Living well, within planetary boundaries

No country currently meets the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use. If all people are to lead a good life within planetary boundaries, then radical changes to physical and social provisioning systems are required.

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Feb 05, 2018
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By Daniel O'Neill, Andrew Fanning, William Lamb, and Julia Steinberger

The paper in Nature Sustainability is here:

We started working on this project over two years ago, in the summer of 2015.  Our idea at the time seemed quite simple — to combine work on the relationships between resource use and human well-being with the emerging science of planetary boundaries.  We wanted to understand what level of resource use was associated with achieving a “good life”, and how this compared to what was environmentally sustainable. 

When we started this work, we were certain we’d find that most wealthy countries, like the UK, Canada, and the US, would be doing well on the social indicators, but poorly on the environmental ones.  However, we thought we might also find some other countries, hidden away in the data, who we could hold up as examples of sustainability — countries where people’s basic needs were being met, but at a level of resource that was globally sustainable.

When we finished the analysis, which included 11 social indicators linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and 7 environmental indicators linked to the planetary boundaries framework, the results were clear — but depressing.  Of the 151 countries we analysed, no country achieved the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use.  In general, the better that countries did on the social indicators, the worse they did on the environmental ones.  The closest thing we found to an exception was Vietnam, which only transgressed one biophysical boundary (CO2 emissions) while achieving 6 of the 11 social thresholds (see below).

The thresholds that we chose to represent a good life were far from affluent — a life satisfaction score of 6.5 out of 10, living 65 years in good health, the elimination of poverty below the $1.90 a day line, and so on.  Nevertheless we found that the universal achievement of these goals would push humanity past multiple planetary boundaries, based on current relationships.  CO2 emissions were the toughest boundary to stay within, while freshwater use was the easiest (ignoring issues of local water scarcity).  Physical needs like nutrition and sanitation could likely be met for 7 billion people, but more aspirational goals like secondary education were surprisingly coupled to resource use. 

We learned a lot from simply exploring the data and comparing different countries. To enable others to do the same, we have developed an interactive website, which we would encourage you to explore at  It allows you to generate “doughnut” plots (similar to the one for Vietnam) for all of the countries that we analysed.  It also allows you to change the values that we chose for a “good life”, and see what your choices would mean for sustainability if they were extended to all people.

For us, the next step now is to develop a better understanding of the social and physical provisioning systems that mediate the relationship between resource use and human well-being.  We hope that by better understanding these systems, we can identify ways to reduce resource use while maintaining (or even improving) human well-being.  The challenge is substantial, however, as we must become two to six times more efficient at transforming resource use into human well-being if all people are to live well within planetary boundaries.

Go to the profile of Daniel O'Neill

Daniel O'Neill

Lecturer in Ecological Economics, University of Leeds

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