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Planetary boundaries, social dimensions and sustainable development

Special issue call for papers from Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

This AAAJ special issue seeks papers which explore the application of the planetary boundaries framework (Rockström et al., 2009a, b) to accounting and accountability. Interdisciplinary approaches are especially encouraged in order to engage with the nine planetary boundaries: climate change (including carbon); biosphere integrity (including genetic and species-level diversity); ocean acidification; biogeochemical flows (including but not limited to phosphorus and nitrogen); stratospheric ozone depletion; land system change; atmospheric aerosol loading; and the freshwater (or hydrological) cycle, contributing to the incorporation of robust science-based metrics into social and environmental accounting frameworks.

Twenty-first-century humanity faces a complex mix of interlocked environmental and social challenges (Cole et al., 2014; Levin et al. 2012), which can be understood through the lens of planetary boundaries (Rockström et al., 2009a, b). The planetary boundaries framework demarcates the safe operating area for humanity concerning the Earth’s biophysical subsystems or processes (Rockström et al., 2009a, b; Steffen, 2011; Hughes et al., 2013; Meyer and Newman, 2018). This framework can help address the fragmented environmental governance that exists at various levels (Galaz et al., 2012) as it is acknowledged that the nine planetary boundaries cannot be measured or managed in isolation (Hughes et al., 2013; Whiteman et al., 2013; Meyer and Newman, 2018; Li et al., 2019). The current status of the control variables for seven of the nine planetary boundaries is depicted in Figure 1, which shows that four of these global boundaries (climate change, biosphere integrity, land system change, altered biogeochemical flows) have been crossed, and others are in danger of being exceeded (Steffen et al., 2015). The risk of driving the Earth System into an inhospitable state with catastrophic social consequences has therefore increased.

Planetary boundaries are inextricably linked to sustainable development. As Griggs et al. (2013, p. 305) argue, “the stable functioning of Earth systems — including the atmosphere, oceans, forests, waterways, biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles — is a prerequisite for a thriving global society” (see, also Steffen et al., 2015). This view is now starting to resonate with policymakers. That the planetary boundaries concept has gained traction internationally is evidenced through its use in defining the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide the international sustainable development agenda post 2015 (Cole et al., 2014; Bebbington and Unerman, 2018), while countries such as South Africa have started to use planetary boundaries as an environmental management tool (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2016). Given the notion that access to the benefits of natural resources is a global concern, planetary boundaries have been used to integrate environmental and social metrics. This extended planetary boundaries framework includes a set of 11 social dimensions: food security; income; water and sanitation; health care; education; energy; gender equality; social equity; voice; jobs; and resilience (Raworth, 2012). These define “a social foundation” below which exists unacceptable human deprivation (Raworth, 2012; Cole et al., 2014).

The planetary boundaries framework is a promising avenue for exploration by the social and environmental accounting community as, although a number of social and environmental reporting frameworks exist, these have largely been unsuccessful (e.g., Gray, 2006; Burritt and Schaltegger; 2010; Henri and Journeault, 2010; Spence et al., 2010; Milne and Gray, 2013). Efforts to curtail water use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, recycle waste, reduce carbon footprints, slow extinction rates, reduce inequalities associated with income, poverty, power, and social justice, have been unsuccessful (Moldan et al., 2012; Whiten et al., 2013; Sullivan, 2014). Reasons for these failures of corporate social responsibility (CSR) include its lack of credibility and transparency, its use of conflicting approaches and unsuitable modes of reporting, and favourable narratives designed to manipulate strategically or mislead various stakeholders. In his critique of CSR, Banerjee (2008, p. 52) argues that “despite its emancipatory rhetoric, discourses of corporate citizenship, social responsibility and sustainability are defined by narrow business interests and serve to curtail interests of external stakeholders”. As CSR reporting is an ideological movement designed to legitimise the power of corporates, it fails to discharge corporate accountability (Gray, 2006; Banerjee, 2008; Burritt and Schaltegger; 2010; Henri and Journeault, 2010; Spence et al., 2010; Milne and Gray, 2013).

