Delivering on people’s needs while taking care of the environment can be achieved, and that’s the whole point of sustainable development. But that’s not what we've been doing so far, according to a new study.
Looking at a sample of 148 countries, researchers from the University of Leeds found that not a single one met the basic needs of its residents without using natural resources in excess. Furthermore, if current trends continue, no country will do so over the next three decades either -- worsening environmental crises like global warming and plastic pollution.
The study is the first one to check countries’ progress in meeting basic needs and also respect environmental boundaries, also including projections to 2050 based on current trends. The findings for social and environmental performance are available on an interactive website the researchers built for the purpose of the study.
Rich countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada are transgressing planetary boundaries while achieving minimal social gains, according to the study’s findings. In other words, countries are putting more and more pressure on the environment without their citizens actually living better. Meanwhile, poor countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Malawi are living within the boundaries but fall short on meeting basic human needs.
This is a problem, because it shows we're failing as a society on both ends.
"Everyone needs a sufficient level of resources to be healthy and to participate in their society with dignity, but we also need to ensure global resource use is not so high that we cause climate and ecological breakdown,” Andrew Fanning, lead author and researcher at the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds, said in a statement.
A social and environmental analysis
The researchers at Leeds looked at country performance on a set of 11 social priorities aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – a set of commitments countries agreed in 2015 and that they should deliver by 2030. Some of the indicators included access to energy, democratic quality, and life expectancy, among others.
Simultaneously, the study assessed whether countries were functioning within six planetary boundaries, including land-system change, climate change, and fertilizer use. The concept of planetary boundaries was introduced in 2009 by the Stockholm Resilience Center as a way to define a “safe operating space for humanity” and it's essentially a way of measuring how sustainably we are living based on the planet's resource boundaries.
The researchers then projected trends for the social and environmental indicators of each country to 2050, mapping their performance on a yearly basis. This showed that in recent decades not a single country achieved a minimum social foundation without exceeding the planetary boundaries. And they are not on track to do so in the future.
Costa Rica was the country that performed the best, transforming natural resources into social improvements more efficiently – although it still overshoots half of the planetary boundaries. The Central American country is well known for its amazing biodiversity and overall appreciation of nature, incorporated in government policies.
“These latest results indicate that an unprecedented transformation is needed in all nations,” Dan O’Neill, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “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.”
The study was published in the journal Nature Sustainability.