Can we live well and sustainably?

09 February 2018
Posted by Lewis Thomson.

A new study has found that no country meets the needs of its people in an environmentally sustainable way, begging the question: is this even possible?

In October 2011, the world’s population hit seven billion: double the number of people on Earth just 50 years before. While some chose to celebrate this monumental occasion, others warned that this spelt disaster for the planet. As the human population continues to grow, the world’s resources are being used up and climate change is accelerating – with knock-on effects on human well-being.

Cape Town, in South Africa, recently announced a plan to turn off the water supply to one million inhabitants, as recent droughts combined with a growing population mean that current water usage is unsustainable. And with the world’s population expected to reach almost ten billion by 2050, many fear that extreme measures like this will become the norm all over the world.

Now, a recent study from the University of Leeds has collected data from 151 countries in order to ask the question: which countries are meeting the needs of their people in a sustainable way?

The scientists looked at 7 environmental factors - like CO2 emissions and freshwater use – and 11 social wellbeing indicators – like nutrition, sanitation, education and life satisfaction.

For the environmental factors, they took advised planetary limits and down-scaled these for each country, based on population size. They then compared this to the actual resource use of each country, to determine how many of its environmental limits each country was living within. For the social wellbeing indicators, the scientists set thresholds of what would it would mean for a country to be meeting its people’s needs. With sanitation, for example, 95% of people should have access to sanitation facilities for a country to meet that need.

“Our results were a little bit depressing,” explains lead researcher Daniel O’Neill. “We thought that there would be some countries that were doing well on the social indicators, and doing so at a level of resource use that was globally sustainable. But we didn’t find any country in the world that was doing well on both social and environmental indicators.”

The United Kingdom, for example, met 8 out 11 social needs but exceeded 5 out 7 environmental limits. The United States met 9 out of 11 social needs but exceeded all 7 environmental limits. At the other end of the spectrum, Bangladesh didn’t exceed any environmental limits, but only met 1 out 11 social needs.

O’Neill believes that part of the problem is that richer countries focus too much on economic growth, which inevitably requires increased resource use. Instead, these countries should focus on how to improve equality.

“As we increase resource use in the UK we find that it really doesn’t improve people’s wellbeing – we’ve passed the turning point,” explains O’Neill. “This means that we could reduce resource use significantly with no loss in human wellbeing. And this is something we need to do because many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are on the other side of this turning point. So a small increase in resource use there would lead to a large increase in human well-being.”

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