Living within the limits of our planet

Human civilization and the development of our modern societies have only been possible due to Earth’s relatively stable environmental conditions over the past 10.000 years, a period called the Holocene. Scientists have defined a framework of nine quantitative planetary boundaries (see below) that characterize such a stable and resilient Earth system, within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come: a so-called ‘safe operating space for humanity’.

Since the 1950s however, the rapid rise in economic activities is increasingly putting this stability at risk. Our greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and land-use change are driving global warming, with devastating floods and lethal heatwaves as result. Air pollution caused by our vehicles and factories is considered as the most important environmental health risk factor in Europe. Some of the new chemicals we are releasing into the environment threaten our health and ecosystems. We disturb global water cycles and are responsible for a mass extinction of species. Six of the nine planetary boundaries are crossed as of 2023: climate change, biodiversity, chemicals and plastics, land-use change, freshwater change and nitrogen and phosphorus.

The scale of environmental changes due to human activity has led researchers to propose that Earth has entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, an era where humanity is shaping the entire biosphere. This Anthropocene is characterized by rapidly growing environmental pressures and increasing degradation and scarcity of natural resources. In short, an era where humanity is putting its own ‘safe operating space’ at risk.

Read more about the planetary boundaries concept, its origins and scientific basis.

9 planetary boundaries