Home > Blogs > Director's Blog > Looking towards the future we want: Setting the boundaries

In celebration of the events in  Rio de Janeiro, over the next two weeks CPWF will be providing a series of posts on Rio+20 progress. The CPWF-Andes lead partner, CONDESAN, is hosting the Mountain Pavilion at Rio+20  and the CGIAR is hosting a major discussion on June 18th along with Agriculture Rural Development Day . This first post focuses on planetary boundaries and their importance in relation to the green economy.

Rio+20 calls for the development of a green economy—a call that resonates around the world. A green economy is resource efficient, equitable and resilient. It aims to increase food and energy security, while maintaining or enhancing resilience.

These are the basic messages of the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF).Our science is showing that the needs of the future can be met if we:

  • Improve sustainable intensification byincreasing production while reducing negative environmental impacts. This can be achieved by closing yield and productivity gaps, focusing on market led incentives and ensuring technical innovations are linked to social and institutional changes. The CPWF has a number of Climate Smart Technologies and is working on rainwater management approaches that can significantly improve farming livelihoods through increased water productivity.
  • Share the benefits and risks associated withnatural resource management. CPWF is working on a range of benefit sharing mechanisms (BSMs) that can encourage this process. For us BSMs are institutional innovations whereby water-related benefits are shared between different groups for mutually agreed upon ends and purposes. BSMs are not just a technical tool, but rather a social, economic and cultural instrument to create agreements that support sustainable development in the basin.
  • Radically change policies and institutional arrangements in both developed and developing nations for benefits to be shared and agriculture to be sustainably intensified. New cross-sectoral and transboundary arrangements for integrated water resource management managing water resources in an integrated way are desperately needed so that one development (such as hydropower) does not overtake other developments (such as fisheries development). In addition hug savings in energy, water and food can be made by changing our consumptive behaviours.

Interestingly, one of the key themes framing the Rio+20 Conference is the concept of planetary boundaries. The concept is based on the idea that humanity flourished under the conditions on Earth in the 10,000 years leading up to the industrial revolution — the Holocene epoch. So, to maintain human progress, we should keep the planet under similar biophysical conditions. The concepts sets out nine key environmental measures and thresholds that should not be breached for fear of pushing Earth out of the Holocene-like ‘safe operating space for humanity’. The boundaries include thresholds for climate change and biodiversity loss that have already been crossed.

Planetary boundaries are not so new. In 1937, Hans Jonas, in his “Imperative of Responsibility”, was already warning about humanity being close to going beyond certain critical points of the planetary ecosystem’s balance. By promoting a new and supreme principle of morality “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life”, he was actually asking people to consider the impacts of their actions

Johan Rockström, elaborated on the concept of planetary boundaries during a presentation at the opening of our Third International Forum on Water and Food. He showed how CPWF’s research-for-development approach can help people work within the planetaryboundaries. For example, sustainable intensification on current cropland can help sustain biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in adjacent areas. This is possible using current technologies and working with integrated solutions on governance, institutions and livelihoods. The notion of planetary boundaries has also proved useful in our work with the Stockholm Resilience Center on socio-ecological resilience.

Yet as the concept grows in popularity, so has criticism of it. A  recent article in Nature implored policy-makers at Rio+20 to “set planetary boundaries wisely”, pointing out two flaws to the approach. First it did not differentiate between thresholds (which we can breach), and fixed limits (which we cannot), a distinction with important policy implications. The article also pointed out that true threshold boundaries come in two types ; some are unambiguously global, such as climate change, others, such as access to freshwater are regional problems, made global only if local problems are widely replicated.

I see a third crack related to politics. Let’s remember that politics is first about citizens  (politis in greek), and if no one seriously looks at implications for people and their development, the target is missed. While natural biophysical constraints define ecological production processes, it is the social and economic setting and politics that eventually determine how enhancement opportunities are maximized.

What does it mean in terms of the water-related planetary boundaries?

The recent Planet Under Pressure Conference declaration stated:  “The challenges facing a planet under pressure demand a new approach to research that is more integrative, international and solutions-oriented. We need to link high-quality focused scientific research to new policy-relevant interdisciplinary efforts for global sustainability.”

This is also echoed by the CGIAR calls for action at Rio+20. CGIAR calls for a focus on ‘big-picture agriculture’, which recognizes that there are no silver bullet solutions and seeks to understand and manage complex agricultural systems at the landscape level, assessing not only the productivity of these systems but also their sustainability and impact on the livelihoods of the poor.

