Sustainable Development Goals and the Planetary Boundaries by Vivienne Fitzpatrick

Sustainable Development Goals and the Planetary Boundaries
by Vivienne Fitzpatrick
This Summer has seen much of the news cycle dominated by scenes of weather chaos, the source of which has been verified as the effects of climate change (UN News, 2023). While July 2023 became Earth’s hottest month on record, in Ireland we saw the wettest July on record (Met Eireann, 2023), or as we like to call it locally, a total washout.
This followed the warmest June in Irish records, on both land and sea. It is predicted that the impact Ireland will experience from climate change, is warmer and wetter weather as time goes on (Met Eireann, 2022). While many of us are now familiar with climate change, this is just one of nine planetary boundaries that can lead Earth into an unstable state. There are many methods through which we can adapt and mitigate to prevent breaching these boundaries, but first, it is important to understand what they are, and how we arrived at the current state. Further, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were developed in an effort to help define measurements and indicators for 17 goals which can help keep us on track to remain within the planetary boundaries.
circular diagram for climate change
Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2017
Planetary Boundaries – An Overview
In 2009, Rockstrom et al. proposed a new approach to global sustainability, whereby the Earth’s system (E.S) is defined by of a number of boundaries. If we cross these boundaries, we move into an unstable and somewhat unpredictable state. By defining the boundaries, it allows us to measure and monitor changes. Nine boundaries were identified, as seen in the picture below, many of which may now be familiar terms to you. Rockstrom and his team produced this new approach because for the first time in Earth’s history, human activity is having a significant impact on Earth’s system – we are in the age of the Anthropocene, which is derived from the term “anthropogenic”, which is defined as “originating in human activity”.

To place some context on this significant impact, the below picture shows the different timescales Earth has progressed through, starting at 3 billion years ago when the first organic matter was detected.

The Holocene epoch (our current age) is circled, which began 11,700 years ago after the last ice age. However, we have moved into the Anthropocene (man made era) as a result of crossing or nearly crossing planetary boundaries, the process of which commenced in 1850 at the start of the Industrial Revolution (National Geographic, 2023).

Spiral representation of Earth in geological time
Spiral representation of Earth in geological time. Image by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
The below image shows The Great Acceleration that occurred from that time period to now.
chart showing The Great Acceleration that occurred from that time period to now
Earth System Trends of the Great Acceleration of the Anthropocene from 1750 to 2010. The data graphically displayed is scaled for each datum’s 2010 value. Source data is from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme Author, Bryan MacKinnon, 2018

This “dramatic, continuous and roughly simultaneous surge” in human made activity is pushing our planetary boundaries beyond its limits (Future Earth, 2015).

It is possible to reverse some of damage done, a well-known success story is that of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer.

circular chart showing the cyclical pattern for climate change
Source: Raworth, K. Doughnut Economics 2012
It was agreed in 1987, and the process of phasing out substances that caused ozone depletion began. It will have prevented more than two million cases of skin cancer by 2030, and it Is anticipated the ozone layer will have recovered by 2050 (UNEP, 2014).

In 2012, Kate Raworth, a University of Oxford economist, developed Doughnut Economics, which combined the planetary boundaries with social boundaries.

The goal of the model was to overlay and integrate economic growth, human prosperity, and happiness with vital natural resources (Raworth, 2012). The hole of the doughnut represents the proportion of people that lack access to life’s essentials, these minimum requirements are based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, while the crust represents planetary boundaries. The middle portion is the “safe and just space for humanity to thrive in” (Irin, 2012), or “where everyone’s needs and that of the planet are being met” (Boffey, 2020).

Sustainable Development Goals – United Nations
This leads us on to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, they are an “urgent call for action” that work to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequality and more, while ensuring there are goals focused on tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity, oceans, and forests (UN SDGs, 2023). The complete list of SDGs can be viewed in the below picture.
Sustainable Development Goals chart
Source: UN SDG, 2023
The 17 SDGs have a total of 231 indicators, which measure progress towards reaching the targets. As an example, SDG4 is the goal for education, where by 2030 the target is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. SDG4.7.1 is the indicator that focuses on the education of sustainable development globally – helping all people to understand topics such as living a sustainable life, human rights, promotion of non-violence and global citizenship (UN SDG Indicators, 2023).

