Why integrating justice is a scientific breakthrough for the Global Commons

In 2019, the Global Commons Alliance set up the Earth Commission – an international team of natural and social scientists – to see if it was possible to create a revolution in thinking. To drive a scientific breakthrough.

After three intense years, and a truly remarkable journey, the Earth Commission has done just that. By integrating Earth system (natural) science and social science for the first time, they have devised a set of clear new boundaries – like the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C limit for climate – for several interconnected global commons: Climate, Biosphere (intact nature and managed nature), Freshwater (ground and surface), Fertilizers (phosphorus and nitrogen) and Aerosol Pollutants (air quality).

Crucially,  justice – between all people, between generations and between people and nature – is integrated for the first time within the boundaries. It’s the justice integration that differentiates these new boundaries from the Planetary Boundaries framework and marks and important evolution thereof.

We call these the new boundaries the safe and just Earth System Boundaries. They provide us all with the first quantitative scientific foundation for safeguarding the global commons for all people, now and into the future.

‘Safe’ means ensuring stable, resilient, biophysical conditions on Earth, like those of the last 10,000 years, that have allowed humans to prosper.

“Just” means minimizing human exposure to significant harm from Earth-system change, and ensuring access to resources for a dignified life and escape from poverty for everyone.

The safe and just Earth System Boundaries, which are now in the final rounds of peer review and will be published soon, are a clarion call to action for every company, every city and every country to urgently evolve their environmental and social goals in the face of worsening inequality, destruction of ecosystems and fast approaching climate tipping points. Through science-based targets they can be operationalised by everyone.

Within the Global Commons Alliance, the Science-Based Targets Network has already begun the urgent work to translate the safe and just boundaries into science-based targets so that companies and cities can act as planetary stewards, protecting, regenerating and helping to stabilize the global commons. These are crucial steps towards our course correction and companies can start – and must – start taking them right now.

Everything we hold dear is at stake. An integrated, safe and just approach in all decision making and goal setting is likely to be the only way through the current polycrisis to a liveable future for everyone, no matter where they live or how wealthy they are.