Finally, I think our own work demonstrates the need to link the political, social and technical aspects of water resources. Our experience shows that whereas physical water scarcity is sometimes an issue, more important is the issue of inequitable access, lack of cooperation between different ministries at national level, and improper management and waste, to name only a few of the major challenges, that exacerbate water scarcity. For example, benefits and risks are not always shared by different stakeholders. Large-scale dams development in the Mekong puts at risk millions of farmers and fishers whose main livelihoodsrelies upon the river.

A useful approach to consider is combining the planetary boundaries concept with rights-based approaches as an interesting think piece by Oxfam has done. As shown in the picture below they have combined the environmental boundaries with social ones as well.  As they state: “Between the planetary ceiling and the social foundation lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which is the safe and just space for humanity to thrive in. The 21st century’s unprecedented journey is to move into that space from both sides: to eradicate poverty and inequity for all, within the means of the planet’s limited resources.”

Do we as researchers working in development processes have a moral obligation to get more involved or is it still justified for us to carry out science and let others see how our science can be used in development? I believe the Oxfam thought experiment provides an important framework for assessing our role as a research-for-development program. There is a clear need to incorporate social- and rights-based approaches to development, as well as understand the necessity of engaging politicians. This is not a call for ‘activism’ from researchers, but rather a request to ensure our results help build the donut, rather than work on the periphery.


Alain Vidal


Learn more about CPWF’s involvement in Rio+20.




  1. Michael Victor says:

    There are a number of examples where we have come back from Tipping points and show how resilience can be redressed both from a social and ecological perspective. One of the more interesting examples arises from Uganda.

    The Ugandan cattle corridor covers an area of about one third of the country, extending from the southwest to the northern and northeastern borders. Although ideally suited to livestock production, overgrazing aggravated by charcoal production led to a complete breakdown of the natural pastureland. Repeated efforts to rehabilitate the vegetative cover had failed because of high termite populations that destroyed grass seedlings. People and livestock shared the same water sources such as valley tanks, wells, ponds, swamps, rivers and lakes. Livestock keepers in the pastoral communities travelled long distances to access water for both livestock and domestic use especially during the dry seasons. These movements reduced livestock productivity as available energy was spent on walking to water sources, and the incidence of livestock and human diseases increased.

    The situation exemplifies a typical situation where the ecosystem passed a seemingly irreversible threshold and was trapped into a non-productive degraded state from which recovery was not possible.

    Ugandan animal science researchers at Makerere University brought an idea from Ethiopia and worked with cattle keepers to corral their animals together at night so as to concentrate manure. Doing this for two weeks before reseeding enabled reestablishment of grass after many years of failed effort. Apparently termites prefer to eat the manure, not the seedlings. Once grass cover was established, rainfall infiltration greatly improved, pasture production increased from nil to about 3,000 kg/ha dry weight and soil erosion virtually stopped.

    In terms of resilience analysis, this ‘re-greening of the Ugandan cattle corridor’ is a good example of how transformative management of an agro-ecosystem can reverse a nonlinear and seemingly unrecoverable shift. This transformation opens opportunities for increasing ecosystem services and animal production. Maintaining this positive outcome will require improved vegetation management especially through restrictions on grazing pressure and charcoal production that were the likely shocks causing shift in ecosystem structure and function. One key to resilience lies in maintenance of the food supply of termites through better vegetation management.

    A new a research paper on the case “Improving Livestock Water Productivity in Semi-arid Ecosystems: Restoration of pasture on degraded bare surfaces” is available from: Novus Natural Science Research (http://novusscientia.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/1-134.pdf )

    Learn more from a recent article in the New Agriculturalist at: http://www.new-ag.info/en/focus/focusItem.php?a=2720

  2. Alain Vidal says:

    Indeed Michael, a very good example of what resilience analysis can add to our understanding of agro-ecosystems.

    I used this example of the Uganda Cattle Corridor last October (http://colloquefairecorps.wizboosite.com/conferenciers/alain-vidal.html) in a Conference in Montreal organized by anthropologists, with the objective of reflecting through the human body (material, physical or social) upon how to think the human and how to think science.

    Using the concept of planetary boundaries, I raised the following questions: Should we rethink our patterns of consumption and direct our behavior and our policies on the preservation of our ecosystems? Should we believe the promises of technological innovations that allow us to find a new balance in excess of these limits? And revisited some cases of ecosystems and societies in yet the most vulnerable developing countries – taking the examples of the Uganda Cattle corridor, and of Paa Boong Paa Tham in NE Thailand (http://bit.ly/Lz87Ln) – which illustrate the important role of indigenous subjectivity which “tells” the water and land better than anyone.


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