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Dollars and planetary sense

Climate change is just one sign that humans have put a strain on the planet. According to the findings of senior partner Hamid Samandari and coauthors, human activity has pushed the Earth beyond a safe operating space in at least four areas: biodiversity loss, chemical and plastic pollution, nutrient pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions. Practices such as regenerative agriculture and reducing food waste, among other measures, would not only give the planet a lifeline—they could provide a positive return on investment for companies.

Human activity seems to have pushed the planet two times beyond the ‘safe operating space’ on at least four boundaries.

Image description:

A spider chart with proportional wedges shows multiples beyond the planetary boundary (limit) for 6 environmental measurements. The center of the chart has a graphic representation of the earth as viewed above the North Pole. The environment measures are, in clockwise order: chemical and plastic pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater consumption, nutrient pollution, and forest cover loss. The 6 wedges show the current state, the projected state by 2030, and the projected state by 2050 on a scale from 1 to 5 times the planetary limit. In all of the 6 measures the limit of the planetary limit has already been breached, and by 2050 the limit has been breached by multiple times over. They are in clockwise order; chemical and plastic pollution at around 4.5 times by 2050, climate change at around 4.0 times by 2050, biodiversity loss at around 3.0 times by 2050, freshwater consumption at around 2.0 times by 2050, nutrient pollution at around 1.8 times by 2050, and lastly forest cover loss at around 1.4 times by 2050.

Note: Refer to technical appendix section 2 of the report, Nature in the balance: What companies can do to restore natural capital, for a detailed analytical approach for each boundary.

Footnote 1: Not analyzed: aerosol pollution (lack of reliable data), ocean acidification (lack of reliable data), and ozone depletion (on path to recovery). Footnote 2: This chart only reports the planetary boundary and does not include the looser, outer “zone of uncertainty.” Beyond the strict boundary there is a nonzero risk of triggering a “tipping point” (systems collapse). Footnote 3: This report uses a data set from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), focusing on deforestation since 2000, and defines deforestation as a persistent conversion of forest to any other land use. This differs from other databases, such as Global Forest Watch, which classifies any sort of forest degradation as deforestation. Natural forest conversion to plantation forests is not considered forest cover loss in the planetary-boundaries framework because plantation forests still enable land–climate interactions. Footnote 4: Nutrient pollution includes three separate control variables: terrestrial nitrogen deposition, nitrogen surface water runoff, and phosphorus pollution. The exhibit shows the current state and projections for phosphorous pollution, which is the furthest beyond the boundary of the 3. Footnote 5: This report’s analysis follows the planetary-boundaries literature to use “radiative forcing,” which measures excess Earth system energy and, when positive, causes warming. Radiative forcing is driven in large part by GHG emissions. Footnote 6: Greenhouse gas. Footnote 7: BII is an estimated percentage of the preindustrial (pre-1750) number of species that remain and their abundance in any given area, given the prevalence of human impact in that area. BII does not extend to marine environments.

Source: Nature in the balance: What companies can do to restore natural capital, McKinsey, Dec 2022

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To read the report, see “Nature in the balance: What companies can do to restore natural capital,” December 5, 2022.