Planetary Boundaries

melting planet

The earth requires certain environmental parameters for the earths systems to function as normal.  Scientists have developed nine key areas that have the potential to seriously affect the earths systems and essentially the earth as we know it. These nine key areas are what is known as the planetary boundaries.

We currently live within the holocene epoch which is defined by its hospitality towards humans and our societies, however the concern is that according to research papers “a continuing trajectory away from the Holocene could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth system, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies”. What the planetary boundaries do is define a ‘safe operating space’ in which modern humans can thrive. It does this by defining boundaries of earth system processes that when crossed can change the way the earth functions. The planetary boundaries are defined as being within either the safe zone or the zone of uncertainty. Within the safe zone generally there is a high probability that we are able to predict environmental responses and outcomes, whereas in the zone of uncertainty, our ability to predict the earths response gets less accurate the further down the zone of uncertainty.


The nine planetary boundaries are:

Climate Change: Which is the observed rise in temperatures and associated earth systems changes and related affects. It often looks at greenhouse gas emissions and has placed a value the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Zone of uncertainty is currently defined as between 350-550 parts per million (ppm), although we are current sitting at approximately 400ppm.

Changes in Biosphere integrity:  This is essentially biodiversity loss and the impact that this could have on earth system functions, which are largely unknown. At present the extinction rate far exceeds the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ extinction rate that would be occurring without human impacts. This has huge repercussions as a reduction in species and population numbers less to less genetic diversity and makes it harder for species to adapt to changing environments. This could result in the loss keystone species which can impact on ecosystems in huge ways.

Stratospheric Ozone depletion: This related to the ozone layer and the hole in the ozone layer that will have an impact on earth system function.

Ocean Acidification: This is linked to he climate change boundary in that ocean acidification is a result of CO2 in the atmosphere. As temperatures increase, the carrying capacity of CO2 in the oceans increase which leads to the acidification of the ocean. As the acidity of the oceans increase so too does the impact on ocean ex systems and the ability of the oceans to sustain life.

Biogeochemical flow: This looks at the chemicals of phosphorus and Nitrogen and other elements in the environment which can impact on biodiversity on both the land and the ocean. This is related to the use of chemicals including fertilisers which have devastating impacts water ways and freshwater.

Land System Change: The impact of our land uses and the changes made to the land that impact the environment and other earth systems. This included deforestation which changes the local environment through altering evapotranspiration. It also looks at the changing of the landscape for cropland and how much crop land can be created before it impacts on normal earth system functioning.

Freshwater Use: Freshwater security is important for earth system functions on many levels. It forms an essential part of certain eco- systems, as well as provided drinking water, and water for agriculture.

Atmospheric Aerosol Loading: Is the overall particle contamination in the atmosphere. These include both natural and artificial forms or aerosol. The gases can impact on the earth through the transformation into acid rain. They can also interact with the environment by the scattering of sunlight directly back into space. This can lead to a significant decrease in the temperature, being an additional element to the greenhouse effect and therefore contributing to the global climate change. Aerosols are able to modify the size of the cloud particles in the lower atmosphere, thereby changing the way clouds reflect and absorb light and therefore modifying the Earth’s energy budget. When aerosols absorb pollutants, it facilitates the deposition of pollutants to the surface of the earth as well as to bodies of water. This has the potential to be damaging to both the environment and human health.

Chemical Pollution/ Introduction of Novel entities: These novel entities are new substances or new forms of existing substances, that have the potential for unwanted biological effects. These are concerning as they often show (i) persistence, (ii) mobility across scales with consequent widespread distributions, and (iii) potential impacts on vital Earth-system processes or subsystems. The risks associated with the introduction of novel entities into the Earth system are demonstrated by the release of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which are very useful synthetic chemicals that were thought to be harmless but had unexpected, dramatic impacts on the stratospheric ozone layer. Today there are more than 100,000 substances in global commerce which have unknown impacts on the environment.


Within the nine planetary boundaries, we have already crossed the boundaries into the zone of uncertainty for land use change, biosphere integrity, climate change, and biogeochemical flow. We have moved past the zones of uncertainty into areas of high risk for biosphere integrity as demonstrated by the high numbers of biodiversity loss, and biogeochemical flow.


