New Metrics
Planetary Boundaries and Social Thresholds – The Importance of Geography

As the 22ndConference of the Parties (COP22) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) kicks off in Marrakech, Morocco – one year on from the historic climate agreement in Paris, and 22 years after the first conference in Berlin – it marks the latest attempt to ensure we live within our planetary boundaries for climate change.

Looking ahead, the next 12 months will see international conferences seeking to address other planetary boundaries and social thresholds, including: biodiversity in Cyprus; global health in Sweden; air pollution in USA; food security in Italy and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January.

Planetary boundaries and social thresholds: a geographical perspective

The location of these convenings is important. Global sustainability challenges require global solutions, but geography is also important in understanding the context to different sustainability challenges facing our planet.

Consider the nine planetary boundaries and eleven social thresholds, it becomes evident that different regions face different sustainability challenges.

  • Biodiversity: 35 hotspots, predominately in the tropics, represent only 2.3 percent of the planet’s land, yet contain around 50 percent of the world's endemic plant species and 42 percent of all terrestrial vertebrates
  • Water: 25 percent of the world’s agriculture is grown in areas of high water stress – particularly in India, Southern Europe and East Asia
  • Air pollution: nearly 60 percent of deaths related to air pollution occur in South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions
  • Access to food: 16 of the 25 countries most exposed to food insecurity are in sub-Saharan Africa

Corporate sustainability: a regional perspective

Our latest research has found that companies based in different parts of the world set different sustainability targets. We reviewed 220 of the world’s largest companies’ sustainability targets, to understand what sustainability targets they are setting, and why. Looking at the findings, on average:

  • European companies have set more targets around gender equality (38 percent for European companies vs. 22 percent global average)
  • APAC companies have set fewer targets on water than other regions (17 percent for APAC companies vs. 37 percent global average)
  • North American companies have more targets on access to education (e.g. initiatives on skill development) (9 percent for North American companies vs 7 percent - global average)
  • African companies have set fewer targets on energy and carbon reduction yet have a higher proportion of targets relating to social equity (22 percent for African companies vs. 14 for global average)

So, what does this mean?

Our research demonstrates that when setting sustainability targets, organisations do - and need to - consider the global, regional, and local context where targets will be enacted. For instance:

  • A reduction in energy intensity is more pressing in a country powered on coal compared to a country powered by renewables
  • Water targets are important globally but more significant for countries facing water scarcity
  • Biodiversity targets and ambitions need to consider impacts across supply chains of high biodiversity value

As delegates attend these conferences globally, the key message from our research is to solve planetary challenges by thinking locally.


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