Operationalising the concept of a safe operating space at the EU level – first steps and explorations

12-07-2018 | Publication

The Planetary Boundaries framework proposes quantitative limits for human perturbation of critical Earth System processes, defining a global ‘safe operating space’. The framework can help in formulating EU policies and targets to operationalise the global environmental dimension of the 7th Environment Action Programme and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To do so, the Planetary Boundaries need to be ‘translated’ to the EU level.

This study has made an initial translation to the EU level, for the planetary boundaries for climate change, biosphere integrity, land systems change, freshwater use, biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus), and novel entities (chemical pollution).

Common elements of operationalisation

As the concept is increasingly taken up by both scientific and policy communities, common elements of a universal method for planetary boundaries operationalisation are beginning to emerge. These include:

  • disaggregating and allocating (downscaling) the planetary boundaries to the relevant scale, taking into account biophysical, socio-economic and ethical aspects as three distinct dimensions, and including temporal dynamics or change pathways as appropriate;
  • benchmarking current (and future) environmental performance against the downscaled planetary boundaries, both from a territorial and a consumption perspective;
  • policy-mapping the downscaled planetary boundaries (or planetary boundary-consistent environmental targets) and benchmarks onto relevant policy areas, and integrating them with locally important sustainability criteria.

Main findings from applying the methodology to the EU level

Based on equal per-capita allocation of the global safe operating space, the EU does not appear to be ‘living within the limits of our planet’, for most of the boundaries analysed. Europe’s per-capita environmental footprint is significantly higher than the global average. Furthermore, decreases in territorial pressures have mostly been mostly outweighed by increasing environmental pressures abroad, thereby externalising the EU’s environmental footprint. The social and ecological impact of pressures on planetary boundaries can be more severe in the locations to which the pressures are externalised, compared to the same pressure exerted within Europe.