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Man is taking colossal risks for the future of civilization and everything that lives on Earth. This is the conclusion reached by researchers in a study published in the journal Nature.

On a stable and resilient Earth, there are feedbacks that cushion and dampen disturbances, according to the Earth Commission, an international association of more than 40 scientists. If this balancing system is sustainably disrupted, there is a risk of significant damage, which is defined in the study as widespread, severe, existential or irreversible negative effects on countries, communities and individuals due to changes in the Earth system.

As examples, the team, led by Johan Rockström from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, cites the loss of life, livelihoods or income, the displacement of people, the loss of food, water or food security, as well as chronic diseases, injuries or malnutrition. The analysis is based on scientific findings from recent years as well as computer modelling.

Three aspects of justice

In the case of biodiversity, for example, the authors of the study believe that two safe and fair limits have already been exceeded: 50 to 60 percent of the land area would have to be natural or sustainably managed so that the natural services of ecosystems such as pollination, fresh water and fresh air are preserved. Currently, this only applies to 45 to 50 percent of the land area. And the requirement that 20 to 25 percent of every square kilometer should be covered by largely natural vegetation is met on only one-third of the man-made land area.

The researchers' approach encompasses three aspects of justice in the use of global commons: towards other living beings and ecosystems, towards the next generations and towards the globally distributed members of the present generation. "Our secure and equitable borders can guide goal-setting, but they also need to be realized through just transformation processes that ensure people have a minimum level of access to resources," said Joyeeta Gupta of the University of Amsterdam, co-author of the study.

Global warming of a maximum of one degree would be fair

The concept of justice comes into play, for example, in the case of climate change: While a warming of 1.5 degrees compared to the pre-industrial era is still classified as "safe" by scientists, they see warming of a maximum of one degree as "fair". Even today, tens of millions of people are massively affected by climate change, the study authors write. This number will increase dramatically with every tenth of a degree of greater warming.

"With the previous focus on global averages, for example the global mean temperature, all regions are treated equally, but this is not the case," explained Christian Franzke of Pusan National University in South Korea, who was not involved in the analysis. "This study now focuses on ensuring that all regions remain habitable, which is only fair, as the areas most affected by global climate change have contributed the least to global warming."

To ensure people's well-being, a major global transformation is needed, according to the researchers. "Such transformations must be systemic in the areas of energy, food, urban and other areas, address the economic, technological, political and other drivers of Earth system change, and ensure access for the poor by reducing and redistributing resource consumption," the study authors said.

Researchers who were not involved in the study themselves acknowledge the scientific achievement of the study: "In general, the extremely complex approach of bringing these very different categories and data into a simple and comparable scale is very helpful," said Johannes Emmerling of the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment in Milan. The study is "a wake-up call for policymakers, in how many areas we risk losing control of fundamental Earth subsystems – possibly irreversibly."