Securing the social foundation: a rights-based approach to planetary boundaries

Jonathan Ensor, Eric Hoddy*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ‘planetary boundaries’ framework identifies Earth system processes that contribute to the stability and resilience of the planet (Rockström et al., 2009a), setting out the limits to changes the Earth can support for remaining in a Holocene-like state. A key question for global sustainable development that emerges from this framework is how to secure social equity while respecting planetary boundaries. Recent efforts to quantify a ‘social foundation’ have drawn attention to the necessity of securing human wellbeing in a ‘safe and just operating space’. Yet realising the potential of this approach, we suggest, requires addressing two substantial governance challenges: how do we define and analyse success or failure in the integration of social equity in environmental governance systems?; and how do we support the emergence of those voices that are needed to make governance equitable? We argue that human rights offer a widely accepted normative basis for responding to both these questions. The body of rights- based practice offers an analytical framing and tools for development support at a time when there is an urgent need to engage with the structural problems in environmental governance. Through a rights-based approach, it becomes possible to identify and address the social relations and mechanisms that generate inequities, and which undermine progress in addressing the unsustainable use of planetary resources at multiple scales. A decade after the planetary boundaries framework first appeared, widespread exploration of the potential of a rights-based approach is overdue.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100086
Number of pages6
JournalEarth System Governance
Early online date4 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council grant number ES/T00259X/1 .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors


  • Development
  • Environmental governance
  • Human rights
  • Sustainability

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