10 principles to align sustainability efforts of cities and businesses with Earth system boundaries

A new study has introduced strategic and transparent procedures to help cities and businesses align sustainability efforts with Earth system boundaries.

Earth system boundaries (ESBs) establish safe and just limits within which a functioning Earth system can be maintained without causing significant harm to people.

However, these safe boundaries must be translated before they can be operationalised by cities and businesses.

The new study, published by an international team of researchers from the Earth Commission and hosted by Future Earth, outlines ten principles for how cities and businesses can translate the boundaries in an effective way.

It is the first of its kind to produce a comprehensive framework on translation that is grounded in both science and justice for cities and businesses aiming to achieve sustainability goals.

Translation: A two-step process

Earth system boundaries are translated into global and sub-global budgets via a two-step process. These budgets are then assigned to different groups.

Budgets must be expressed in meaningful terms so that appropriate action can be taken. For example, in the volume of freshwater use per year, or the amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied per hectare per year.

“Respecting ESBs requires concerted actions from diverse actors – including states, cities, businesses – based on a clear and shared understanding of their fair share of resources and responsibilities,” lead author Professor Xuemei Bai explained.

The ten principles of how cities and businesses can translate Earth system boundaries

The study argues that translation activities must adhere to the ten following principles:

  1. Scientifically rigorous – based on repeatable evidence;
  2. Transparent – clearly explained the rationale for allocations;
  3. Just – incorporating inter- and intragenerational equity;
  4. Systemic – considering potential consequences for other parts of the Earth system;
  5. Safe – ensuring buffers are in place;
  6. Enabling – simple and universal to allow for alignment with other cities and businesses;
  7. Context-sensitive – ensuring local conditions are considered;
  8. Incentivising – pioneers are praised for setting more ambitious targets;
  9. Dynamic and time-bound – targets can be updated and adjusted; and
  10. Synergetic – synergies are maximised whilst negative impacts are minimised.

The principles aim to support cities and businesses that are often overlooked in sustainability plans, but whose decisions can have widespread environmental impacts. Actors will be able to assist in global efforts to live within Earth system boundaries that are safe and just.

Protocol to guide translation efforts

The study presents a clear protocol for guiding translation efforts, first highlighting specific physical characteristics of each Earth system boundary.

Considerations relating to the spatial construct of the boundary, the state of the boundary, and the regenerative nature of the boundary are highlighted by the team.

The team’s protocol then provides guidance on temporal perspectives and the selection of appropriate sharing approaches that consider different contexts.

Earth system boundaries require multiple sharing approaches

Together, the principles and the protocol will help cities and businesses allocate budgets fairly and consider how to reduce negative impacts.

However, Professor Bai argues that: “Each allocation according to a sharing approach will inevitably come with its own trade-offs and inbuilt biases, where moving towards equity in one aspect can move away from attaining equity in another, and where choices in the sharing approaches might favour or disfavour certain actor types over others.

“Multiple sharing approaches often need to be incorporated into translation approaches to better approximate Earth system justice.”

The researchers aim to ensure that the translation of Earth system boundaries is transparent and fair across the world.


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