For the past 30 years, all nations in the world have been incapable of meeting the basic human needs of their population without overusing natural resources, according to a new study published in Nature Sustainability (1). If this trend persists, countries will continue to struggle to feed their people, perpetuating human deprivation and damaging the environment.
This is the first time this kind of progress has been assessed worldwide over a long period, looking at both human and environmental needs. The study includes data from 148 countries since 1992 combined with projections until 2050 based on recent trends. Results for each country for social and environmental performance are available online with an interactive website.
The team from the University of Leeds, UK, suggested that national economies will continue to damage the environment without providing insufficient improvements in living standards. For example, wealthy countries —like the UK, US, and Canada—continue to cause ecological breakdown but achieve poor social gains. On the other end, poorer countries —like Sri Lanka, Malawi, and Bangladesh—may be living without causing further damage to the environment but can’t meet basic human needs for their population.
“We examined country trajectories since the early 1990s and found that most countries are closer to providing basic needs for their residents than they were 30 years ago — which is good news — although important shortfalls remain, especially for collective goals such as equality and democratic quality”, said Dr. Andrew Fanning, from the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds. “The bad news is that the number of countries that are over-consuming resources is increasing, especially for carbon dioxide emissions and material use. Worryingly, we found that countries tend to overshoot fair shares of planetary boundaries faster than they achieve minimum social thresholds.”
The team analysed each country’s performance on 11 social objectives loosely aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For the United Nations, these are the minimum social parameters that no nation should fall below. They look at factors like life expectancy, access to energy, free elections, and others. The study also defined six boundaries among nations according to their share of population and then analysed their consumption of resources, including excessive fertiliser use, land use, and others. Finally, the team projected historical trends for each indicator until 2050 and mapped their performance on a yearly basis.
The analysis revealed that no country managed to achieve a minimum social foundation without mismanaging its resources, and it’s unlikely that any will do so in the future. Costa Rica was the one that came closest after consistently managing to use its resources effectively to improve social standards.
“These latest results indicate that an unprecedented transformation is needed in all nations. Current trends suggest that richer countries need to dramatically reduce their resource use to avoid critical planetary degradation. In comparison, poorer countries need to rapidly accelerate social performance to eliminate critical human deprivation. Countries with high levels of social achievements, such as Germany and Norway, are often held up as international role models, but they have levels of resource use that need to be massively reduced to get within fair shares of planetary boundaries”, said Dr. Dan O’Neill, form the University of Leeds and one of the authors in this study. “This transition is unlikely to be achieved with improvements in resource efficiency alone. Wealthy countries need to move beyond the pursuit of economic growth as a national goal, and instead pursue policies that improve human well-being and reduce resource use directly.”
(1) Fanning, A.L., O’Neill, D.W., Hickel, J. et al. The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations. Nat Sustain (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00799-z