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Daniel Ospina: ‘Exceeding the Earth system boundaries is entering unknown territory’

The Colombian is one of the authors of a recent study published in ‘Nature’ that warns that we have exceeded seven of the eight variables that they evaluated for maintaining a healthy and just planet

El escritor colombiano Daniel Ospina
El escritor colombiano Daniel Ospina.
María Mónica Monsalve S.

Humans are changing the Earth. And that doesn’t just refer to the widely discussed climate change but also to the various systems that allow us to safely inhabit the planet. Indeed, in 2009 a group of scientists, led by the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, created a sort of checklist to determine what those essential survival limits were and whether we had exceeded their safety thresholds. These elements became known as the nine planetary boundaries. Now, the notion of justice has been added to these limits. Last week the Earth Commission—another group of scientists from different parts of the world—published a similar study in Nature, incorporating the variable of justice into each of these areas, which they refer to as Earth system boundaries. Incidentally, the study found that Earth’s limits have already been surpassed for seven of the eight thresholds evaluated, including justice.

Two Colombians, Daniel Ospina and Juan Rocha, are among the article’s 50 authors. América Futura spoke with the Bogota-born Ospina, 37, to understand whether exceeding these thresholds can be understood in terms of human survival and to get a sense of Latin America’s role in planetary justice.

Question: In practice, what does it mean to exceed the Earth system boundaries?

Answer. Several of these domains have an impact in terms of increased premature mortality rates, chronic diseases, and the loss of livelihoods. In the domain of water, for example, it’s not just that you’re losing the viability of aquatic ecosystems, but that it also impacts agriculture and access to water for human consumption. There are climate problems that are perhaps more dramatic. For example, the number of days that certain regions are exposed to temperature and humidity conditions—according to the measurement known as the “wet-bulb temperature”—in which body temperature cannot be reduced by sweating, and which can even result in death, will continue to increase.

Q. So would you put the problem in terms of the extinction of the human species?

A. I wouldn’t put it in terms of the extinction of the human being, especially when we’re talking about a time scale of the next few decades. For me, exceeding these boundaries is more like entering a completely unknown territory with conditions where we don’t know how the planet will behave, so there is a lot of uncertainty. Moreover, all of this is related to events that have a low probability of occurring for now, but if they do happen, we could reach a “critical tipping point” where the Earth’s systems, instead of helping us, would accelerate the change, and then we’d [have to] begin to contemplate existential risks, not necessarily for the whole species but for increasing proportions of humanity.

Q. Unlike planetary limits, Earth system boundaries talk about justice. What role does justice play in all this?

A. It is one thing to define the limit where the Earth system, or one of its domains, becomes unstable, loses resilience (the safe limit). It is another thing to define a point beyond which there are significant impacts for large segments of the human population. This second limit (the just limit) can even be [reached] well before the safe limit, where the system’s resilience is degraded. I will give an example for the climate domain. We know that we’ll remain below the safe limit if we avoid an increase of 1.5°C above the average global temperature compared to the pre-industrial period… We know that above 1.5°C there is a high risk that the climate will begin to destabilize. But long before we reach that 1.5° [increase], we are already seeing the widespread impact of climate change for large sectors of the human population. So, taking… the criterion that we understand as justice into account, we define the limit for the climate as 1°C.

Q. In other words, the limit has already been exceeded?

A. Yes, along with seven of the eight boundaries we explored.

Q. But one of the boundaries that has not been exceeded is air pollution (particulate matter emissions)?

A. Right, it has not been exceeded on a global scale, but it has been exceeded in some regions and, again, that’s why it’s important to look at it through the lens of justice. In many places in the world—in regions, in cities—the index of particulate matter exceeds what is permitted or recommended by the World Health Organization. This is important to bear in mind because the message cannot be that, because we have not gone past it at a global level, there is no cause for concern, or that there is no need for stronger regulation. In reality, it is an urgent matter that requires attention.

Q. Again, the issue of justice cuts across the entire research project. In this context, where is Latin America positioned? It is not necessarily an emitting region, but various resources have been extracted from there and taken to the global North.

A. Well, it’s not something that this particular research develops. But as the Earth Commission, we have seen very clearly that [the places] where much of the impact of environmental damage is being felt [are] not where the emissions have historically been generated. And there are also other types of global connections. For example, there is a lot of deforestation and intensive agriculture in the region, but that’s also because Latin America produces many things for the world. Global trade has allowed those channels through which a consumption decision in one part of the world causes changes in another part of the world.

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