“The number of countries that are overconsuming resources is increasing”

Without urgent changes, national economies will continue to drive ecological breakdown, while delivering slow and insufficient improvements in living standards.   

That’s the findings of a study led by researchers from the University of Leeds and published in  Nature Sustainability.

Wealthy countries like the US, UK, and Canada are transgressing planetary boundaries linked to climate and ecological breakdown, yet achieving minimal social gains. 

Poorer countries like Bangladesh, Malawi, and Sri Lanka are living within planetary boundaries, but still falling short on meeting many basic human needs.

Click on this link to find out more: A Good Life For All Within Planetary Boundaries

Global performance relative to the doughnut’s safe and just space, on the basis of the biophysical boundaries and social thresholds measured in this study. a, 1992. b, 2015. Dark green circles show the ecological ceiling and social foundation, which encompass the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries. The blue wedges show average population-weighted social performance relative to each social threshold. The green wedges show total resource use relative to each global biophysical boundary, starting from the outer edge of the social foundation. Red wedges show shortfalls below social thresholds or overshoot beyond biophysical boundaries. Grey wedges show indicators with missing data. Credit: Andrew Fanning et al

Dr Andrew Fanning, explained:

“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.

“The bad news is that the number of countries that are overconsuming 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 researchers tracked country performance on 11 social priorities broadly aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which collectively form a social foundation that no one should fall below. The indicators include life expectancy, access to energy, and democratic quality among others.

At the same time, the study distributed six planetary boundaries among nations according to their share of global population, and then compared these boundaries to national resource consumption.

The boundaries include environmental priorities such as climate change, excessive fertilizer use, and land-system change, which collectively form an ecological ceiling intended to avoid climate and ecological breakdown.

Dr Dan O’Neill added:

“Countries with high levels of social achievement, 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.”

The study projected historical trends for each social and environmental indicator within each country to 2050, and mapped their performance on a yearly basis.

The mapping showed that no country has achieved a minimum social foundation without overshooting planetary boundaries in recent decades, nor is any on track to do so in the future.

Costa Rica comes closest, consistently transforming resources into social achievement more efficiently than other countries, although it still transgresses half of the planetary boundaries.

 Dr Jason Hickel, from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said:

“Countries in the global South should have the freedom to build sovereign economic capacity, while using social policy and public services to deliver universal healthcare, education, housing, good livelihoods, and food security.

“Our existing economic system uses resources to support elite consumption and corporate interests rather than to meet basic needs. That urgently needs to change.”

Number of social thresholds achieved versus number of biophysical boundaries transgressed by countries over time, 1992–2015. Country performance is divided into six sections on the basis of the average number of social thresholds achieved (high, middle and low shortfall) and the average number of biophysical boundaries transgressed (low and high overshoot). Circles indicate performance at the end of the analysis period (in 2011–2015) and are sized according to population. Country paths are shown in five-year average increments. Countries are colour coded relative to their performance at the start of the analysis period (in 1992–1995) clockwise from top right: low shortfall–high overshoot (purple); middle shortfall–high overshoot (blue); high shortfall–high overshoot (brown); high shortfall–low overshoot (orange); middle shortfall–low overshoot (green). Only countries with data for all six biophysical indicators and at least nine of the ten social indicators are shown (N= 91). Ideally, countries would be in the doughnut located in the top left corner. Image Credit: Andrew Fanning et al

See also: “Climate change needs cultural change”

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