Number of social thresholds achieved versus number of biophysical boundaries transgressed for different countries (scaled by population). Ideally, countries would be located in the top-left corner. Only countries with data for all 7 biophysical indicators and at least 10 of the 11 social indicators are shown (N = 109). Graphic: O'Neill, et al., 2018 / Nature Sustainability

5 February 2018 (University of Leeds) – A study led by the University of Leeds has found that no country currently meets its citizens’ basic needs at a globally sustainable level of resource use.

The research, published in Nature Sustainability, is the first to quantify the sustainability of national resource use associated with meeting basic human needs for 151 countries.

Each country’s resource use and well-being achievements have been made available as a website built by the academics involved in the study.

Lead author, Dr Daniel O’Neill, from the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds, said:  “Almost everything we do, from having dinner to surfing the Internet, uses resources in some way, but the connections between resource use and human well-being are not always visible to us.

“We examined international relationships between the sustainability of resource use and the achievement of social goals, and found that basic needs, such as nutrition, sanitation, and the elimination of extreme poverty, could most likely be achieved in all countries without exceeding global environmental limits.

“Unfortunately, the same is not true for other social goals that go beyond basic subsistence such as secondary education and high life satisfaction. Meeting these goals could require a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level.”

Co-author, Dr Andrew Fanning, also from the Sustainability Research Institute, said: “Our results suggest that some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as combating climate change and its impacts, could be undermined by the pursuit of other goals, particularly those focused on growth or high levels of human well-being."

This study builds on research by the Stockholm Resilience Centre that identified nine environmental processes that regulate the planet and proposed safe “planetary boundaries” for each that — if persistently exceeded — could lead to catastrophic change. The planetary boundaries include issues such as climate change, land-use change, and freshwater use.

The researchers distributed seven planetary boundaries among nations according to their share of global population, and then compared these boundaries to national resource consumption, after correcting for international trade.

At the same time, the study scored countries on 11 social objectives established in previous research on what it would mean for countries to develop in “safe and just” way.  The objectives included healthy life expectancy, access to energy, and democratic quality among others.

The study benchmarked each country’s resource use against the planetary boundaries, and mapped these alongside the social indicators. The mapping showed no country performed well on both the planetary and social thresholds.

Co-author Dr William Lamb, from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), said: “In general, the more social thresholds a country achieves, the more planetary boundaries it exceeds, and vice versa.

National performance relative to a ‘safe and just space’ for two countries. a, The United States. b, Sri Lanka. Blue wedges show social performance relative to the social threshold (blue circle), whereas green wedges show resource use relative to the biophysical boundary (green circle). The blue wedges start at the centre of the plot (which represents the worst score achieved by any country), whereas the green wedges start at the outer edge of the blue circle (which represents zero resource use). Both the social thresholds and biophysical boundaries incorporate a range of uncertainties, and should be interpreted as fuzzy lines. Wedges with a dashed edge extend beyond the chart area. Ideally, a country would have blue wedges that reach the social threshold and green wedges within the biophysical boundary. Graphic: O'Neill, et al., 2018 / Nature Sustainability

“Although wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable.  In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people.”

Co-author Dr Julia Steinberger, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said “Radical changes are needed if all people are to live well within the limits of the planet.  These include moving beyond the pursuit of economic growth in wealthy nations, shifting rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and significantly reducing inequality.

“Our physical infrastructure and the way we distribute resources are both part of what we call provisioning systems. If all people are to lead a good life within the planet’s limits then these provisioning systems need to be fundamentally restructured to allow for basic needs to be met at a much lower level of resource use.”


Anna Harrison, Press Officer at the University of Leeds, on +44 (0)113 34 34196 or

A good life for all within the planet’s means

ABSTRACT: Humanity faces the challenge of how to achieve a high quality of life for over 7 billion people without destabilizing critical planetary processes. Using indicators designed to measure a ‘safe and just’ development space, we quantify the resource use associated with meeting basic human needs, and compare this to downscaled planetary boundaries for over 150 nations. We find that no country meets basic needs for its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use. Physical needs such as nutrition, sanitation, access to electricity and the elimination of extreme poverty could likely be met for all people without transgressing planetary boundaries. However, the universal achievement of more qualitative goals (for example, high life satisfaction) would require a level of resource use that is 2–6 times the sustainable level, based on current relationships. Strategies to improve physical and social provisioning systems, with a focus on sufficiency and equity, have the potential to move nations towards sustainability, but the challenge remains substantial.

A good life for all within planetary boundaries


  1. Permaea said...

    Increasingly, it appears that there is not be enough time for the shift to so-called renewables, such as if the shift requires steady or increasing use of fossil fuels and/or business-as-usual-style economic growth.

    We may only have enough time to merely power down.  


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