Understanding your environmental impacts – the Planetary Accounting approach

Today we launch Sustainable Earth, a community-focused, open access journal where researchers, policy makers and citizens can read, discuss and promote ideas around sustainability and innovation. To mark the launch we invited Kate Meyer, author of one the first published articles, to talk about her research on breaking down the overwhelming issue of climate change to help nations, businesses, and individuals in tackling it.

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Images of polar bears on disappearing icecaps, desert landscapes, and extreme weather events litter the media. Climate change is no longer something of the future, it is happening all around us. Scientists are calling for action – presenting daunting findings about how far beyond Earth’s environmental limits we now are.

In the face of a problem of this magnitude, it can seem almost impossible to know where to start. People are experiencing “climate fatigue” a sense of despair that the problem is too big, the end goal unclear.

That’s where Planetary Accounting comes in. In a new article published in Sustainable Earth, we lay out a way to take global problems and break them down into manageable chunks. We show how the end goal can be determined for sustainability at different scales of activity from the individual and community, to business, city, and national scales. The paper begins to address the problem of where to start, of what we need to do.

People are experiencing “climate fatigue” a sense of despair that the problem is too big, the end goal unclear.

In 2009, leading scientists proposed 9 Planetary Boundaries – global environmental limits such as for the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the number of species extinctions each year, and the remaining forestland. Together these limits define a “safe operating space” for humanity – within which the risk of changing the state of the planet from one that is hospital to one that is hostile to humanity is low. We have currently exceeded four of the Boundaries. The situation is urgent.

While the Planetary Boundaries provide important insight as to the magnitude and urgency of the situation, they do not translate easily into policy and action. They do not tell us what needs to be done to return to the safe operating space. How would one begin to divide the responsibility for the number of global species extinctions to different nations, cities, businesses, or individuals?

Planetary Accounting provides the link from the Planetary Boundaries to policy and action. Planetary Quotas – limits for human activity in “environmental currencies” such as maximum annual carbon emissions, minimum reforestation rates, and maximum land-use have been derived from the Planetary Boundaries.

Each of the Quotas are in measurable units which can be divided up amongst the world’s population. In this way, nations, businesses, and even individuals can start to understand what their share of the safe operating space might look like. Where the Planetary Boundaries can be compared to a health check for Earth, the Planetary Quotas are the prescription for a healthy planet.

The Planetary Quotas are global limits that can be divided among the global population
Kate Meyer

The Planetary Accounting approach does more than breaking our global environmental challenges into more manageable chunks. It flips the conversation about sustainability from one that is focused on the difficult present, to one that is focused on a hopeful future.

The current norm is to look at how far we can reduce environmental impacts from the status quo; to make progress through incremental change. In contrast, the Planetary Accounting approach presents the question, “how can we get to where we want to be?” It provides a platform for innovative and transformational change.

Further, it connects efforts at different scales. Global negotiations, individual behavior change programs, national legislation, and business sustainability targets could all operate under the same framework – giving a stronger sense of collective action. A “planetary facts” labeling system – similar to the nutritional facts labeling found on many food products – could be used to generate consumer accountability. Smart phone apps could allow individuals to compete with one another to live within the planet’s limits.

Planetary Facts labels could help hold consumers accountable.
Kate Meyer

A not-for-profit research center called the Planetary Accounting Network (PAN) has recently been launched to further the research presented in the Planetary Accounting article. It is a member-based organization seeking to create an international community of like-minded people who can help drive change towards the safe-operating-space.

The PAN vision is for people to live well on a healthy planet. They believe that by quantifying what is needed to restore and sustain the global environment at different scales, they can help to realize this vision.

Planetary Accounting is not a silver-bullet for our global environmental crisis. There is a lot of work to do to return to the safe operating space. However, Planetary Accounting may help us tackle the problem by answering the question – what can YOU do to help.

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Alan Merry

I am a proud parent but I am also a concerned clinician-scientist. This Planetary Accounting Framework is very timely and very well thought through. We need to act on the information it can provide.

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Sally Merry

This is a great initiative amongst all the gloom. It is so depressing to see the lack of action from world leaders, and retrogressive steps taken by some. How good to have a framework to support individual and local initiatives.

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