.

The climate and nature crisis can be solved with our current generation's resources.

The benefits of investing in climate mitigation, nature-positive solutions and appropriate resilience are unparalleled for current and future populations on Earth. Planetary boundary science shows where the most work is needed to support a safe and just transition for economies and societies, given the growing risks to the Earth and our economic dependence on nature and its services.

Planetary boundaries at a glance.
Planetary boundaries at a glance. Image: Based on data published in Science – Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries.

Stepping up nature and climate action

Business leaders from across the globe are stepping up to advocate for stricter rules and making more investments in averting climate pollution – from carbon, methane, toxic gasses, soil and water pollutants and plastics. They are investing in sector transitions to nature-positive systems that support life on our planet. They are preparing adaptation strategies and exploring a wider scope of loss and damages as assets are increasingly stranded – due to economics and extreme weather.

Leaders' motivations vary – from avoiding future litigation to creating financial benefits and being true to one's beliefs. Those from countries affected by war understand how the climate crisis amplifies conflict and the stabilizing force of climate investments. Many, increasingly in Asia, have picked up the myriad ways that planetary health determines human health, as showcased in the Planetary Health Annual Meeting in Malaysia this year.

Forward-thinking leaders have connected the crisis to their employees' livelihoods and productivity. They understand that safeguarding Earth's planetary boundaries means a safe and just future for us all – humans included. Given the size and scale of Earth system risk, work is needed beyond corporate pioneers to mainstream action.

Accelerating Earth system risk

The speed and scale of disruptions have taken many leaders by surprise. The world economy is already committed to reducing incomes by 19% due to climate change. Global annual damages are estimated to be $38 trillion each year by 2050. Damages are six times larger than the mitigation costs needed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.

In recognition of the powerful economic and social case behind the green, clean and adaptive revolution, one may wonder why more progress hasn't been made today. Fear is a powerful driver of inaction. Some are choosing to remain in denial, incentivized by short-term profits. Some are actively investing in climate mis- and disinformation to promote a status quo that is likely to lead to our civilization's collapse.

Many scientists are losing trust in leaders' capabilities to make Earth-informed decisions. According to a Guardian survey of all lead authors or reviewers of the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is headed for at least 2 degrees Celsius of heating. Nearly four in five respondents foresee at least 2.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, while almost half anticipate a 3 degrees Celsius rise.

A 3 degree world is not livable. Evidence of climate tipping points across the Earth system is also being revealed as well as their break down, with cascading consequences on each other. From the poles to ocean currents, warm-water corals and our forests above and below water, symptoms are appearing.

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Today, five Earth systems are at imminent risk of tipping into states that accelerate global heating. Three more Earth systems are at risk of tipping, if warming rises 0.3 degrees further above pre-industrial levels. Although El Niño’s end should offer some temporary respite, the domino effect of Earth system tipping points is a long-term and irreversible climate amplifier.

For instance, Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheet have the potential to raise sea levels by as much as 10 metres in the centuries to come. In the near term, the loss of coral reefs will affect the food security of half a billion people dependent on the ocean as a source of protein.

Tipping points also cascade. For instance, the Atlantic's dominant heat-transferring current has slowed by 15% and is showing signs of destabilization on a trajectory towards collapse. It has collapsed in the past, and would put into jeopardy many systems, including Earth's tropical forests by raising the rain belt at the equator by 10 degrees latitude. As tropical forests are not equipped for fire, extreme droughts are more likely to destroy the lungs of our planet.

Five Earth systems are at imminent risk of breaching their tipping points.
Five Earth systems are at imminent risk of breaching their tipping points. Image: Global Tipping Points Report

A framework for action

Every human being has the right to be born on a livable planet and it is our responsibility to do what we can to protect it. Investing in emissions reduction, ensuring that our actions are nature-positive and building systemic resilience hold countless co-benefits, including a prosperous economy, thriving society and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The planetary boundaries framework presents a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

When the framework was launched in 2009, seven boundaries were quantified and three were breached. By 2023, nine boundaries were assessed and six crossed, with the three that previously transgressed deepening into the "red zone." This development shows that the transition away from ever-rising Earth risks has not begun.

The evolution of the planetary boundaries framework.
The evolution of the planetary boundaries framework. Image: Richardson et al 2023, Steffen et al 2015 and Rockström et al 2009

The 2024 Tyler Prize for environmental achievement recognizes a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, experts and bridge-builders led by PIK Potsdam to develop the planetary boundaries framework. It is a guide – indicating which thresholds and drivers will likely influence the state of Earth systems. In the future, these variables may be clearer to track, as well as how stakeholders can reduce them.

A team of scientists, businesses and philanthropists convened through the World Economic Forum's GAEA initiative, and the Earth Decides and Earth Observation communities are joining forces to support the dissemination of the framework more frequently. Geospatial technologies and pioneering Earth system modelling have the potential to offer an inflection point in the speed, resolution and credibility of planetary health checks.

We are at a unique point in history where the future of humans align closely with other planetary species. It is in our collective interest to go beyond our differences into the common understanding that all our lives are at stake on Earth's global commons. Without decisive regulation and aligned action, our civilization will collapse – and the lives and livelihoods we have built over many generations of humans will fold.

The call to protect our planet is growing, and scientists are linking evidence with business, daily life, and policy to support better decisions. The sooner we see the opportunities in environmental action for economics and governance, the more likely we will make significant progress in addressing these critical challenges.

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