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While it is important to establish boundaries for climate change, biodiversity, water, and pollution that ensure a stable and safe earth system, we also need to consider how such boundaries can be just in minimizing harm to humans and nature, argues the study. Establishing earth system boundaries might require more stringent targets, but these targets could influence the access of people to basic resources and the allocation of resources. Building on the scholarship on justice, the team defines the concept of Earth system justice, offering a theoretical framework, operationalising it and outlining the transformations that are required. 

Substantive and procedural justice

Defining the concept of Earth system justice, the researchers consider justice among present nations, communities and individuals, justice for future generations and for other living things. They also distinguish substantive and procedural justice, and the adjusting of biophysical targets. Substantive justice aims at ensuring access to minimum resources, reducing harm and allocating responsibilities fairly. Procedural justice implies that people should be able to access information, participate in decision making, enjoy civic space and the right to go to courts. Adjusting biophysical targets is needed to ensure that the poor have access to resources and the vulnerable are protected from harm.

Integrating methods whilst addressing inequality

In their framework they integrate methods to reduce harm to people, increase access to resources, address tradeoffs, and challenge powerful interests. ‘To ensure a more just resource consumption that meets the needs of all people and at the same time ensures justice between humans and nature and a stable Earth system, these topics still require debates and engagement with different knowledge systems on the structural and systemic changes that are needed’, states lead author Joyeeta Gupta, Co-Chair of the Earth Commission and Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam.

‘We need to assess who is most responsible for Earth system change, who is most vulnerable to it, and who should take action to reduce the risks and reallocate resources, responses and risks in line with principles of justice’, adds Diana Liverman, Earth Commission member and Regents professor at the University of Arizona. 

Publication details

Gupta, J., Liverman, D., Prodani, K. et al. , 2023, ' Earth system justice needed to identify and live within Earth system boundaries.' In: Nat Sustain (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01064-1

Prof. J. (Joyeeta) Gupta

Lead author

About the Earth Commission

The Earth Commission, convened by Future Earth, investigates how global biophysical boundaries need to be adjusted to ensure a safe and just future for people, nature and the planet. The Earth Commission is the scientific cornerstone of the Global Commons Alliance. Scientists from the Earth Commission come from universities worldwide, among which the University of Amsterdam.

The research comes ahead of an associated Earth Commission report due out in early 2023 that defines ‘safe and just’ ‘Earth System Boundaries’ (ESBs) to safeguard a stable and resilient planet. These ESBs will underpin the setting of new science-based targets for businesses, cities and governments to address the polycrises of increasing human exposure to the climate emergency, biodiversity decline, mass extinction of species that threaten the stability of the planet.