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Transformation of the world towards sustainability in line with the 2030 Agenda requires progress on multiple dimensions of human well-being. We track development of relevant indicators for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1–7 against gross domestic product (GDP) per person in seven world regions and the world as a whole. Across the regions, we find uniform development patterns where SDGs 1–7 – and therefore main human needs – are achieved at around US$15,000 measured in 2011 US$ purchasing power parity (PPP).
How does GDP per person relate to the achievement of well-being as targeted by the 2030 Agenda? The 2030 Agenda includes global ambitions to meet human needs and aspirations. However, these need to be met within planetary boundaries. In nascent world-earth modelling, human well-being as well as global environmental impacts are linked through economic production, which is tracked by GDP. We examined historic developments on 5-year intervals, 1980–2015, between average income and the advancement on indicators of SDGs 1–7. This was done for both seven world regions and the world as a whole. We find uniform patterns of saturation for all regions above an income threshold somewhere around US$15,000 measured in 2011 US$ PPP. At this level, main human needs and capabilities are met. The level is also consistent with studies of life satisfaction and the Easterlin paradox. We observe stark differences with respect to scale: the patterns of the world as an aggregated whole develop differently from all its seven regions, with implications for world-earth model construction – and sustainability transformations.
Social media summary
Reaching human well-being #SDGs takes GDP levels of $15k. This may help shape transformation to a world that respects #PlanetaryBoundaries.
The world agreed to achieve 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Nine planetary boundaries set an upper limit to Earth system impacts of human activity in the long run. Conventional efforts to achieve the 14 socio-economic goals will raise pressure on planetary boundaries, moving the world away from the three environmental SDGs. We have created a simple model, Earth3, to measure how much environmental damage follows from achievement of the 14 socio-economic goals, and we propose an index to track effects on people's wellbeing. Extraordinary efforts will be needed to achieve all SDGs within planetary boundaries.
Individual organisms on land and in the ocean sequester massive amounts of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere by humans. Yet the role of ecosystems as a whole in modulating this uptake of carbon is less clear. Here, we study several different mechanisms by which climate change and ecosystems could interact. We show that climate change could cause changes in ecosystems that reduce their capacity to take up carbon, further accelerating climate change. More research on – and better governance of – interactions between climate change and ecosystems is urgently required.
Society’s needs for the knowledge that Earth system science can provide are urgent, but the challenges of knowledge integration and application are substantial. This closing chapter explores some of the issues that arise with the move towards an increasingly ‘applied’ Earth system science.
At the start of this book, we traced the development of Earth system science from its early foundations, including its evolving interfaces with other academic disciplines and policy. Here we take an exploratory forward look, with a particular focus on some of the more contentious issues that currently surround climate science. We draw attention to unaddressed knowledge gaps and unstated conceptual problems, which we believe are making it harder than it need be to establish an effective communication and accommodation between policy-making and science. We argue that it is important to recognize what science can and cannot achieve, and what scholarship could achieve in the service of good policy-making, if the right questions were addressed and methodologies developed.
Nothing we say should be interpreted as diminishing the value of Earth system science as a fundamental investigation of the interacting biological and physical/chemical processes that have sustained life on Earth. However, much of the funding that has supported the rapid advances in this field of research during the past two decades has been made available by governments with a more focused agenda, keen to assess the likely magnitude and consequences of anthropogenic climate change and (increasingly) the options for mitigation of, and necessities for adaptation to, climate change on a policy-relevant timescale. Like it or not, scientists have thereby become embroiled in debates and controversies for which they were not well prepared.
In this chapter, we explore the challenges that Earth system researchers face in addressing human-induced global environmental changes and the societal consequences of global change within their research toolkit. We focus on areas of research that have particular resonance with today’s social and political demands.
The Earth system and the ‘problematic human’
The state of play and our position
The great scientific challenge faced by today’s global change scientists is to understand the Earth system. Part of this is knowing that we ourselves, as human beings, are an influential component of that system and that the understanding we develop shapes our responses to the environmental changes we see around us. In scientific terms, most of the fundamental workings of our planet, including the processes that change climate and landscapes on short and long timescales, were already well understood by the end of the twentieth century. Earth system science is the field of study that has brought these areas of knowledge together. It has not just provided insight into the phenomena of global environmental change, but also explained the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ behind them, bringing insights into the future prospects for our planet. The enormity of the challenge lies in the realization that we are seeking to understand and predict the properties of a complex adaptive system of which we are a part, recognizing that our choices and our agency as human beings are important controls on its workings. More than that, our ability to deploy our knowledge and make choices about our actions is an important facet, perhaps even a characterizing trait, of our existence.
