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A good life for all within the planet's means

February 05, 2018

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 combatting 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.

"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."
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Notes for editors:

The 151 countries included in the analysis were restricted to those with a population of at least one million people.

The eleven social indicators and seven environmental indicators used for measuring the achievement of basic needs within planetary boundaries are part of a framework put forward by economist Kate Raworth. This "safe and just space" framework is described in her recent book Doughnut Economics.

The "safe" space refers to the environmental indicators, which are based on the planetary boundaries framework originally published in the journal Nature in 2009 by a group of Earth-system scientists led by Johan Rockström. Planetary boundaries have been proposed for nine Earth-system processes that are linked to maintaining the relatively stable conditions of the past 10,000 years.

The "just" space refers to the social indicators, which are based on a comprehensive analysis of government submissions to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio in 2012. These social indicators are also closely aligned with the high-level social objectives in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to be achieved by 2030.

Further information

The paper "A good life for all within planetary boundaries" will be published in Nature Sustainability on 05 February 2018 (DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0021-4)

The interactive website accompanying the paper will be made available on the same date at: https://goodlife.leeds.ac.uk (website publically accessible at 16:00GMT 05 February 2018)

For additional information and to request interviews please contact Anna Harrison, Press Officer at the University of Leeds, on +44 (0)113 34 34196 or a.harrison@leeds.ac.uk

University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities.

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 for academic reputation in the QS World University Rankings 2018. Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government's Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its 'consistently outstanding' teaching and learning provision. Twenty-four of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships - more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales - reflecting the excellence of our teaching. http://www.leeds.ac.uk

Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC)

The MCC explores sustainable management and the use of common goods such as global environmental systems and social infrastructures in the context of climate change. Seven working groups conduct research on the topics of economic growth and development, resources and international trade, cities and infrastructure, governance and scientific policy advice.

University of Leeds

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