The longer that we disregard the need to live more sustainably and fail to address our resource use, overconsumption and general destructive behaviours, the higher the chance that we have of crossing the planetary boundaries which could have devastating and irreversible effects on the planet. We have already pushed the planet to the limit on several of the boundaries and moving that way with several others. It is important that we all acknowledge the need to address these issues, and make changes individually as well as on a larger scale politically. Although the prognosis looks grim, positive change has been been seen. Positive change was evidenced by the reduction of CFC’s in the atmosphere. Since the banning of these substances there has been an identified reduction which highlights the positive impact of public pressure and government policy change.

Be aware and make the change.

Looking for the green shoe- one step at a time

plant shoes
With estimations that shoe sales are around 20 billion annually, and that most of us will buy at least one pair of shoes this year ( i know i know- very conservative estimate, as i have many friends that would give Elton John a run for his money) we can all use this opportunity to demand that this industry better their methods and create a more environmentally friendly shoe.

My current casual shoes are on their last legs, and with the inside heel material having worn through, i thought it was time that i bought a new pair. Now i would probably in the past just go for aesthetic appearance as the main criteria for any new pair of shoes- and no doubt this is the main deciding factor in 99% of all our shoe choices. But this time i wanted to do something differently. I want to make a conscious effort to choose a shoe/brand (or pair thereof) that attempts to address their environmental impact. A shoe thats doing things different. A shoe thats walking in the right direction (plenty more puns where that came from).
I understand many of us do not wish to make massive changes to our lives and suddenly start wearing hemp footwear may be a too big a stride (get it..stride) for the urban dweller to make, i definitely wont be wearing potato sacks on my feet thats for sure. By knowing what to look out for we can make a more informed decision about what we wear and what compromises we are making when we wear it.

In London if you walk along oxford street and regent street the big brands are well represented, nike, adidas, new balance (the shoes i was going to buy pre eco research), pumas, and reebok to name a few. So have these brands addressed their environmental impact? and if so what are they doing?

The environmental impact of shoes:

Ok, so when we look at shoes and their environmental impact, what is it that we are looking at?
Essentially there are several areas such as; research and development, Manufacturing, transportation, storage, and disposal. Each with their own level of environmental impact. But as a consumer the information that we are most likely going to be able to access is the material of the shoe- and choosing the right materials and avoiding certain materials will make a significant impact on the environment.

What materials the shoe is made of plays a big role in its impact.
Firstly there are the cotton products that are used: You can have conventional cotton, organic cotton, or a cotton and nylon mix. Now the environmental impacts of convention cotton is the high water requirements plus massive pesticide and insecticide use. Cotton is a pesticide-heavy crop, accounting for approximately 25% of the world’s insecticide use and 10% of the world’s pesticide use. Organic cotton is without the use of insecticides/pesticides requires more land due to lower yields (although definitely a better choice than conventional cotton.), while the cotton and Nylon mix requires the use of energy and waste byproducts in the production.

Then we have our other natural products: Jute, Bamboo, Hemp, cork and leather. this is a funny group with no doubt the best materials to use and considered sustainable (natural and sustainable) except of course leather which almost deserves its own blog due to the huge environmental impact it has in all levels of its production. Jute, hemp and bamboo come from plants and require the separation of the fibres from the stalk. This can be done with chemicals, but can also be done naturally- of course naturally is better. Cork again is from certain trees and can be harvested without killing the tree and without the use of chemicals and is done by hand. Now we come to leather ( can see you all guiltily looking over to you leather jackets, bags and shoes- i know i did). The energy required to produce leather is 20 times that of any synthetic material and devotees the environment during the raising of the cow (land destruction, degradation, water usage, and mono cultured feed). The tanning process is also highly toxic and uses chromium a know carcinogen- literal poison for the earth. Although there are vegetable tanning methods.. these are used in less than 10% of leather products- what can i say…stay away from leather!

Don’t forget the rubber- rubber is derived naturally as sap and can be harvested sustainable, however it should be noted that in the process of turning it into a solid- chemicals are uses. The other options is synthetic rubber, which s derived form a whole range of chemicals and petrochemicals. The byproducts are co2 and volatile organic compounds. So the better of these two appears to be the natural one- although recycled rubber is also a good options and this of often derived from old tyres.

