The emergence of the ‘planetary boundaries’ concept in international environmental law: A proposal for a framework convention

Date01 April 2019
AuthorEdgar Fernández Fernández,Claire Malwé
Published date01 April 2019
The emergence of the planetary boundariesconcept in
international environmental law: A proposal for a framework
Edgar Fernández Fernández
Claire Malwé
Email: Grounded in the application of the precautionary principle, the planetary bound-
aries framework attempts to define a safe operating space where human activities
can take place without the risk of transgressing the Earth system's ecological
thresholds, thus maintaining the planet's Holocenelike conditions. Since its emer-
gence in 2009, the scientific concept of planetary boundaries has gradually gained
recognition in the political arena. This concept has been introduced in the Euro-
pean Union's legal instruments, and it has been included in documents issued at
the request of or by the United Nations SecretaryGeneral. However, the concept
has not yet been integrated into the legal documents of the United Nations
organs. This article argues for the adoption of a framework convention on planet-
ary boundaries as an effective means for integrating the planetary boundaries
approach into international law.
Building on the extraordinary progress of Earth system science dur-
ing the last few decades, in 2009, a group of 29 scientists led by
Johan Rockström attempted to define the borders of what they
called the safe operating space for humanity, meaning the space in
which human activities can take place without the risk of transgress-
ing the Earth system's ecological thresholds.
The term planetary
boundariesdesignates these borders. The purpose of this proposal
was not to protect the planet as such but rather to protect the state
of the planet that has been favourable for the life and development
of contemporary human societies, that is, the state of the planet
during the Holocene, the geological epoch of the last 11,700 years,
which has been characterized by its climatic stability.
The group of
scientists argued that by organizing to stay within these boundaries,
humanity could avoid weakening the Earth system's resilience,
which is subject to significant manmade pressures.
Rockström's team identified the following nine biophysical pro-
cesses of the Earth system that determine the planet's ability to
autoregulate and therefore to maintain its Holocenelike conditions:
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
J Rockström et al, Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Human-
ity(2009) 14 Ecology and Society 32.
R Monastersky, The Human Age(2015) 519 Nature 145.
W Dansgaard et al, Evidence for General Instability of Past Climate from a 250kyr
Icecore Record(1993) 364 Nature 218, 220.
Resilience has been defined in various manners by different scientific disciplines. See FS
Brand and K Jax, Focusing the Meaning(s) of Resilience: Resilience as a Descriptive Con-
cept and a Boundary Object(2007) 12 Ecology and Society 23. The following are two
examples of definitions that have been applied to ecological systems: In ecology and biol-
ogy, resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem, of a species or of an individual to recuperate
a normal functioning or development after having experienced a disturbance(free transla-
tion of S Bosi and A Euzen (eds), Prospective Droit, Écologie et Économie de la Biodiversité:
Une Prospective du CNRS (CNRS 2013) 62); Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb
disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the
same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks(B Walker et al, Resilience, Adaptability
and Transformability in Socialecological Systems(2004) 9 Ecology and Society 5).
Scientists argue that we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, in which
humans have become a geophysical force of the planetary system. See W Steffen et al,
The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship(2011) 40 Ambio 739.
According to these authors (ibid 755), the Anthropocene is a dynamic state of the Earth
System, characterized by global environmental changes already significant enough to distin-
guish it from the Holocene, but with a momentum that continues to move it away from the
Holocene at a geologically rapid rate. Regarding the need to think differently concerning
environmental law in the Anthropocene, see LJ Kotzé, Rethinking Global Environmental
Law and Governance in the Anthropocene(2014) 32 Journal of Energy and Natural
Resources Law 121.
DOI: 10.1111/reel.12256
| RECIEL. 2019;28:4856.

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