We have crossed the 5th planetary boundary
Contributed by Jochum Ledgister
We can - almost easily - imagine a world without oil and gas, without nuclear weapons, without fast fashion, social media and - maybe especially - any basic service which has become an industry. But, can we imagine a world without wildlife, clean water, thriving oceans, healthy forests or even bees?
On January 18, 2022, scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) confirmed that we have crossed a 5th planetary boundary - the chemical pollution boundary. The other four which were also crossed are climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered biogeochemical cycles. But there are no prizes for each boundary which we cross, there are only penalties.
According to the United Nations, climate change “refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Such shifts can be natural, due to changes in the sun’s activity or large volcanic eruptions. But since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas”.
Loss of biosphere integrity results in the loss of local and regional biodiversity, which makes ecosystems more vulnerable to changes in climate and ocean acidity, reported The Circularity Gap Report (CGR) 2023 on the Planetary Boundaries Framework.
“Today, the global extinction rate far exceeds the rate of speciation. If the current extinction rate is sustained, an undesired system change is highly likely,” it said.
The Stockholm Resilience Centre noted that land-system change occurs when land is converted to human use all over the planet. “Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have primarily been converted to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind the serious reductions in biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and other important elements,” it said.
Altered biogeochemical cycles, according to CGR, occur when nitrogen and phosphorus, both essential elements for plant growth, make their way to the sea and can push marine and aquatic systems across ecological thresholds of their own while impacting human health.
In the face of so much apparent end-of-the-world bad news, how do we move past the solastalgia and instead focus on positive action for the future? There are some key questions with much potential for active engagement which are the I, You and Them. The questions are how can we contribute to positive change, what is the potential of the construction industry in leading the positive change, and how are governments able to drive transformation and empowerment?
How we impact the shape of a greener future:
- Accept that we are one with the natural environment - live mindfully
- Make time to read and think deeply - take public transportation where available
- Build community - remain connected with those who really care about us
- Savor enchanted moments- pause to observe, relish, and enjoy
- Let frugality be a watchword- reduce, reuse, recycle
- Engage with your responsibilities to society- participate in the democratic process
How designers can impact the shape of a greener future:
- Circular design - embrace the principles of the circular economy by creating products that are designed for reuse, repair, and recycling. prioritise modular designs, disassembly, and easy material separation
- Sustainable design - focus on recycled and biodegradable materials, minimise waste in the manufacturing process, and design for longevity and repairability
- User-centric design - design intuitive interfaces, engaging experiences, and persuasive communication which encourage sustainable behaviour among users
- Nature-inspired design: design products, buildings, and infrastructure that mimics nature's efficiency and resilience, leading to more sustainable and regenerative outcomes
How developers can impact the shape of a greener future:
- Sustainable architecture and urban planning- build buildings and communities with sustainable features such as green roofs, solar panels, rainwater harvesting systems, and efficient waste management.
- Thoughtful design-led process - prioritise energy-efficient designs, the use of sustainable materials, and green spaces to promote a healthier environment
- Eco-friendly construction practices - adopt construction practices that minimise waste generation and reduce carbon emissions, and make recycling key
- Renewable energy integration - incorporate renewable energy systems into projects, such as solar panels which help to reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based energy sources and contribute to a greener energy mix
- Smart technology solutions- leverage smart technology to optimise energy use, enhance efficiency, and reduce environmental impact through integration of the Internet of things within core processes
- Sustainable infrastructure - which can involve building and integration into eco-friendly transportation systems, including electric vehicle charging stations, bike lanes, and pedestrian-friendly pathways, as well as implementing sustainable water management practices
- Envision true life-cycle practices - use environmentally friendly building materials and energy-efficient construction techniques to lower the embodied carbon in construction projects
- Tangible results of the initiatives are:
- Save the bees by building roof gardens
- Maintain biodiversity corridors by building green bridges
- Support sustainable forest husbandry by building with timber
How government policy can impact the shape of a greener future:
- Renewable energy incentives - implement policies that provide incentives for the development and use of energy sources such as solar and wind, and include tax breaks, subsidies, and grants to encourage the transition away from fossil fuels
- Transparent carbon pricing and emissions trading - introduce carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems, putting a price on carbon emissions thereby creating economic incentives for industries to reduce their emissions and invest in cleaner technologies
- Sustainable transportation policies - invest in public transportation systems, cycling infrastructure, and walkability to reduce reliance on private vehicles
- Energy efficiency standards - set high energy efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, and industrial processes to encourage the use of energy-efficient technologies and practices to reduce energy consumption
- Conservation and natural resource management - establish more protected areas, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries to conserve biodiversity and ecosystems alongside policies that promote sustainable land use, reduce deforestation, and the protection of water resources
- Operate long term - ensure the many is preferred over the few
- Plan sustainably- appreciate that the world continues when we have ceased to
The future is always much further away and much closer than we imagine on a day-to-day basis, and the hope for any version of a greener future rests not in idle hope but in our combined actions today.