Planetary Boundaries

The impact of human activities on earth is so large that the contemporary Anthropocene (i.e., the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been been the dominant influence on climate and the environment) activity exceeds planetary boundaries, pushing earth away from its stable state as during the Holocene.

 

The image to the right illustrates the planetary boundaries for the nine (the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles comprise the biogeochemical flow system) different earth systems and the amount to which Anthropocene activity has affected these systems.

 

Emissions of reactive nitrogen have exceeded the boundary contributing to global warming and eutrophication.

 

Phosphorus use has nearly reached its boundary and, in addition, will need to be extracted from lower purity content rock.

 

Associated boundaries like the loss of biodiversity through land clearing for expanding the agricultural frontier are indirectly associated with the inefficient use of fertilizers. Insufficient rates of yield increase imply the need for ever more land to keep pace with food demand.

 

Therefore, increasing nutrient uptake and curtailing nutrient losses will have far reaching implications for the functioning of Earth’s system. Scenario analyses of action perspectives should reveal boundary values that are perceived as acceptable risks, clarifying the different consequences of different choices made by humanity.

 

The importance of fertilizers for food production and the dramatic environmental and socio-economic side-effects of its inappropriate use are abundantly obvious. Ironically, there has been a dearth of innovative research on more effective fertilizers and fertilization technologies.

 

For more information on planetary boundaries, see VFRC Report 2013/3.