Tribune: John Whitelegg on Planetary Boundaries

Planetary Boundaries

This is an unusual editorial.  It is entirely concerned with one book published in 2012 called “The Human Quest

To say this book is important is an understatement.  It is hugely important because it shows that the current trajectory of the human species on this planet is on automatic pilot with the self-destruct option initiated.   This may sound rather dramatic but the book is based on a very traditional scientific analysis and a strong evidence based logic rooted in the best scientific tradition and especially Swedish scientific traditions.  It is a solid, objective, scientific analysis.

The book shows that there are “planetary boundaries” that should not be crossed and we have now crossed 3 of them and are in danger of crossing the remainder.  The planetary boundaries are illustrated in Figure 1


The inner (green) shaded nonagon represents the safe operating space with proposed boundary levels at its outer contour. The extent of the wedges for each boundary shows the estimate of current position of the control variable. Points show the estimated recent time trajectory (1950–present) of each control variable. For biodiversity loss, the estimated current boundary level of >100 extinctions per million species-years exceeds the space available in the figure. Although climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, land-use change, freshwater use, and interference with the phosphorus cycle are boundaries defined as the state of a variable (concentration of atmospheric CO2, aragonite saturation state, and stratospheric ozone concentration, percentage of land under crops, maximum amount of global annual freshwater use, cumulative P loading in oceans, respectively), the remaining boundary, biodiversity loss, and the component of the biogeochemical boundary related to the human interference with the N cycle are defined by rates of change for each respective control variable (extinctions per million species per year, rate of N2 removed from atmosphere for human use).

The planetary boundaries that we have already crossed are flagged in red and are climate change, biodiversity loss and nitrogen cycle excesses. We await further analysis and information on the other boundaries and the rate at which we approach crossing the boundary and the irreversible damage associated with this crossing.

The publicity accompanying the book emphasises the science and the need for urgent action:

The Human Quest combines evidence from the many scientific disciplines that reveal how planet Earth operates and the tenuous relations between the Earth system and humans. Rockström and Klum not only diagnose the problems, but also look at the opportunities and evidence supporting the transition to a sustainable future.

“We need to find ways to ‘turn’ these curves away from such global risks,” says Rockström, “and we need to do it now, in what may be the most decisive decade in human history. This book is about deepening the insights of our social-ecological predicament as a source of hope and innovation. We need nothing less than a great transformation of societies in the world, and I believe it is possible.”

The book highlights that action needs to be taken now.. in what may be the most crucial decade in human history. With a fundamental shift in mindset, humanity can succeed in a transition to global sustainability. The Human Quest can help turn the page to that new paradigm.”

The key messages are:

  • We are the first generation to recognize that humanity has become a force capable of undermining Earth’s capacity to support our prosperity.
  • We live in a globalized phase of environmental change. Our economies and the world as we know it is at risk of undergoing major changes.
  • We live in an interconnected world. The stability of the Earth system and its long-term capacity to support our wellbeing has become every nation’s and citizen’s concern. We must all manage the biosphere as a world community.
  • If we keep Earth within the safe operating space of these planetary boundaries, we can all thrive. But if we push these scientifically drawn boundaries, we will trigger catastrophic events.
  • Our Human Quest is to change the trajectory of negative global environmental change to support development, as humanity moves toward a population of nine billion people.

What has this got to do with transport?

We are now approaching the 20th anniversary of the journal “World Transport Policy and Practice”.  In these 20 years we have tracked the enormous damage on people, communities, ecology and the planet that are directly related to increasing levels of automobile dependency, distances travelled, aviation and road freight.  We have published approximately 300 articles and the majority of these articles have mapped out practical, implementable strategies and proposals to deliver a sustainable future and to make sure that we do not (in this one sector) transgress planetary boundaries.