This chapter provides an overview of Earth system models, the various model ‘flavours’, their state of development including model evaluation, benchmarking and optimization against observational data and their application to climate change issues.
The Earth system can be conceptualized as a suite of interacting physical, chemical, biological and anthropogenic processes that regulate the planet’s low of matter and energy. Earth system models (ESMs; Box 5.1 ) are built to mirror these processes. In fact, ESMs are the only tool available to the scientific community to investigate the system properties of the Earth, as we do not have an alternative planet to manipulate that could serve as a scientist’s laboratory.
The term ‘Earth system model’ is commonly used to describe coupled land–ocean–atmosphere models that include interactive biogeochemical components. Such models have developed progressively from the physical climate models first created in the 1960s and 1970s. Conventional climate models apply physical laws to simulate the general circulation of atmosphere and ocean. As our understanding of the natural and anthropogenic controls on climate has grown, and given the steady advances in computing power, global climate models have been extended to include more comprehensive representations of biological and geochemical processes, involving the addition of the various interacting components of the Earth system with their own feedback mechanisms. Figure 5.1 shows the conceptual differences between a conventional global coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation model (AOGCM) and an ESM. In terms of the coupling between components, ESMs are more complex, and they have correspondingly higher computational demands.
Explaining the what, the how and the why of climate science, this multidisciplinary new book provides a review of research from the last decade, illustrated with cutting-edge data and observations. A key focus is the development of analysis tools that can be used to demonstrate options for mitigating and adapting to increasing climate risks. Emphasis is given to the importance of Earth system feedback mechanisms and the role of the biosphere. The book explains advances in modelling, process understanding and observations, and the development of consistent and coherent studies of past, present and 'possible' climates. This highly illustrated, data-rich book is written by leading scientists involved in QUEST, a major UK-led research programme. It forms a concise and up-to-date reference for academic researchers or students in the fields of climatology, Earth system science and ecology, and also a vital resource for professionals and policymakers working on any aspect of global change.
In 2001, the former chief executive of the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Sir John Lawton (Lawton, 2001), wrote:
One of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century is to forecast the future of planet Earth. …We find ourselves, literally, in uncharted territory, performing an uncontrolled experiment with planet Earth that is terrifying in its scale and complexity.
In the year that followed, the research council consulted widely among its scientists, policy stakeholders and the international research community about how to address that challenge. By the autumn of 2002, a plan of action was in place. The research council had earmarked a very substantial research budget for ‘Quantifying and Understanding the Earth System’, matched by an ambitious vision for the science that this research programme – QUEST – would address:
QUEST will seek to provide a more robust understanding of the global carbon cycle. QUEST will require partnerships, both within the UK, and between colleagues in Europe and the USA. NERC’s planned investment in QUEST is substantial. It has to be if we are really to make a difference. It is difficult to think of a more important thing to search for (NERC, 2002).
We, the authors of this book, have worked together over several years under the auspices of QUEST (Box 1). QUEST ran from 2003 to 2011, as one of several initiatives worldwide aligned with the internationally developed Earth system science agenda for collaborative research. The research programme sought to do more than ‘just’ provide a more robust understanding of the global carbon cycle, although interactions between biogeochemical cycles and climate have been at the heart of the programme.
In this chapter, we address the biophysical impacts of climate change, and the consequent impacts on socio-economic systems. Modelling the impacts associated with future climate change provides important information for society’s mitigation and adaptation responses. It also presents significant challenges for Earth system science. We discuss the ways in which uncertainty in impact modelling arises and how it can be managed.
Changes in climate, including those arising as a consequence of anthropogenic perturbations of the climate system, can result in a wide variety of impacts on Earth’s ecosystems and the human activities that depend on them. There are two good practical reasons why it is important to understand the processes involved and assess the possible magnitudes of impacts.
First, an assessment of the extent to which continued anthropogenic climate change could inflict damage is needed in order that well-informed decisions can be made about the reduction of human influences on climate. Our understanding of Earth system behaviour alerts us to the fact that action to mitigate climate change through reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions is not without consequences; so decisions to pursue mitigation options need to be weighed up on the basis of reliable estimates of the costs, risks and benefits of different courses of action.
Secondly, the increase in atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations since the Industrial Revolution means that further climate change is inevitable even if greenhouse-gas emissions were to be reduced soon ( Figure 6.1 ). It is therefore necessary for society to adapt to unavoidable changes. Since adaptation action is also not without consequences, it is important that adaptive action addresses credible risks , and represents an efficient allocation of resources.
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