This year's research
As part of our commitment to practitioner research, we are revisiting and updating our 2013 planetary and social boundaries study. If you would like to be involved in this research, please get in touch below.
Please see further below for an extract of our 2013 research and further information...
Research Background - 2013
The Earth has entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans are the dominant driver of change to the Earth System (Steffen et al. 2007). Furthermore, with the world’s population on a trajectory to be over nine billion by 2050, we are facing a critical period in the history of our planet. For instance, more food needs to be grown in the next 70 years than in the previous 1,000 years.
To stimulate thinking within this global sustainability context, in 2009, 28 environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström (Stockholm Resilience Centre) proposed boundaries for nine Earth system processes, to define a “safe operating space for humanity”. Once human activity has passed these thresholds or tipping points, there is risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”.
Current Methodologies / approaches to downscale planetary boundaries
A sample of those available
Per capita allocation
Barriers to innovation: Collective Intelligence - What should be the next steps? (Participant comments)
Research Summary - 2013
The key debates and methodological challenges in putting planetary boundaries into practice
In downscaling the nine planetary boundaries, the respondents highlighted a series of debates and methodological challenges, ranging from technical through to conceptual and even ethical.
How social boundaries are being included - in practice
A key contribution to the discourse surrounding planetary boundaries has been Oxfam’s work to establish 11 social foundations. The participants within this study were broadly in favour of this work, in particular the recognition that environmental and social sustainability are interdependent.
“I favour Jonathan Porritt’s model of concentric circles. Natural capital is the outer circle, social development is the middle one and then economic is the inner core. They are all connected, but without environment, social and economic development is threatened.” [Food manufacturer]
A significant proportion of participants felt that rather than a boundary, a ‘safe space’ was required. “Social capital is the opposite (need to flip on head). Build upwards. Do not want to ‘under-shoot’ or under-capitalise on social capital.” [Apparel Industry]
How ethical issues such as fair share are being addressed in practice
Notions of what is an organisation’s fair share of the global commons raised particularly intense discussions. Debates ranged from the practical challenges of allocating between countries and organisations and also moral judgments relating to to shared and differentiated responsibility, with participants noting, for instance;
“I don’t think we can even start having a discussion on allocation between organisations. Ultimately it needs to be agreed by national governments, as organisation change too much and move around.” [Energy company]
“Fair share is exponentially harder as it involves a moral judgment. Really only nation states can do this. A lot of further discussions need to be had at a macro-level – national budget”[Retailer]
How organisations are linking planetary boundary thinking with sustainability frameworks, materiality, reporting and wider business strategy - in practice
In responding to how planetary boundaries can be linked to wider business practices, respondents cited a series of internal and external applications. From an organisational perspective, planetary boundaries are seen as providing a valuable scientific framework for:
“Targets linked to purpose (such as planetary boundaries) are a very powerful force– aspirational, inspiration (e.g. like Kennedy and Moon Landing). For us, a massive driving force has been how we defined our target beyond 2015." [Apparel Industry]
Our Research Approach -2013
We are adopting a collective intelligence approach to the development and dissemination of this research. We are sharing the emerging findings with practitioners to gain their insight, views and perspectives to collectively build the solutions and tools to address the challenge of applying planetary boundaries at organisational level
This research adopted a practitioner perspective to examine if “organisations are translating notions of planetary boundaries and global limits to organisation-level context and performance – and if so what are the drivers and what are the barriers we see arising to system-level change”. The research was participative, and sought to understand practitioners’ experience and insight.
Key questions included
Methods & Researchers
The research combined semi-structured key informant interviews with leading practitioners (n=10) including leading academics, corporations, NGO, public policy and think tanks, with a review of publicly available business, academic, consultancy, policy and NGO literature. In identifying participants for the study particular emphasis was placed on engaging leading practitioners and ensuring a spread of representation from across industries. The final participants included representatives from the retail, food manufacturing, telecommunications, apparel, oil and gas and home consumables sectors, with further insight and expert opinion provided by leading academic, think tank and industry associations.
Jim Ormond (PhD in product carbon footprinting) and Jane Fiona Cumming (director) of Article 13. Peer-reviewed by Article 13 global topic expert associates: Professor Adrian Henriques and Barrett Brown PhD.