A “Safe and Just corridor” for planet and people

For the first time, the Earth Commission has brought together the complexity of humans living on Earth in a framework that defines a challenging and fundamental core pillar for their work: how to determine what’s “safe and just” for Earth’s systems and the people who rely on them.

Defining a “safe and just corridor” for future development will not be easy, the Earth Commissioners and their colleagues acknowledge, but the framework published today in Earth’s Future (https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2020EF001866), will guide the Commission’s assessment of planetary thresholds, due to be published in 2022. By defining global targets or limits for land use and freshwater, for example, similar to the 1.5°C target for climate set by the Paris Agreement, the Earth Commission’s findings will underpin the development of science-based targets for companies and cities at more local scales.

The Commission must assess what is safe for Earth’s systems, in order to avoid tipping points for example, that might damage the processes that keep the planet functioning in a way that is amenable to humans. At the same time, they must look carefully at whether humans can get the resources they need, in a fair way.

“Given current inequalities, it is possible that meeting the needs of all may lead to transgressing the safe limits of Earth’s systems,” said Joyeeta Gupta, a Co-Chair of the Earth Commission and professor at the University of Amsterdam. “People need to have access to clean water and enough food.” In many cases, to get these basic needs, people have already made decisions related to farming, for example, including land use change and the use of nitrogen and phosphorus in large enough amounts to have skewed how ecosystems operate around the world.

“At the same time, safe limits from a biophysical perspective may not be safe enough for all people on our planet,” Gupta noted. To address that issue, she said, “Our two dimensions of ‘just’ cover ‘harm’ and ‘access.’” Coral reefs, for example, could disappear with a seemingly “safe” 1.5°C global warming that is the goal for climate change targets now. The planet will continue to function, but people who rely on those reefs for fishing or tourism economies will suffer.

The “safe and just corridor” framework will assist the Earth Commission in quantifying what conditions for the planet’s systems avoid dangerous tipping points and ensure just sharing of risk, responsibilities and resources for all. The findings, to be reported next year, will support science-based targets for cities, corporations and  governments to ensure the protection of the planet’s safe operating environment.

How the Earth Commission envisions integrating “safe and just targets” into the “safe and just corridor” requires (a) identifying ranges for each biophysical variable, and then defining the stricter of the safe and just ranges, (b) the corridor (shaded). In this example, the just range is stricter than the safe range. (c) The Earth Commission proposed identifying “a spread of safe and just target ranges corresponding to different risk tolerances.” The examples here eventually will be identified variables and targets for defining the safe and just corridor.

The Earth Commission is hosted by Future Earth, and is a part of the Global Commons Alliance, which works to create a network of actors across many scales to protect the global commons — the resources all humans need to survive and thrive, shared across the planet — including the implementation of science-based targets.

Download the press release for the newly published commentary in Earth’s Future, an American Geophysical Union journal.