High standards of living for all the world’s inhabitants would require up to six times as many resources as the planet can sustainably provide, a new global study has found.
Basic needs such as adequate food to eat, access to electricity and sanitation could likely be met for the entire world population, researchers at the University of Leeds discovered.
However, achieving the high standards of living of the type enjoyed by people in many Western countries is not feasible.
“It’s also not really possible for the developed world to continue having their standards of living,” said Dr Daniel O'Neill, a sustainability researcher at the University of Leeds who led the study.
Currently, there are no countries that meet the needs of their populations without overusing resources, the study found.
“So really we need to reduce resource use substantially in wealthy nations and at the same time we need to increase resource use in developing countries," Dr Daniel O'Neill said.
The findings were published in the journal Nature Sustainability.
The results suggested that some of the United Nations’ “sustainable development goals” – designed in 2015 to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all” – could undermine each other, the study said.
Pursuing the highest levels of wellbeing for all, for example, could negatively impact efforts to combat climate change.
Dr O'Neill acknowledged that while the results of the study seem disheartening, there are practical steps that developed nations in particular can take to help the world’s population live a “good life” within the planet’s limits.
“We need to take the lead in wealthy countries like the US and the UK, and dramatically begin to reduce our resource use,” he said. “At higher and higher levels of resource use you get less and less ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of the social returns.
In practical terms, this means that resource use in the UK could be decreased significantly with no loss in the wellbeing of the country’s inhabitants, according to Dr O'Neill.
While problems undoubtedly still exist in developed nations, he said they are unlikely to be solved with more resource use. Instead, other measures such as better distribution of income would help those countries.
“We really need to do that if we have any chance of living within planetary boundaries and if we do that then hopefully that frees up ecological space for countries in sub-Saharan Africa where an increase in resource use can considerably improve human wellbeing,” he said.
Achieving life goals that go beyond basic needs for everyone, such as universally high levels of life satisfaction, would require between two and six times the sustainable level of resource use, based humanity’s current relationship with the planet.
The research took into consideration several “planetary boundaries” which, if exceeded, could lead to catastrophic damage.
Previously, earth system scientists have described these boundaries as essential for maintaining the relatively stable conditions the planet has experienced for the past 10,000 years. They define a “safe operating space” in which the Earth can exist.
These boundaries encompass a range of processes including freshwater use and land use, and the researchers noted that some of them – including climate change – are already being exceeded.
By comparing these boundaries to national resource consumption, the scientists established how sustainable the resource use of each of the 151 countries they studied was. They also considered how well met the social needs of those countries’ citizens were.
The results revealed that no country was able to both meet its citizens’ needs and maintain a sustainable level of resource use.
“In general, the more social thresholds a country achieves, the more planetary boundaries it exceeds, and vice versa,” said Dr William Lamb, one of the study’s co-authors from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change.
Dr O'Neill added: “People should feel concerned – the trajectory we are on at the moment is not sustainable, nor really is the trajectory advocated by the sustainable development goals."
However, the researchers suggested that different development pathways could be followed in order to maintain a healthy planet.
They have set up an interactive website to accompany their work, in an effort to "foster discussions about the meaning of a good life for all, and what it would mean for nations to thrive within planetary boundaries".
"Radical changes are needed if all people are to live well within the limits of the planet,” said Dr Julia Steinberger, another of the study’s co-authors. “These include moving beyond the pursuit of economic growth in wealthy nations, shifting rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and significantly reducing inequality.”
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