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SOS! Charting a safe operating space for humanity – lessons from different scientific approaches
Convener: Jonathan Donges  | Co-Conveners: Holger Berg , Sarah Cornell , James Dyke , Andries Hof 
 / Wed, 20 Apr, 08:30–10:00
 / Attendance Thu, 21 Apr, 17:30–19:00

Human actions play an increasing role in shaping the Earth's planetary environment, altering the interplay between the physical climate, land surface, oceans and life, at different spatial and temporal scales. These ecosystem changes are in turn affecting socio-economic performance and human wellbeing around the world. Current critical policy processes dealing with climate change and sustainable development goals aim at setting the scene for defining and reaching desirable states of the whole Earth system: a safe operating space for humanity.

In practice, charting this safe operating space (SOS) depends as much on normative choice as on the complex landscape of human-nature coevolutionary dynamics. Different scientific approaches offer insight into environmental processes and the transitions required to remain within the SOS, such as integrated assessment modeling studies, socio-technical transition studies, research based on real life initiatives for sustainability transitions, and the planetary boundary approach.

Integrated assessment studies provide a macro perspective, linking future goals to the concrete implementation of technologies and the related policies and costs and benefits to achieve them. They also allow linking the different policy issues, such as biodiversity protection and climate change. Socio-technical transition studies seek to explain long-term shifts, taking account of a broad set of institutional, economic, social and cultural factors including those enabling behaviour change and adoption of new technologies. Research based on real life initiatives for sustainability transitions engages with concrete projects at the local and regional scale (‘transitions in the making’) involving diverse social actors such as citizens, businesses, civil society organisations and (local) government. They aim at understanding the context in which they function best, their impacts on the environment and society and thus understanding how to foster innovation and upscale innovative sustainability solutions. The planetary boundaries approach mark precautionary limits for the human perturbation of critical environmental processes. Applying the planetary boundaries concept demands much deeper conceptual, analytic and practical integration of societal and environmental dynamics – something that the first three approaches can provide insight on.

In this highly interdisciplinary session, we aim at synthesizing research on the conceptual foundations, empirical basis, data analysis and modeling of safe operating spaces for humanity. We welcome contributions from a broad range of social and natural Earth system scientists working on local, regional to global scales on various dimensions of safe operating spaces such as climate change, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, hydrology, natural hazards, environmental pollution, geoengineering and socio-ecological systems.