By Matthias Jonas, Senior Research Scholar in the Advanced Systems Analysis Program, IIASA.

Earth’s Future, Wiley’s open-access journal devoted to documenting global change and sustainability, published online a commentary by scientists from IIASA and Brazil tackling the tough question of how to ensure that actions taken locally do not—collectively—contribute to overreaching planetary boundaries.

In spite of major academic and policy initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, no solutions have been put in place to inform international climate negotiations on sustaining natural capital and ecosystem services. What type of land use and land-use change, including land-cover changes, that will prove sustainable and capable of addressing human well-being in an environmentally constrained world also remains unresolved. A roadmap for sustainable land use is urgently required.

What countries, big and small, do or do not do reflects at the planetary scale in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental indicators. Brazil, the case study in this commentary, is a huge country and an LUC (land use and land-use change) player of global relevance. The actions it takes, or does not take, are felt far beyond its own national territory.

Brazilian policymakers are working tirelessly to meet the many dimensions and socio-ecological challenges of sustainability within their own national boundaries. However, they cannot also be expected to have a realistic understanding of the global implications of the national measures that they are taking. This is because no appropriate “guidance” or “roadmap” for local-to-global sustainability policies yet exists, in Brazil or elsewhere.

How can this be achieved?

The commentary points to the need for a new globally consistent and expandable systems-analytical framework—an alternative way of conducting systems analysis—to guide and facilitate decision making on sustainability.

Of course, there are several inherent hurdles to be considered in research like this, especially without a roadmap. There are so many planetary environmental boundaries at stake, like climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, and the phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, etc. Whatever actions are taken need to respect human wellbeing as a priority. Plus, the urgency of resolving these—interdependent—issues is becoming greater as time goes on.

Thus, scientists find themselves in a real quandary. How to facilitate decision making on sustainability from the planetary through to the local level, and vice versa, while taking all these different aspects and concerns into account?

The framework would strive to link a multitude of Earth-system processes and targets. It would be systemic as it would allow for tracking sustainability from a combined, environmental/ecological and socioeconomic (i.e., a socio-ecological) perspective and would go beyond carbon and include biodiversity and other indicators that safeguard ecosystems and their functioning, including the combined cycling of C, N, and other elements. The authors argue for a two-tier modeling approach to accomplish such a framework, the first tier focusing on the global scale and the second on the local-to-regional scale. Both would be supported by additional modeling strands to help trace the coupling and cascading of feedbacks and critical systems behaviors across scales, from local to global, and vice versa.

The framework would seek systemic insight over data complexity through being highly explicit in spatio-temporal terms, helping scientists uncover and explore potential—even unexpected—interactions between planetary systems and subsystems. It would also be globally consistent and expandable to permit new knowledge to be incorporated, for example, local/regional or national expertise and best practices, and allow for this learning to be reflected at larger scales.

Very importantly, such a framework would allow countries like Brazil to understand domestic or even local sustainability measures within a global perspective and to optimize them accordingly.

Advancing understanding of today’s Earth systems from the top down is cumbersome. A growing number of regional and sub-regional climate and environmental initiatives are being adopted in the absence of effective global collaboration. Though these are vital, as suggested in the commentary, they need to be “pulled together” within a systems framework so that the efforts already under way and those planned for the coming years can be optimized.

The authors believe that, based on the experience of Brazil, the development and implementation of such a systems framework for sustainability decision making will not only fill current gaps in sustainability knowledge, but go a long way toward helping societies stay within the safe operating space for humanity represented and delineated by the planetary boundaries.


Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


Jonas M, Ometto JP, Batistella M, Franklin O, Hall M, Lapola DM, Moran EF, Tramberend S, Queiroz BL, Schaffartzik A, Shvidenko A, Nilsson SB,  Nobre CA (forthcoming). Sustaining ecosystem services: Overcoming the dilemma posed by local actions and planetary boundaries. Earth’s Future: