Many companies across the world are increasingly experiencing the impact of climate change on their business activities. The need to address the impacts of climate change together with a strong call from a growing range of stakeholders to take responsibility for the impact of the activities of the businesses themselves is resulting in many targets being set to reduce carbon emissions.
Approaches to setting targets and the pledges that are being made are however fragmented and make it difficult to distinguish between real climate leadership and unsubstantiated greenwashing (NewClimate Institute, 2022).
Given the fragmented approaches mentioned and the need to avoid greenwashing, there is a realization that the world cannot only rely on consumer and stakeholder pressure to drive the change that is needed. A call for stronger regulation is coming to the fore to drive carbon emission reductions, to level the playing field and to avoid greenwashing.
High-quality primary data will be a key requirement in the future to ensure that climate targets and pledges are transparently reached. Companies will have to address Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions both upstream and downstream in their supply chains.
The reduction of carbon emissions will require deep decarbonization measures and the disclosure of the measures implemented underpinned by high-quality data that will allow replication by other organisations.
As the race to net-zero emissions is picking up pace, it is important to be aware of carbon tunnel vision. This takes place when sustainability strategies are developed through the lens of only carbon and will result in incomplete strategies that will also not incorporate all the risks presented to an organisation.
Climate, biodiversity, water and other environmental challenges can’t be addressed in silos. Companies need integrated strategies that address all nature-related impacts and dependencies. This is especially true for the agricultural sector which is particularly exposed to climate-related risks but also has a large role to play in mitigating the risk.
The concept of planetary boundaries was developed in 2009 by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and 28 internationally renowned scientists. They identified nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system as depicted in Figure 1.1. For the first time, all nine planetary boundaries have been mapped out and six of these boundaries have already been exceeded: climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, green water (i.e., terrestrial precipitation, evaporation and soil moisture), biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus cycles) and novel entities (pollutants including plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals) (Richardson et al. 2023). The accelerated growth in chemical and plastic pollution and overfishing has put additional pressure on marine ecosystems, further limiting the ocean’s capacity to sequester carbon (already limited by increased acidification), pushing us closer to exceeding the boundary for ocean acidification (Ernstoff et al. 2023). In practice, the planetary boundary serves as a type of benchmark to help humans live on this earth without threatening its ecosystem or sacrificing biosphere integrity.
It is well known through literature that food production is the main cause of environmental impacts such as biodiversity loss eutrophication and overexploitation of marine resources. Agriculture drives 80% of global deforestation and 70% of freshwater withdrawals (Chrysafi et al. 2022). If we look at food production through the lens of planetary boundaries it is very clear through the work of Chrysafi et al. (2022) that the interactions are very complex, and research will be continuing in this space. Amongst the uncertainty and complexity, it remains useful to ask how humans and our activities can operate within the limits of the Earth’s capacity to not destabilize the very delicate balance that exists in the entire Earth system.
When applying planetary boundaries to companies’ sustainability strategies it means they will have to divide their attention to address nine different topics at the same time. However, a broader planetary boundaries approach ensures that businesses are less likely to miss out on potential opportunities. As an example, an agri-business that focussed all its efforts on reducing carbon emissions could be ignoring key aspects such as the impact on yields, market price increases, loss of pollinators, invasive species, pest and disease pressure, and more.
The best approach would be to not have different strategies and action plans in a siloed approach that could potentially lead to trade-offs with unintended consequences. Businesses should rather have one integrated approach that can address aspects such as climate, biodiversity, water, land use, and more while minimizing trade-offs.
This approach is particularly well suited to the agricultural sector due to farming systems having to follow an integrated approach to be successful. When considering carbon-related data at a farm level it becomes apparent that those activities that relate to the most intense emissions (Hotspots) are often those that do have other climate-related impacts as well.
An example would be the reduction in synthetic nitrogen usage. Nitrogen is a major contributor to overall carbon emissions in perennial fruit crops. If the reduction of synthetic nitrogen is addressed to ensure a reduction in GHG emissions it will not only address climate change but also freshwater change, biogeochemical flows, pollution and more. The positive for business is also that it reduces financial risks related to input costs of fertilizers that are often beyond its control.
Although a carbon tunnel vision approach is not encouraged as mentioned earlier, the implementation of systems to collect high-quality emission-related data in the agricultural sector could be a good starting point and provide insights into potential impacts related to the exceedance of planetary boundaries.
It is clear from the preceding paragraphs that agriculture has an important role to play in addressing the climate crises and that there are multiple approaches and practices already available. The increasingly important role of monitoring, measuring and the collection of high-quality data in this sector will remain a challenge and require and require support and possibly incentives.
As mentioned earlier in this report there is a plethora of policies, reporting standards and guidelines emerging in a constantly changing landscape all compiled under the central theme of the IPCC goals of a world that is limited to 1.5°C warming compared to pre-industrial levels.
David Carlin head of climate risk and TCFD for the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative has mentioned recently in a Greenbiz podcast that knowledge about climate as well as climate reporting has generally improved. The number of disclosures as well as the detail and quality of the reports have improved. The key question is however; how can organisations move from reporters of climate and climate risk to active users of this information?
Blue North Sustainability not only support our clients with high-quality data collection through our efficient online platforms (Sherpa and Confronting Climate Change), but we join our clients on their journey to ensure that they do not remain only reporters of sustainability metrics but to move forward to really play their part to protect, recover and to rebuild the Earth’s resilience.
Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. Based on Richardson et al. 2023, Steffen et al. 2015, and Rockström et al. 2009) URL: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html
Chrysafi, A., Virkki, V., Jalava, M. et al. Quantifying Earth system interactions for sustainable food production via expert elicitation. Nat Sustain 5, 830–842 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00940-6
Ernstoff A., Diener, A., Vargas, M. 2023. A planetary boundaries approach is the only way for businesses to tackle nature-related risks. https://quantis.com/planetary-boundaries-business-transformation/.
NewClimate Institute. 2022. Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor, 2022. Assessing the transparency and integrity of companies’ emission reduction and net-zero targets. February 2022. http://newclimate.org/publications/
Richardson, K., Steffen, W., Lucht, W., Bendtsen, J., Cornell, S.E., Donges, J.F., Drüke, M., Fetzer, I., Bala, G., von Bloh, W., Feulner, G., Fiedler, S., Gerten, D., Gleeson, T., Hofmann, M., Huiskamp, W., Kummu, M., Mohan, C., Nogués-Bravo, D., Petri, S., Porkka, M., Rahmstorf, S., Schaphoff, S., Thonicke, K., Tobian, A., Virkki, V., Weber, L. & Rockström, J. 2023. Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries. Science Advances 9, 37.