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Goal-setting in an era of mass extinction: a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity in international biodiversity law? (Part II)

Published on December 29, 2018        Author: 
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The potential role of the planetary boundary for biosphere integrity

The planetary boundary framework was originally developed to identify the key global processes that are essential for regulating the functioning of the Earth System and create what are effectively safe ‘buffer zones’ that might prevent humanity from crossing dangerous biophysical thresholds or tipping points. In its current version, the framework describes nine such boundaries, ranging from climate change to atmospheric aerosol loading and including freshwater use, land-use change, stratospheric ozone depletion, introduction of novel entities to the environment, ocean acidification, biogeochemical flows and, crucially, biosphere integrity. The fact that the boundaries represent the limits of what the authors call the ‘safe operating space’ for human development on a changing planet has attracted immediate interest from political scientists working on Earth System governance, and some legal scholars have progressively started to consider the concept as potentially useful for international environmental law as well.

Ever since the first elaboration of the nine planetary boundaries, the very possibility of identifying a global boundary for biosphere integrity resulting from changes in regional and local biodiversity has appeared as one of the most contentious aspects of the framework. As a result of intensive discussions to which various research communities contributed, the description contained in the original planetary boundaries paper was in fact updated in 2015,in order to capture the two key roles of the biosphere in the Earth System, and namely: (a) the importance of genetic diversity in maintaining and building its resilience (i.e. through the use of global extinction rates); and (b) the contribution of organisms’ functional traits to Earth System functioning (i.e. through the so-called Biodiversity Intactness Index). In doing so, the planetary boundary framework was also expanded to recognize the importance of sub-global boundaries that must align with the global boundary definition for biosphere integrity, owing to the fact that the ideal unit of analysis for changes in elements of biodiversity is usually situated at the level of biomes and ecosystems.

From this perspective, and subject to further scientific advancements and new data becoming available, a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity could potentially represent a very useful tool for international biodiversity law. On the one hand, because the national allocation of the planetary ‘safe operating space’ would recognize and make explicit the above-mentioned link between a global boundary and the regional, national and sub-national operating scales at which biodiversity loss occurs. On the other, and as a consequence, because the incorporation in international biodiversity law of a global boundary that might be quantifiable through critical values for one or more control variables could in theory enable changes to biosphere integrity to be used as an indicator of State responsibility, providing a powerful empirical benchmark against which to assess the respect of legal obligations relating to biodiversity (or, at the very least, a set of more precise, science-based objectives and targets that it would be more difficult for States to ignore).

The nine planetary boundaries and the status of their control variables. Source: Steffen et al. (2015)

For the purpose of the present analysis, it is less important what the control variables should be, and it should indeed be noted that identifying suitable ones for biosphere integrity remains a daunting and still hotly debated task. What is crucial is that the concept of a measurable planetary boundary for biosphere integrity clearly suggests that the related biophysical limits, once incorporated in international law, could play an important role in mitigating the procedural and/or non-enforceable nature of most international obligations relating to biodiversity within national jurisdiction (for example, the requirement to develop national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity set in Article 6(a) of the CBD, or the obligations for in-situ conservation listed in Article 8).

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Goal-setting in an era of mass extinction: a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity in international biodiversity law? (Part I)

Published on December 29, 2018        Author: 
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Introduction

The recent publication of the UN Secretary-General’s Report on ‘Gaps in International Environmental Law’ comes at a particularly critical juncture for the protection of the world’s biodiversity. The Report was released just days after the conclusion of the 14thConference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has expressed deep concern about countries’ lack of progress in the achievement of the Convention’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets by 2020. Furthermore, it closely follows a number of other urgent calls for action, including those contained in WWF’s Living Planet Report and in the four bleak regional assessments conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The widely anticipated failure of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 has been used as a starting point by some to advocate for a renewed ‘global deal for nature’. The Gaps Report itself, beyond its endorsement of a future Global Pact for the Environment, is especially scathing in its ‘indictment’ of biodiversity-related instruments in international law. The Report builds on years of scholarly debates in this field and focuses on, inter alia, the absence of a coherent structure of international biodiversity law, the lack of binding commitments and poor national implementation of voluntary ones, inadequate integration of biodiversity into other law- and policy-making arenas, insufficient use of ecosystem-based approaches to conservation, and lack of attention paid to interconnectedness of ecosystems within and outside protected areas.

Recognizing the need for innovative legal instruments that can capture the complexity of ecological relationships and mitigate the pervasiveness of anthropogenic interference on the Earth’s biodiversity, the international community has indeed embarked on the preparation of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, as well as on the negotiation of a new treaty applying to biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. What is arguably missing in both the Gaps Report and these wider intergovernmental efforts, however, is a thorough analysis of the underlying reasons that have prevented existing international biodiversity law from being effective in curbing global extinction rates and unsustainable patterns of ecosystem destruction and degradation, despite decades of legal developments and a robust apparatus of subsidiary bodies tasked with providing scientific and technical advice. Without a similar analysis, the risk of future biodiversity regimes falling back on business-as-usual approaches will probably remain very high.

In this post, I first describe one particularly problematic aspect of international biodiversity law, namely the difficulty of identifying substantive obligations (i.e. obligations of result) applying to biodiversity located within national jurisdiction despite increasing awareness about the interconnectedness of ecological processes occurring at different spatial scales. Secondly, I suggest the potential of the planetary boundaries framework first developed in 2009 by Rockström and others to provide quantifiable measures of ‘biosphere integrity’ that can help define these international obligations. Finally, I propose four ways in which international biodiversity law (including its institutional arrangements) could be used to incorporate a planetary boundary for biosphere integrity.

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