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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-2017-112
© Author(s) 2017. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Opinion article
07 Mar 2017
Review status
A revision of this discussion paper was accepted for the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (HESS) and is expected to appear here in due course.
HESS Opinions: A Planetary Boundary on Freshwater Use is Misleading
Maik Heistermann Institute of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Potsdam, 14476, Germany
Abstract. In 2009, a group of prominent earth scientists introduced the planetary boundaries (PB) framework: They suggested nine global control variables, and defined corresponding thresholds which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change. The concept builds on systems theory, and views Earth as a complex adaptive system in which anthropogenic disturbances may trigger non-linear, abrupt and irreversible changes at the global scale, and push the Earth system outside the stable environmental state of the Holocene. While the idea has been remarkably successful in both science and policy circles, it has also raised fundamental concerns, as the majority of suggested processes and their corresponding planetary boundaries do not operate at the global scale, and thus apparently lack the potential to trigger abrupt planetary changes. This paper picks up the debate with specific regard to the planetary boundary on “global freshwater use”. While the bio-physical impacts of excessive water consumption are typically confined to the river basin scale, the PB proponents argue that water-induced environmental disasters could build up to planetary scale feedbacks and system failures. So far, however, no evidence has been presented to corroborate this hypothesis. Furthermore, no coherent approach has been presented to what extent a planetary threshold value could reflect the risk of regional environmental disaster. To be sure, the PB framework was revised in 2015, extending the planetary freshwater boundary with a set of basin-level boundaries inferred from environmental water flow assumptions. Yet, no new evidence was presented, neither with respect to the ability of those basin-level boundaries to reflect the risk of regional regime shifts, nor with regard to a potential mechanism linking river basins to the planetary scale. So while the idea of a planetary boundary on “global freshwater use” appears intriguing, the line of arguments presented so far remains speculative and implicatory. As long as Earth system science does not present compelling evidence, the exercise of assigning actual numbers to such a boundary is arbitrary, premature and misleading. Taken as a basis for water-related policy and management decisions, though, the idea transforms from misleading to dangerous, as it implies that we can globally offset water-related environmental impacts. A planetary boundary on freshwater use should thus be disapproved and actively refuted by the hydrological and water resources community.

Citation: Heistermann, M.: HESS Opinions: A Planetary Boundary on Freshwater Use is Misleading, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss., https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-2017-112, in review, 2017.
Maik Heistermann
Interactive discussionStatus: closed
AC: Author comment | RC: Referee comment | SC: Short comment | EC: Editor comment
Printer-friendly Version - Printer-friendly version      Supplement - Supplement
 
SC1: 'Welcome commentary: commentary is not enough, need to present an alternative way forward', Murugesu Sivapalan, 12 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC1: 'Response to Prof. Sivapalan', Maik Heistermann, 24 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
RC1: 'Referee Report', Anonymous Referee #1, 22 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC2: 'Response to referee #1', Maik Heistermann, 24 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
SC2: 'Quantitative concerns on the concept of Planetary Boundaries on Freshwater', Christof Lorenz, 22 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC3: 'Response to Dr Lorenz', Maik Heistermann, 24 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
SC3: 'Check the freshwater planetary boundary debate', Fernando Jaramillo, 25 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC4: 'Response to Dr Jaramillo', Maik Heistermann, 27 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
RC2: 'A feedback mechanism is missing', Hubert H.G. Savenije, 26 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC5: 'Response to Prof Savanije', Maik Heistermann, 28 Mar 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
RC3: 'Review of opinion paper on freshwater planetary boundary', Dieter Gerten, 09 Apr 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC6: 'Response to Prof. Gerten', Maik Heistermann, 12 Apr 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
SC4: 'How significant is feedback?', Chris Perry, 14 Apr 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC7: 'Response to Dr Perry', Maik Heistermann, 20 Apr 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
SC5: 'Freshwater is a planetary boundary operating across scales', Johan Rockström, 02 May 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
AC8: 'Response to Prof. Rockström', Maik Heistermann, 05 May 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
AC9: 'Synopsis and suggested changes', Maik Heistermann, 05 May 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
 
AC10: 'Addendum to AC9: explicit is better than implicit...', Maik Heistermann, 22 May 2017 Printer-friendly Version 
Maik Heistermann
Maik Heistermann

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Short summary
In 2009, the planetary boundaries were introduced. They consist of 9 global control variables, and corresponding thresholds which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change. The idea has been very successful, but also controversial. This paper picks up the debate with regard to the boundary on global freshwater use: it argues that such a boundary is based on mere speculation, and that any exercise of assigning actual numbers is arbitrary, premature and misleading.
In 2009, the planetary boundaries were introduced. They consist of 9 global control variables,...
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