Progress reports are published on an annual basis and align to the SDG indicators. In the most recent “Special Edition” report issued in July 2023, “a preliminary assessment of the roughly 140 targets with data show only about 12% are on track” (SDG Special Report, 2023). It notes that carbon dioxide is at a level not seen in two million years.

Those most impacted by the “collective failure” of countries, are the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. The report is a “call for action”, whereby Heads of State and Governments are asked to recommit to an accelerated timeline for delivery of the SDGs, along with a number of other requests.

In Ireland, the National Implementation Plan for the Sustainable Development Goals 2022-2024 was published in October 2023. All government departments were involved with its development and the plan sets out five strategic objectives and 51 actions (DECC, 2023). While all government departments are committed to delivering these goals, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC) have the most responsibility in delivering action plans to help Ireland achieve SDG goals, within planetary boundaries, and without compromising those in most need, or the middle of the doughnut. Reports such as the “Long-term Strategy on Greenhouse Gases Emissions Reductions” and the “Clean Air Strategy” can be viewed on the DECC website.

Outside of the SDGs, European Climate Law (European Commission, 2023) seeks to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, or net zero greenhouse gas emissions for all EU countries. A number of policies and instruments have been introduced to achieve this, and they are revised and improved upon ongoingly. EU countries that breach these laws are often brought to the European Court of Justice by the European Commission, and these cases can be viewed on the “EUR-Lex” website. Additionally, a number of not-for-profit law firms such as Client Earth, act against companies who contribute to climate change. The Client Earth website provides examples of how taking action can result in positive changes for our world, by holding companies accountable for their contributions to climate change.

Awareness of climate change and the destructive impact it can have is one side of the story, but understanding what is taking place to counter this, and how we can help to mitigate and adapt to these change is the other.

Accountants play a crucial role in driving Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiatives within organisations. Learn more about the Accountant’s role in ESG and discover resources to enhance your expertise.

Learn More (

  1. Boffey, Daniel (8 April 2020). “Amsterdam to embrace ‘doughnut’ model to mend post-coronavirus economy”. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  2. Client Earth: What we do | ClientEarth
  3. European Commission, Climate Action; European Climate Law ( Retrieved 23 July 2023
  4. Future Earth Org: The Great Acceleration | Future Earth. Retrieved 26 July 2023
  5. IRIN, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Retrieved 27.07.23 at IRIN Global | CLIMATE CHANGE: Understanding Rio+20 | Global | Aid Policy | Economy | Environment | Food Security | Governance | Health & Nutrition | Human Rights | Natural Disasters | Water & Sanitation (
  6. National Geographic: Anthropocene (
  7. Raworth, K. 2017, Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont. Retrieved 23 July 2023
  8. Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL:
  9. Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S. R., de Vries, W., de Wit, C. A., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G. M., Persson, L. M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B., & Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), 736–736.
  10. Stockholm Resilience Centre: A fundamental misrepresentation of the Planetary Boundaries framework – Stockholm Resilience Centre
  11. UN News Room: Hottest July ever signals ‘era of global boiling has arrived’ says UN chief | UN News retrieved 2 August 2023
  12. UNEP, News Centre 2014, Ozone Layer on Track to Recovery. Retrieved 26 July 2023 at Ozone Layer on Track to Recovery: Success Story Should Encourage Action on Climate – UNEP (
Vivienne Fitzpatrick headshot
Vivienne Fitzpatrick
I have over 20 years’ experience in investment banking sales and business development, alongside setting up a fitness business (H-Kore Studios, Hong Kong). My passion is combining my experience and using an entrepreneurial mindset to help businesses find solutions for problems.  In the last few years, I have been increasingly interested in expanding my knowledge on sustainable development, climate change and what can be done to help and educate others. This led me to enrol as a full-time student in UCD’s MSc in Sustainable Development, which I will complete in the Summer of 2023.