Now we come to the synthetics-
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): Used for the production of polyester fibre and derived from hydrocarbons, with the environmental impacts, energy use, water usage, and chemical use.
Polyurethane Foam (PU Foam): Its the foam thats used in shoes. Although highly toxic by products- it is highly recyclable and can used in other products.
Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA): Used as the cushioning for the sole. Emissions to air, water and intense energy consumption are the main environmental impacts associated with the production.
Nylon: Derived from hydrocarbons and petrochemicals nylon is unsustainable – the production of which results in nitrous oxide and harmful chemicals, needless to say not great for our planet.

What this says is that choosing natural, organic, and recycled materials is a good way to limited and reduce your environmental impact.

Now unfortunately with my limited access to the materials and manufacturing process for all the big brands, i am unable to definitively state which ones are the most environmentally friendly. They all appear to address the issues of sustainability in some way or another. To be honest, i get the impression that although there are some positive actions taking place i.e Nikes reuse a shoe program which re-uses shoes and turns them into new products, and pumas reduction of the shoe packaging, the majority of these actions are a practice in good PR. There doesn’t seem to be revolutionary changes in their shoe production or material use across the board, rather on specific ‘experimental’ sustainable shoes which gives the impression the brand is sustainable, yet in reality is only assigned to very specific products. It appears that synthetic material use is widespread and wastage relatively high. So when you decide to buy your shoes look at what that shoe is offering, and check the materials used for your shoe. Don’t be convinced by the green credentials of the brand especially if the shoe you are actually buying does not have any of those touted green credentials. If your interested in checking out what the big brands say- have a look:


New Balance:



What have i decided?

After attempting to find the perfect shoe, i feel i have failed miserably. I expected (or rather hoped) to find this perfect zero impact shoe. There are many shoes out there online that are much better environmental wise than the big brands, that use natural products, and made locally (therefore require less transport), but there is no shoe that i could find that was perfect. Many of the so called eco shoes use leather products (wtf?) so its a case of investigating yourself what each shoe is made of. I guess in the end its up to you what your choose. Me.. well I’ve decided to hold off buying a new pair of shoes, I’m not confident i have enough knowledge to make the choice i want to you.

While searching the web i came across this brand ‘patagonia’ who promote this interesting program as part of their environmental corporate responsibility. They have this program called ‘worn-wear’ which promotes keeping your clothing and shoes longer through making basic repairs and patching your belongings up. Yvon Chouinard from patagonia states:
“This program first asks customers to not buy something if they don’t need it. If they do need it, we ask that they buy what will last a long time – and to repair what breaks, reuse or resell whatever they don’t wear any more. And, finally, recycle whatever’s truly worn out,”. This makes a lot of sense to me. I mean its great to buy products that are environmentally sustainable, but as no product has zero impact, its much more effective to not buy a new product. Why do i need a new pair of shoes when i can mend the ones I’ve got… if i don’t buy a new pair of shoes i dont buy a product thats impacted on the environment, so in a way i guess i found the zero impact shoe, the ones i already have.

Peace and happy shoe shopping.

skunk cabbage_slippers

The green roof: Saving energy and producing energy!

turf roof

Check out this article from the ABC in Australia-

I have seen this ‘Green Roof’ used several times on the UKs greatest show ‘Grand Designs’ (starring Kevin Mccloud-the UKs greatest export! in my opinion anyway- what a rockstar 🙂 ) so when i read about this guy incorporating it into his design in Australia i thought i would share it. It appears that a roof like like has many positive attributes. The use of this roof reduces energy input into the house which not only lowers the cost of bills but also the impact on the environment. The roof would also support native animals and in some small way increase possible habitat for birds, bees etc. and most of all, lets face it, it looks pretty cool:)

But perhaps the coolest develop of late is the fact that they can now PRODUCE electricity from your green roof. A Dutch start up company called ‘Plant-e’  have developed the technology to harness electricity from plants.How does it work…. well what it does is uses the process of photosynthesis and the eventual release of neutron and protons as by products to create the electricity (don’t ask me how). In urban areas they have plans to create this system along side the green roof and estimate that help the households energy requirements could be met through the use of ‘Plant-e’ electricity. I would recommend checking out the below video for an overview of how it works.

So for all you possible builders, architects and and home renovators- keep your mind open, challenge the norms, and incorporate greener ways to build. Build a green roof that actually saves and makes your electricity-

peace and happy building!