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PLANETARY BOUNDARIES & SOCIAL THRESHOLDS: Reflections from the global crisis - the need to thriv

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and Earth Month [1]. Given the current crisis – the level of coverage may be muted but must not forgotten. What is increasingly clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic offers both important clues and potential solutions to other challenges facing our planet and society.

Here we share some recent articles and thoughts, including the Open Letter to Global Leaders – A Healthy Planet for Healthy People [2] – which has been signed by 1,000 global leaders.

Our planetary limits – the root cause of global crises

As this current pandemic has demonstrated, and as the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report emphasises, the major risks facing the world are arising at the intersection between humanity and the natural world.

As we breach our planetary boundaries, the health of humanity and the state of the natural systems become more exposed and more vulnerable.

“This is a wake-up call. We must live within our planetary boundaries to avoid future pandemics”[3]

Paul Polman

In the case of COVID-19, deforestation and urbanisation, coupled with population growth, have led to humans and animals coming into closer contact enabling transmission of more diseases and viruses. In short, Planetary health is vital for human health

Our social thresholds – the root cause of risk

This crisis has also shown that the failure to address basic social thresholds accelerates the risk for the vulnerable. Lack of access to health care, income insecurity and inequality expose certain sections of the population to be at greater risk which, in turn, places the whole of society at risk.

“This crisis has already taught us much. It has never been clearer that we are all in this together. Inequality hurts everyone” [4]

Dr Courtney Howard

Board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

Our global response – possible reasons to be positive

Like COVID-19, climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty and water scarcity do not observe national borders. As a global society, we depend on each other. Crossing planetary boundaries and failing to maintain basic social thresholds affects us all.

Yet, what the crisis has also shown is exactly what is possible when we all join forces to drive transformational change. We have seen international cooperation on a scale like never before, and leadership from national governments with timely interventions to stimulate economies and protect the most vulnerable, based on science and implemented within days.

Lessons learned from these actions need to be repeated and applied, on a global scale, to resolve the other existential threats the world faces such as climate change and biodiversity collapse.

This pandemic is teaching us how much we depend on each other for our health systems, food systems and supply chains. We are all on this planet together

Open Letter to Global Leaders – A Healthy Planet for Healthy People [2]


The mission behind the Earth Day movement is to drive transformative change for people and planet. Its 50th anniversary in a few weeks is the perfect time to focus on how we can exist (and thrive) within our planetary boundaries and social thresholds, the only safe space for the survival of humanity.

In this ‘decade of action’ to deliver sustainable development goals, the collective power of business must be harnessed to play its part in ensuring the health and prosperity of people and the planet. The first step towards this is a universal understanding that measurement and target-setting based solely on what the world needs is critical. Without this collective understanding, business sustainability actions are rudderless and transformative change is hindered.



2. Letter: We call on leaders to put climate and biodiversity at the top of the agenda From Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Minister of Environment, Costa Rica

3. ‘This is a wake-up call. We must live within our planetary boundaries to avoid future pandemics'’

4. COVID-19 crisis is a tipping point. Will we invest in planetary health, or oil and gas?​

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