The Earth Commission takes aim

Elisabeth Jeffries discusses the work of the Earth Commission, which is developing a series of sustainability targets to complement the UN’s 2°C global warming limit

 If elephants became extinct, the number of trees and shrubs in central African rainforests would decline by 7%. That was the conclusion of a 2019 study concerned with an unusual question: the impact of elephant behaviour on tree growth, and its knock-on effect on carbon stocks. Perhaps surprisingly, the scientists found that elephants increased the number of trees, shrubs and tree litter. Their presence encouraged the growth of fewer, larger trees with higher wood density.

Further exploration is needed to explain such interconnections, but a new cross-disciplinary initiative known as the Earth Commission, launched in October, aims by 2021 to extract what we already know about impacts of biodiversity destruction and put it to practical use in conjunction with climate policy. Alongside biodiversity, the commission will focus on oceans, freshwater and land.

“We will provide the science, doing the same as we’ve seen for climate goals but applied to all other systems that regulate the planet,” says co-chair Johan Rockström, professor in earth system science and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany. “It’s a task that has never been done before.”

On target

A set of targets relating to land, water, oceans and biodiversity are among the team’s most significant planned outputs. These would stand unofficially alongside the current UN target for a maximum 2°C increase in global warming.

More useful micro-goals for business and cities would emerge as a result. Companies trying to make efficient use of resources are not always sure where to start, as Nigel Topping, chief executive of non-profit We Mean Business, points out. 

We Mean Business is part of a newly launched group known as the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN). This builds on the Science Based Targets initiative, which has concentrated on the impact of atmospheric emissions on the climate. The SBTN aims to develop methods and resources that will enable companies and cities to set science-based targets for the more complex interrelated systems under investigation by the Earth Commission. 

Currently, the commission knows limits expected for temperature increases, but not for impacts on land or water, for example. Its mission is to define such planetary boundaries and allow them to be applied more specifically to individual entities. At that point, the SBTN will follow through. “This is about how we take a universal target and, by basing it on science, understand what we need to do,” says Topping.

Confectionery giant Mars is among the few companies that have attempted the task. Working with the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington DC, the company analysed its footprint to develop sustainability targets not just for climate, but also for land and water. 

Each target was based on scientific knowledge of the global carbon budget, water stress and other ecological limits – but it was very specifically adjusted to the firm, accompanying its own carbon emissions target shaped by UN climate goals. 

“This is about how we take a universal target and, by basing it on science, understand what we need to do”

A new methodology

In the same way, the Earth Commission’s work would provide broader goals that can be applied by a wide range of companies and city municipalities. “It would provide a different methodology for different sectors,” says Topping. Using tools developed by the SBTN, companies could make better informed decisions about how and where to act to reduce resource pressures. 

Overarching targets such as warming limits are too broad to be practical in everyday management, suggests Topping: “They don’t represent the nuanced issues that businesses need to understand in order to take action in their value chain.”

As yet, the Earth Commission has not selected which metrics to adopt, let alone decided how to use them to construct targets. Hectares deforested or volume of water salination could work as metrics for assessing some aspects of land use or water impacts, and these would then be shaped into macro-targets. 

The team working on the commission’s findings then intends to drill one layer deeper. For companies dependent on agricultural resources, specific dilemmas need to be resolved, as Topping explains: “A brewer operating internationally might ask whether it needs to invest first in improved water management in sugar cane plantations in one country, or in the cultivation of hops in another.” 

Individual micro-targets formulated with the help of the SBTN could allow a company to prioritise on the basis of scientific research, rather than guesswork. “The research will allow businesses to consider these issues more locally and contextually,” says Topping.

 “What will determine the outcome of the Paris Agreement is whether we are able to keep ecosystems intact”

Material impacts

Management will still need to use its judgment, of course. Mars and WRI’s project concluded that while it is possible to establish targets that are anchored in science, the process is not easy and depends on subjective views. 

The selection of greenhouse gases as the starting point implied that greenhouse gases are Mars’ most material impact on air. This may be a subjective judgment, however, because impacts on air are easier to define. It is more difficult to identify the most material impacts on land and water. 

Land and water impacts are accompanied by different topographical characteristics relating to valleys, rivers and type of land, for example. Evaluating environmental impacts to water can involve measuring water quality, water availability and access to water. 

Impacts to land are even more varied and can include soil health, habitat change and biodiversity loss. In contrast, types of air impacts are fewer and less complicated to define for an individual organisation. This may encourage companies to select or prioritise their preferred targets.

The SBTN’s application to the Earth Commission’s mission is clearly not just about science; it is a challenge to some of the largest and most powerful companies on the planet. However, the Commission’s findings could yield significant top-line messages for governments and businesses, indicating the need to adjust the agenda. The scientific basis for the commission’s work overturns some assumptions about how to address climate change, as Rockström explains: “We particularly equate climate with the energy transition, when in fact what will determine the final outcome of the Paris Agreement on climate change is whether we are able to keep ecosystems intact,” he points out. “That’s where the big machinery is in terms of stocks of methane and carbon.”

As a consequence, wildlife management and biodiversity conservation might eventually rank as highly as commercial decarbonisation in plans to stabilise the climate. 


The Earth Commission

The Earth Commission includes scholars from several major research institutions but is not yet mandated by multilateral organisations such as the UN. With a secretariat based at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, it is collaborating with PIK and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which conducts scientific studies on environmental, economic, technological and social issues. So far, 19 scientists have been recruited. The Commission will build on existing analyses, such as those conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The Commission and SBTN are part of the Global Commons Alliance, a network of NGOs, philanthropic funds and research organisations that aims to ensure Earth remains habitable. “We will fail on the climate agreement unless we take an integrated earth systems approach,” says Earth Commission co-chair Johan Rockström.


Elisabeth Jeffries is a freelance journalist.

Author: 

Elisabeth Jeffries is a journalist specialising in business and the environment.

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