Can we meet the needs of everyone on Earth without stripping the Earth of all its resources? A newspaper this week Nature Sustainability says: sort of.
It must be possible to meet the basic physical needs of everyone on earth without using up the physical resources too quickly. But it wouldn’t be possible to extend a first-world standard of living for everyone without “a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level,” study researcher Daniel O’Neill and colleagues report. Only a drastic improvement in efficiency would allow the planet to manage this higher standard of living.
O’Neill and his colleagues looked at the resources that people use a lot and that are crucial to the health of the planet: things like fresh water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus. Crossing the ‘planetary limits’ of these resources jeopardizes global environmental stability – and we’re not doing well on that front.
The new document assesses about 150 countries on their performance in meeting a range of human needs, ranging from the most basic (nutrition, sanitation and freedom from extreme poverty) to the more advanced (such as equality and democratic quality). They used the data to assess how well countries are doing to meet the needs of their citizens and how much of the planet’s resources they are eating to achieve this. To achieve a global utopia, each country on the list would have to meet all of its citizens’ needs without exceeding its share of planetary resources.
Instead, it’s not surprising that an interactive graph shows that the countries that do well in terms of quality of life eat up resources, while the countries that don’t tend to lag behind in terms of well-being. Rich countries such as the US, Canada, France and Japan generally do well with their citizens, but cross planetary boundaries. Countries such as Malawi and Nepal do not consume resources, but neither do they meet the welfare thresholds.
However, the relationship is not perfect: some countries have to deal with the worst of both worlds. Turkey, Mongolia, South Africa and Swaziland are doing particularly poorly — crossing five or six of the seven planetary boundaries the researchers assessed, while hitting well-being goals at zero (Swaziland) to three (Mongolia) out of 11 well-being thresholds.
On the other hand, some countries get high marks with much less. Vietnam stands out from the crowd, meeting six of the well-being goals while crossing only two planetary boundaries. Germany does a tad better than other rich countries, meeting all the welfare goals, but only five of the seven planetary boundaries.
O’Neill and his colleagues point out that the efficient countries give cause for hope: “Some countries are able to reach the social thresholds at a much lower level of resource use,” they write. “These results give an idea of the possibility of reaching the social thresholds within planetary boundaries.”
On the other hand, they add that if population growth continues on its current path, the problem will become more and more complicated. It may be possible to meet the basic physical needs of everyone on the planet – as long as “everyone on the planet” still includes less than seven billion people. As the population increases, so does the need for efficiency.
Issues such as democratic quality and equality do not directly ensure a high standard of living, but are associated with it. These items have a less clear relationship with resource use: getting everyone food and health care is strongly linked to physical resources, but getting social support for everyone is a different ball game. Additional resource consumption isn’t as closely tied to advanced needs, the researchers suggest.
This means that rich countries should be able to reduce their consumption without reducing their quality of life. But this would require a shift from pursuing GDP growth to what the researchers call “alternative economic models such as a stable economy.”
This rating system has some downsides: for example, it assumes an average distribution of resources per person, while the reality is that some regions will always have a greater need or footprint than others. For example, areas with water scarcity must use more resources to maintain their water supply.
Future research will need to address some of these complications if we are to make more accurate estimates. But this is a start in answering the question of what a sustainable world that takes care of everyone could look like and what it takes to achieve that.
Nature Sustainability2018. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0021-4 (About DOIs).