NMBU Sustainability Arena: Embedding planetary boundaries in science, policy and education

NMBU Sustainability Arena: Embedding planetary boundaries in science, policy and education


Meeting human needs within planetary boundaries is the central idea of sustainability, but formal recognition of limits contrasts with the promotion of unlimited economic expansion in policy and prevailing consumerist lifestyles.



This project is a part of NMBUs Sustainability Arenas 2021- 2024

This apparent contradiction between sustainability theory and practice may be explained by the lack of a shared understanding across disciplines and societal actors about what limits mean and entail in practice. Environmentalists and natural scientists warn about catastrophic effects of crossing tipping points; economists claim that technological innovation and resource substitution make physical limits of little practical relevance (a vision shared by many policy makers and business representatives); and social scientists emphasize that limits are politically constructed, that they often serve elite agendas, and that large uncertainties are involved in their definition. Each of these perspectives contain elements of truth but are also partial and disciplinary biased. The hypothesis motivating this Arena is that the absence of an interdisciplinary and widely shared understanding of limits hinders their effective integration across science, policy, education, and culture.



Our aim is to advance an interdisciplinary understanding of limits and their practical significance, that provides solid basis for promoting sustainability in science, policy and education. The arena will foster a ‘culture of limits’, anchored in the vision of a sustainable future where humans can flourish within the assimilative capacities of the Earth’s ecological life support systems.

More about the project

We pursue three specific objectives, oriented respectively to contribute to embed planetary boundaries in i) science, ii) policy, and iii) education.

  • Objective 1: Developing interdisciplinary concepts, theories and frameworks for understanding limits and their practical relevance.

Focus will be on mutual learning and cross-fertilization, fostering dialogue among disciplines, mapping areas of disagreement and synergy, and developing an interdisciplinary synthesis. We will assess uncertainties involved in measuring limits, analyze their political dimensions, and their cross-scale interactions. Case studies will include debates on limits to growth, green growth, and degrowth, and applicability in n e.g. mountainous and tropical ecosystems.
Outputs: three papers covering limits and interdisciplinarity (lead EGB), tipping points in the Amazon (lead TH), and mountainous ecosystems (lead ACS), one edited Virtual Forum in the journal Political Geography (lead TAB). We also expect other spinoff products in terms of other publications, and that the ideas of the project will influence the research of project members.

  • Objective 2: Foster the implementation of environmental limits in economic and policy instruments for promoting the green shift.

We will examine how notions of limits can be articulated in general policy making, economic instruments, legal structures, and cultural norms for promoting sustainability. Emphasis will be on how physical limits (e.g. tipping points) can inform the definition of regulatory limits (e.g. pollution caps and safe minimum standards).
Outputs: One book chapter (lead EGB), one paper on limits in economic policy instruments (lead AA), and four policy briefs, newspaper articles or blogs (lead TAB, TH).

  • Objective 3: Disseminate knowledge on environmental limits across educational programs.

We will integrate knowledge from SO1 and SO2 into relevant courses and education programs at NMBU. This will be done either cross-sectionally or through specific lectures, modules and courses in relevant programs and courses in the bachelor, MSc and PhD levels.
Outputs: Collaborative PhD course and six seminars (lead TAB); an MSc within Faculty’s portfolio (lead EGB, AA); one training course for scientists in the Global South (lead ACS).
Knowledge will be disseminated to scientists (papers in highly profiled interdisciplinary journals, book chapters, conferences, and workshops), students (seminars and courses, e.g. EDS303, EDS306, EDS330, ECOL 3030, EDS104, EDS 130), decision makers (policy briefs), and the general public (newspaper articles, videos, blogs and webpage).

We will produce important knowledge for green shift policies and for SDGs 4, 8 and 12-15, and increase awareness on limits among students, policy makers and the public. We will contribute to the international profiling of NMBU as a leading academic institution in the field of sustainability through our participation in IPBES, IPCC, and other international networks, and by applying for a Center of Excellence status or a larger interdisciplinary project (e.g. ERC).