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This week sees the UK’s official overshoot day. The date on which Earth Overshoot Day would fall if all of humanity consumed like the people in this country.

Other European countries reaching their overshoot day this month include:

Germany and Netherlands – May 3rd

Switzerland – May 8th

France and Italy – May 14th

Greece – May 19th

Portugal – May 25th

Spain – May 27th

As we finalise year 9 of our annual research into how businesses can embed planetary boundaries and social thresholds into their strategy, we wanted to share the highlights from a powerful recent paper which examined how to translate our global limits to the scale of the EU - Bringing EU policy into line with the Planetary Boundaries (SEI 2018) [1].


The Planetary Boundaries framework proposes nine quantitative limits for our Earth, defining a global “safe operating space”. Crossing any of the boundaries increases the risk of large-scale, possibly abrupt or irreversible environmental change (Rockström et al. 2009; Steffen et al. 2015). Since publication in 2009, the framework has informed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and was central to the European Union’s 7th Environment Action Programme. From a global perspective 4 of the limits have been breached.


A critical challenge we have heard during our research is ‘how to translate Planetary Boundaries to the scale of a business, country or region such as the EU’. Here three important dimensions need to be considered:

  • Biophysical – how to translate biophysical processes to local context (E.g. watershed level for water scarcity)

  • Socio-economic dimension – including the role of international trade in which a boundary may be breached locally to produce a product which is consumed in a different country

  • Ethical dimension - the differences between countries’ and individuals’ rights, abilities and responsibilities with respect to resource use and environmental impacts.

In short, there needs to be some form of allocation from the global level to the local level. Possible methods could include:

  • Per capita – e.g. based on a country’s % of the global population, land area

  • Economic – e.g. based on economic output or resource efficiency

  • Historic – e.g. based on a country’s historical share in global resource use or emissions


The SEI paper adopted a ‘per-capita’ approach based on every person on our planet having an equal share of responsibility and impact. As the EU is home to about 7% of the global population, 7% of the respective Planetary Boundary value was allocated to the EU. On this basis, share of impact on key planetary limits has been calculated.

Climate change - BREACHED

The EU’s is exceeding its boundary for climate change by 4-5 times. As such, at current CO2 emission levels, the EU’s net CO2 emissions must go to zero within a couple of decades in order to stay within its allocated budget of 70 Gt CO2.

Land system change - BREACHED

A significant fraction of the pressure linked to EU consumption is exerted outside the EU’s borders, since the EU is a large net importer of agricultural products. For instance, the EU is responsible for about 10% of global trade-related deforestation

Freshwater use – NOT BREACHED

Currently the Planetary Boundary for freshwater use is not exceeded at the EU level. However, this is being breached at a local-scale e.g. water scarcity around the Mediterranean basin

Biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus) - BREACHED

The Planetary Boundary for nitrogen and phosphorus is exceeded at the EU scale by at least a factor of 2-3. With nitrogen and phosphorus as essential nutrients for agriculture, this overshooting has major implications for global and European food security.

Biodiversity (biosphere integrity) – POTENTIALLY BREACHED

The biosphere integrity boundary does not yet have a clear quantitative “budget” which makes it difficult to downscale to EU level. However, what is clear is that across Europe, biodiversity intactness is severely compromised, both in terms of species richness (<80%) and species abundance (<90%), to levels beyond the precautionary Planetary Boundary value (Newbold et al. 2016).


Despite the current methodological and data limitations, this level of analysis from the SEI – provides powerful insights for integrating a global environmental and Earth system perspective into EU policy-making with the key message that “Europe is currently not living within the limits of our planet”

For Europe to play its part in the achievement of living within our planetary boundaries, it must address its real impact on the planet’s resources and base reduction targets on what the world needs them to do.

For further information see


[1] - Hoff, H., Häyhä, T., Cornell, S., Lucas, P. 2017. Bringing EU policy into line with the Planetary Boundaries. Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Discussion Brief. Stockholm, Sweden.

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