Irreversible environmental trends

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Transgression of natural thresholds
Exceeding the limits to growth
Overstepping the limits of nature
Excessive critical ecosystem loads
Planetary overload
Degradation of natural life support systems
Overloaded natural life support systems
Global ecological overshoot
Exceedance of earth's sustainable capacity

Unprecedented rates of population growth, swiftly rising incomes and per capita demand, and technological advances, impose requirements on natural systems which may exceed their capacity to respond. As a result the life-support system of the planet may eventually be damaged beyond repair. The fact that perturbations in remote and seemingly unimportant parts of the biosphere can trigger off a chain of cause-effect reactions that ultimately provoke profound changes in the entire system, underlines the absence of world-wide integrated resource management.


Human activity has been changing natural ecosystems for thousands of years, but the pace and extent of change increased rapidly with agricultural and industrial development. Present estimates suggest that a substantial proportion of natural habitat has been transformed largely by agriculture, urban developments, afforestation, mining, and dams. In addition to habitat loss and degradation, the overexploitation of certain species, the introduction of exotic species, and the pollution or toxification of the soil, water and atmosphere have had major effects on terrestrial, freshwater and marine biodiversity.

If present trends in population growth, economic growth and consumption patterns continue, the natural environment will be increasingly stressed. Distinct environmental gains and improvements will probably be offset by the pace and scale of global economic growth, increased global environmental pollution and accelerated degradation of the Earth's renewable resource base. The negative impacts of environmental degradation will fall most heavily on the poorer developing regions. The income gap between rich and poor countries, and between the rich and poor within countries, will increase for several decades. Under a business-as-usual scenario, current inequities in the distribution of the environmental costs and benefits of consumption seem likely to grow worse. This could be expected to have a destabilizing influence on the physical, social and political environment.

The Kyoto World Conference (1-10 December 1997) was not only a call for the survival of the Earth, it was a sign that the limits of growth in industrialized countries may have already been reached. The impact of our present way of life has huge repercussions for the planet and it is no longer possible to reproduce and to perpetuate it indefinitely.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, there is no doubt that the natural systems on which all life depends are severely impacted by human activity. During the past century, these systems have borne the stresses imposed by an eighteen-fold increase in world economic output and fourfold increase in human population. The increasing demands and activities of growing economies combined with a world population of over six billion are exceeding the productive and regenerative capacity of these systems.


Currently (2018), our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, freshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences.


Broader Problems:
Global crisis
Related Problems:
United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment)
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
World Climate Research Programme (WCRP)
WMO GAW Global Ozone Observing System (GAW - GO</SUP>3</SUB>OS)
Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)
Global Climate Observing System (GCOS)
Inter-Agency Committee on the Climate Agenda (IACCA)
Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance (CCFLA)
Regions of Climate Action (R20)
European Climate Research Alliance (ECRA)
International Association for Urban Climate (IAUC)
Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA)
Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management (SASSCAL)
Africa-EU Innovation Alliance for Water and Climate (AfriAlliance)
African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC)
World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS)
Friends of the Earth International (FoEI)
Climate Action
Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture (GACSA)
Global Alliances for Water and Climate (GAfWaC)
Global Cities Covenant on Climate (Mexico City Pact)
Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS)
Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI)
UN Climate Resilience Initiative (A2R)
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - Secretariat (UNFCCC Climate Change Secretariat)
World Mayors Council on Climate Change (WMCCC)
Africa Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS)
Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate (APPCDC)
Asian Network on Climate Science and Technology (ANCST)
Citizens' Climate Engagement Network (CCEN)
Civil Society Coalition on Climate Change (CSCCC)
Climate Alliance
World Health Organization (WHO)
Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN)
Climate Bonds Initiative
Climate Group
Climate Parliament
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal
Problem Type:
A: Abstract Fundamental Problems
Date of last update
27.03.2020 – 01:03 CET