The ‘Planetary Boundary’ model- which sets a framework bringing together a number of specific ‘earth system processes’, and judges to what extent we are using these within, or beyond, safe limits- is a concept I have referred to on a number of occasions in this blog (including in the post from last year Combining Inclusive Wealth and Planetary Boundaries).
The approach has continued to gather attention and interest, and the Guardian’s excellent Sustainable Business website has recently provided a really useful podcast bringing together the concept’s ‘architect’ Johan Rockstrom, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Oxfam’s Kate Raworth, and Gail Whiteman from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). It explains the model, from a number of perspectives, and is a really useful listen…
Two issues which have increasingly become established in sustainable development policy and research are the concepts of multiple capitals, and that of planetary boundaries- the former covered in detail in the recently released IHDP’s Inclusive Wealth Report, and the later in work by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009 (work which is actually considered as part of the IHDP’s report).
These two concepts, though seemingly quite technical, are based on essentially quite simple premises. The multiple capitals concept is a way of assessing the assets or wealth of a country (or any entity) from a wider perspective than just economic output (which is what GDP principally measures)- instead aggregating the human, produced, and natural assets of a country (e.g the skills of its people, its manufactured goods and services, and the natural/environmental assets it has). The diagram below sets this out in a per capita basis for the countries studied in the IHDP report.
The concept of planetary boundaries considers quantified limits, or thresholds, of a range of environment issues (such as climate change, biodiversity, water use) that, if exceeded, potentially place humanity in danger from resulting significant irreversible global environmental changes. The diagram below sets these nine biophysical variables out- and the level to which they are being impacted/consumed (for more explanation see Stockholm Resilience Centre link in opening paragraph).
I like both models, and I think they can be really useful to understand and consider the issues of sustainability and the environment, and how they can be incorporated into policy. The Economist has just reviewed the IHDP Inclusive Wealth Report in a nicely digestible article, while the planetary boundaries work has been adapted by Oxfam in their recent and interesting ‘doughnut model’ which combines both planetary and social boundaries.
While both concepts are progressive and engaging approaches, some criticisms which have been levelled at each. Reservations (which have been succinctly addressed in the aforementioned The Economist article) of the Inclusive Wealth approach concern its reliance on the valuation of natural and social assets- an inherently difficult/contentious issue- and also that the model might infer, by its aggregation of different forms of capital, that natural assets, like water and air, are substitutable with other types of capital (rather than being irreplaceable necessities for life to exist, that cannot be compensated/replaced). Criticisms levelled at the planetary boundaries model relate to the range of environmental issues/variables it includes, the limits/threshold points which have been set, and the speed/geographical scale such boundaries might be crossed- with the general accusation that the approach is too narrow/reductionist to be adapted into wider policy solutions (criticisms which have been responded to by author Rockstrom himself).
These reservations seem pretty fair and valid to me, and should be taken into consideration- but I do not think they fundamentally undermine the general premise of both models. Actually, by considering both of these concepts together, I feel a number of these criticisms can be addressed by somehow combing their strengths- developing a model in which the Inclusive Wealth approach of aggregating capitals across social, natural and manufactured assets can be tailored/caveated to include some general boundaries/baselines- minimum levels of social, natural and produced capital- so as not to infer that each type of capital is potentially completely interchangeable and substitutable for another. By doing so, a multiple capital model which is focused on the wider, more overarching issue of sustainability policy could be developed which accounts for, and incorporates, concerns from an earth systems science perspective about planetary thresholds and boundaries…