In an attempt to address the identified shortcomings in CSR, there have been calls for accounting to engage with other disciplines (see, for example, Moore, 2013; Rodrigue et al., 2013; Spence and Rinaldi, 2014; Tregidga et al., 2014). Several of these have called for organisations to extend reporting boundaries to encompass indirect impacts associated with supply chain management and product life cycles (Antonini and Larrinaga, 2017; Archel et al., 2008) and learn from those circumstances where corporate disclosures have been attributed to changed practices (e.g. Leong and Hazelton, 2019; Stephan, 2002). While these studies acknowledge corporations’ embeddedness in complex, interacting social-ecological systems comprising multiple subsystems and internal variables (Moldan et al., 2012), the link between business and macro-ecological processes continues to be under explored. As an example, Whiteman et al. (2013) highlight deficiencies in eco-literacy and an absence of meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration stemming from cultural, cognitive and institutional barriers.

Purpose of the AAAJ special issue

The purpose of this AAAJ Special Issue is to provide a catalyst to research in the application of the planetary boundaries framework to accounting and accountability. While a number of the planetary boundaries have been explored in previous accounting research, for example: climate change, including carbon (Bebbington and Larrinaga-Gonzalez, 2008; Andrew and Cortese, 2011; Ascui and Lovell, 2011; Bowen and Wittneben, 2011; Milne and Grubnic, 2011; Pellegrino and Lodhia, 2012); biodiversity, as a component of biosphere integrity (Jones, 2003; Jones and Solomon, 2013; Samkin et al., 2014; Boiral, 2016; Atkins et al., 2018; Weir, 2018; Gray and Milne, 2018); and water (Christ, 2014; Christ and Burritt, 2017a, b), these are usually single issue or industry studies. The few papers that have considered planetary boundaries (see, for example, Linnenluecke et al., 2015; Antonini and Larrinaga, 2017; O’Dochartaigh and Maughan, 2017; Schaltegger et al., 2017; Meyer and Newman, 2018; Schaltegger, 2018) have yet to be fully integrated into the accounting and related discipline literature.
Contributions are encouraged that explore the application of planetary boundaries to business, government and society. As planetary boundaries are grounded outside accounting, the complexity of interdisciplinary, multi-industry, multi-level and multi-system perspective associated with the concept, multi-disciplinary authorship is particularly encouraged to draw on the expertise from a wide range of disciplines. With this in mind, and given the interdisciplinary nature of this call for papers, one of the reviewers for each paper may be from outside the accounting discipline.
Given that the subject of this Call for Papers is an under-explored issue in accounting, contributions from a wide variety of perspectives are encouraged. While several suggested avenues for research are highlighted below, authors should not feel constrained by them.

  • Aligning corporate and governmental activities with planetary boundaries
  • The integration of planetary boundaries with existing sustainability accounting frameworks for business and government (e.g. GRI, , SDGs, State of the Environment reporting) 
  • The application of planetary boundaries at different boundary levels (e.g. organisations, cities, local government, regions)
  • Measuring sustainability against planetary boundaries
  • Planetary boundaries as a catalyst for social change
  • Disclosing firm and industry impacts on planetary boundaries
  • Corporate and government interaction with individual planetary boundaries
  • Can science based targets at an organisational level contribute to future climate stabilisation?
  • Integrating ecosystem parameters into the setting of organisational and regional boundaries
  • Challenges in and proposals for developing a planetary boundaries accounting framework
  • Linking corporate or governmental planetary boundaries with complementary social boundaries
  • Ethical perspectives on planetary boundaries and accountability
  • Opportunities to and/or methodologies for integrating planetary boundaries into accounting and sustainability research

If you would like to discuss the special issue and your potential contribution, please contact the contact guest editors by email:
Grant Samkin ([email protected])
James Hazelton ([email protected])
Giulia Leoni ([email protected])
Peter Davis ([email protected]


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