No country in the world has achieved minimum social requirements in the past three decades without overshooting planetary boundaries. This was found out by a team led by the Sustainability Research Institute in Leeds, and with the participation of COUPLED Fellow Nicolas Roux. Their results go even further: by 2050, no country is on track to meet basic social needs within their fair shares of resources.

Richer countries consume significantly more resources than their fair share (measured in terms of population), while poorer countries do not achieve minimum social thresholds or achieve them too slowly, according to the researchers. The team examined a total of 148 countries. In focus: eleven basic social needs, including nutrition, life expectancy, income or democratic quality, as well as seven resource-related factors such as CO2 emissions, material consumption or the intensity of land use. The study measures and compares for the first time how well individual countries manage to meet people’s basic needs and act sustainably.

Wealthy countries need to degrow

“Countries like with the USA, UK or Germany are meeting almost all basic social needs, which is very desirable, but at the same time largely exceeding their fair share of nearly all planetary resources due to their high consumption,” explains Nicolas Roux from the institute of social ecology at BOKU Vienna. For example, Germany’s consumption causes twice as much environmental damage as what its fair share of global resources would allow. And that since the beginning of the 90s, if not longer.

Ecological overshoot faster than social improvements

From a global perspective, most countries have been able to improve their basic social services overall over the past thirty years. “Worryingly, we found that countries tend to overshoot fair shares of planetary boundaries faster than they achieve minimum social thresholds.” Said the lead Author Dr. Andrew Fanning from the Sustainability Research Institute in Leeds and the Donut Economics Action Lab in Oxford. Richer countries should drastically reduce their resource consumption in order to avoid a critical destruction of the planet, while poorer countries should accelerate their social performance quickly in order to eliminate critical human deprivation. Co-author Dr. Jason Hickel 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.” Costa Rica has been leading the way, by consistently transforming resources into social achievement more efficiently than any other country. But it still follows the general trend of increasing ecological overshoot, and is on track to overshoot 4 boundaries by 2050, based on historical trends.

Economic systems have to change

“Everyone needs sufficient resources to be healthy and to participate in society with dignity, but we also have to ensure that global resource consumption is not so high that we cause climate and environmental degradation,” so Fanning. This transition can hardly be achieved through technological approaches to improve resource efficiency alone. Wealthy countries must go beyond the pursuit of economic growth as a national goal and instead pursue policies that improve human well-being as well as directly reduce resource consumption, explains Fanning. Further development as before is not an option. The results show that economic systems need to be rethought – away from infinite growth paradigms, towards less consumption and more global justice.

“Our results suggest that the neoliberal policies that have been imposed on the global South over the past four decades have failed to deliver meaningful outcomes. The existing approach mobilises Southern resources to serve the interests of foreign investors, when what is needed is to focus instead on meeting human needs directly. Our existing economic system uses resources to support elite consumption and corporate interests rather than to meet basic needs. That urgently needs to change.” so Hickel’s conclusions.


The study is currently published in the journal Nature Sustainability:


Information on all 148 countries can be found here:

The author

Nicolas Roux


 Institute of Social Ecology, BOKU Vienna
Schottenfeldgasse 29, 1070 Wien, Austria

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