Beyond Safe Operating Space: Finding Chemical Footprinting Feasible

Leo Posthuma, Anders Bjørn, Michiel C. Zijp, Morten Birkved, Miriam L. Diamond, Michael Zwicky Hauschild, Mark A. J. Huijbregts, Christian Mulder, Dik Van de Meent

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    Environmental overshoot occurs when human demands exceed the biosphere’s regenerative capacities. Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) marks the day that humanity’s footprint exhausts the Earth’s annual regenerative capacity. The EOD of 2013, on August 20th, was memorable for the f irst author as it fell on his mother’s 89th birthday. Each EOD, falling earlier every year, confronts us with urgent environmental problems, some of which are poorly defined. One such example is chemical pollution, which threatens the Earth’s capacities. Rockström et al. listed chemical pollution as an important but yet undefined boundary in their selection of planetary boundaries delineating the “safe operating space for humanity”. Can we use the well-known concept of “ecological footprints” to express a chemical pollution boundary aimed at preventing the overshoot of the Earth’s capacity to assimilate environmental pollution? Current literature is replete with ideas on this, and shows the benefits of trans-disciplinary collaborations. Borrowing our subtitle from Don Mackay’s seminal paper that introduced fugacity-based modeling for quantifying the environmental distribution of chemicals,3 we now see the development of chemical footprinting that is feasible, relevant, and necessary for expressing the overshoot of the Earth’s capacity. With widespread “chemical overshoot” leading to adverse effects of pollution, we argue for implementing a solution-focused assessment paradigm: Chemical footprinting helps identify scenarios that allow us to avoid “chemical overshoot” beyond the Earth’s safe operating space.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
    Issue number11
    Pages (from-to)6057–6059
    Publication statusPublished - 2014

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