(346b) Impact of the Food-Energy-Water Nexus on Meeting the Constraints of Planetary Boundaries and Social Justice | AIChE

(346b) Impact of the Food-Energy-Water Nexus on Meeting the Constraints of Planetary Boundaries and Social Justice


Aleissa, Y. - Presenter, The Ohio State University
Bakshi, B., Ohio State University
We depend on natural ecosystems to provide essential goods and services such as food, energy, and water that contribute to our well-being, sustainable development, and poverty eradication. These services underpin all biophysical processes and are crucial to planetary health and for sustaining human life. However, anthropogenic activities put a significant amount of pressure on natural resources resulting in degradation and irreversible damage to ecosystems. There are many studies on the food-energy-water nexus (FEW) of human activities. However, most studies do not consider the impact of meeting FEW requirements on respecting nature's limits and meeting consumption requirements for social justice.

We develop a biophysical approach for quantifying whether the FEW nexus permits human activities to operate in a "safe and just" space. Being in the "safe" space requires respecting nature's limits. To quantify this, we rely on the framework of planetary boundaries and relevant ecological models [1]. Being in the "just" space requires meeting basic human needs [2]. We quantify this based on relevant data about social minimum thresholds and contributions to human well-being.

We present a novel framework to determine whether meeting FEW needs in a region satisfies the requirements for operating within ecological carrying capacity (being safe) and meeting basic human needs (being just). This framework uses the flows of ecosystems goods and services to define and meet the safe and just space requirements. Although meeting FEW needs depends on multiple ecosystem services, our focus in this work is only on the water provisioning and carbon sequestration ecosystem services. We quantify the upper limit of the safe and just space through the supply of ecosystem service available in the selected region. This is nature’s carrying capacity for that service. To meet the "safe" requirement, the human demand for this service cannot exceed this limit. Further, we quantify the lower limit as the minimum consumption of that ecosystem service needed to meet the FEW needs in that region. Meeting the "just" requirements implies that the current demands from relevant ecosystems need to surpass this threshold to prevent human deprivation. Using ecosystem services and their capacities enables this framework to be applied at multiple spatial scales, resulting in a more accurate assessment than approaches based on downscaling of planetary boundaries [3,4].

We apply our framework to nations across the world to provide unique insight into how the FEW nexus is affecting their ability to be safe and just. We also identify areas of improvement and the potential role of solutions from engineering, economics, and policy.

We also apply our framework to chemical processes to determine the industry's impact on being within the safe and just space in the selected region. We demonstrate how such insight can be used to guide efforts toward ensuring that industrial activities become ecologically and socially sustainable. Finally, we compare our approach with current process sustainability metrics like those developed by AIChE [5], IChemE [6], and EPA [7].


[1] Rockström, J., Steffen, (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. nature, 461(7263), 472-475.

[2] Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam.

[3] Ryberg, M. W., Andersen, M. M., Owsianiak, M., & Hauschild, M. Z. (2020). Downscaling the Planetary Boundaries in absolute environmental sustainability assessments–a review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 276, 123287.

[4] O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., Lamb, W. F., & Steinberger, J. K. (2018). A good life for all within planetary boundaries. Nature sustainability, 1(2), 88-95

[5] Calvin Cobb. The AIChE Sustainability Index: The Factors in Detail | AIChE. Technical report, 2009.

[6] Inst. Chem. Eng. Sustainability Metrics: Sustainable Development Progress Metrics Recommended for Use in Process Industries. Technical report, Warwickshire, UK, 2014.

[7] Gerardo J. Ruiz-Mercado, Raymond L. Smith, and Michael A. Gonzalez. Sustainability indicators for chemical processes: II. Data needs. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res.,feb 2012.