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The urgency of addressing planetary boundaries and tipping points

Aggiornamento: 21 set 2023

By Mia Hem

Humanity is currently facing a critical challenge in the form of eroded planetary boundaries and geophysical tipping points. There are environmental limits that regulate Earth's physical systems, known as planetary boundaries, which have transgressed. This endangers their functioning.

Scientific assessments indicate that six out of the nine planetary boundaries have been breached. This includes the loss of biodiversity, changes in land use, overuse of water resources, excessive nitrogen and phosphorus loading, and widespread chemical pollution. Moreover, scientists have identified numerous potential tipping points across these boundaries, characterized by non-linear responses to human-induced forcings. For example, global warming could trigger the melting of sea ice, release of CO2 and methane from melting permafrost, collapse of rainforests, disruptions in global ocean circulation, and coral reef loss. Each of these tipping points could lead to catastrophic global consequences. The challenges we face in terms of environmental, social, and health issues can be described as a planetary health crisis. Human activities such as industrialization, urbanization, deforestation, and the burning of fossil fuels have caused this crisis. Inaction in the face of this crisis will have far-reaching consequences, affecting both the Earth's natural systems and the well-being of human societies.

Failure to actively pursue the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) combined with technological disruptions could ignite social conflicts within and between nations. If negative "social tipping points" are reached, peaceful governance and coexistence may break down, as seen in historical conflicts like World War I and World War II. International cooperation and achieving the SDGs are crucial in preventing such dire consequences. Equal access to quality education and the fight against inequalities are examples of positive social tipping points that can be created through SDG implementation. Moreover, inequalities are rising in societies worldwide, with environmental crises disproportionately affecting marginalized individuals. Technological advances, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, also pose a threat to jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has further depleted trust in governments, leading to political and social instability. While governments commit to economic justice and SDG principles, many fail to live up to these commitments due to powerful groups impeding support for marginalized populations. Furthermore, the current geopolitical situation is marked by significant tensions, particularly between China and the United States. The war in Ukraine has further destabilized and divided nations. Military budgets are increasing in many countries, while the funding for the SDGs remains inadequate. Global military spending has reached record levels, exacerbating the strain on basic social services in many nations, while leading to economic tipping points. Economic tipping points can accompany or be triggered by environmental, social, governance, and geopolitical tipping points, such as banking failures and extreme poverty leading to government bankruptcy and economic collapse. These tipping points have been witnessed in past events such as the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

Urgently addressing planetary boundaries and navigating away from tipping points has become an imperative that humanity cannot afford to ignore. The breaches of critical environmental limits, intricately woven into a web of crises, stand as potent threats to the delicate equilibrium of both Earth's systems and the fabric of human societies. The scale of these challenges mandates unwavering international cooperation, steadfast pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), targeted efforts to dismantle inequalities, and an unwavering commitment to sustainable practices. The consequences of inaction are dire, ranging from the eruption of profound social conflicts to the descent into economic downturns and the accelerated unravelling of our planet's ecosystems. In this pivotal moment, the preservation of our collective future hinges on the conscious prioritization of sustainable development. The mandate is clear: immediate, concerted action is paramount to shield our planet and ensure the vitality and prosperity of generations yet to come.

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