Transport is a core problem in any discussion of planetary boundaries because the global trajectory is entirely in the wrong direction and every country on the planet (including Sweden) has strongly embedded cultural, professional and fiscal biases towards year on year increases in vehicle kilometres travelled, air miles used and billions of dollars and Euros spent on investments in new infrastructure.  We have made it clear in almost every issue of the journal that transport policy everywhere has a deeply embedded strand of DNA that delivers more travel, more roads, more airports and more high speed rail and is motivated by a strong sense that more is better than less, faster is better than slower and human progress depends absolutely on higher levels of mobility.  We think that this is a fundamental error.  More importantly still we provide a different perspective and solutions that are ready to go on a Monday morning when politicians and decision makers turn up at work and ask “what shall we do today”.

We do not say that transport issues are the biggest issues that have to be addressed on the planet (hunger, poverty, war, disease, torture, violence and rape are also abominations).  However if we really want to advance towards a sustainable future  we do say that the transport debate is still in very poor shape with little understanding of the need to sort out our relationship with mobility, speed and distance if we are to achieve other declared policy objectives.

Put very crudely we have no chance whatsoever of altering paradigms or development trajectories related to planetary boundaries  if we do not sort out transport.  Even more worryingly those who alert us to planetary boundary trajectories and consequences do not have a lot to offer on the Monday morning question.  How do we deliver a new transport future, how do we restructure space and time to reduce vehicle numbers and distances travelled by vehicles by at least 50%?  How do we reallocate transport spending to produce a better quality of life for everyone and thereby terminate the building of expensive new transport infrastructure and create a socially and ecologically just society?

This is a problem for planetary boundaries especially the climate change and biodiversity boundaries.  We are drowning in high quality analyses of the impact of transport on greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of transport infrastructure and fossil fuel exploitation on biodiversity.  Even in the small city of Lancaster in NW England a totally useless road, under 5 kms in length, costing £120 million is making its way through funding and decision making procedures towards delivery. Amongst many large, negative impacts of this road scheme is the damage it will do to an otter colony on the River Lune (Note 2 and the cover picture on this issue).  Biodiversity is such a big issue that it is sometimes difficult to grasp what is going on beyond stories of pandas, polar bears and rare orchids but in Lancaster all levels of government have conspired to reduce biodiversity by ignoring the otters and contributing to habitat loss and their demise.  If we scale this up to all the highway plans and high speed rail plans in China, India and Africa we can see where the big red transgressing wedge labelled “biodiversity” comes from.

In this issue of WTPP we once again focus on intelligent solutions to future transport that have the potential to shift us into a way of thinking and doing that avoids transgressing planetary boundaries.  Tomas Björnsson draws attention to the urgent need for improved cycling facilities in southern Sweden that cost a small fraction of what is spent on highways.  Martin Schiefelbusch shows how rural transport problems can be solved by community transport initiatives.  Stephen Knight-Lenihan reveals the extent to which desirable sustainability objectives can be undermined by a lack of will at national level.  His account of the situation in New Zealand will resonate strongly with the situation in many other countries.  The article by Serena Kang describes a “flexible bus utility model” that has the potential  to more closely match the supply of bus services with the demand for those services and thereby increase levels of use of public transport.

As always we welcome feedback on these articles and on our editorial comment.

Professor John Whitelegg, Editor

Note 1: The book can be accessed from

There is also an article describing the planetary boundaries research and this is available here:

Note 2:

– – – > To obtain your copy of WTPP 19/1 click here

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About the author:

john-whitelegg3Managing Director of Eco-Logica, John Whitelegg is Visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University, Professor of Sustainable Development at the Stockholm Environment Institute, and founder and editor of the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice. Research interests encompass transport and the environment, definition of sustainable transport systems and a sustainable built environment, development of transport in third world cities focusing on the relationships between sustainability and human health, implementation of environmental strategies within manufacturing and service industry and development of environmental management standards. He has published widely on these topics. John is active in the Green party of England and Wales and is the national spokesperson on sustainable development.

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Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest book, "BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transport to Your City" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions. A pre-publication edition of Better Choices is currently undergoing an international peer review during Sept.- Oct. 2017, with the goal of publication in English and Chinese editions by end-year. If you wish to participate drop a line to .

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