Study says if all people are to lead a good life within the planet’s limit then we need to shift rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and significantly reduce inequality

Co-author Dr Julia Steinberger, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said “Radical changes are needed if all people are to live well within the limits of the planet. These include moving beyond the pursuit of economic growth in wealthy nations, shifting rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and significantly reducing inequality.

“Our physical infrastructure and the way we distribute resources are both part of what we call provisioning systems. If all people are to lead a good life within the planet’s limits then these provisioning systems need to be fundamentally restructured to allow for basic needs to be met at a much lower level of resource use.”

Materials provided by University of LeedsNote: Content may be edited for style and length. 

Daniel W. O’Neill, Andrew L. Fanning, William F. Lamb, Julia K. Steinberger. A good life for all within planetary boundariesNature Sustainability, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0021-4

Humanity faces the challenge of how to achieve a high quality of life for over 7 billion people without destabilizing critical planetary processes. Using indicators designed to measure a ‘safe and just’ development space, we quantify the resource use associated with meeting basic human needs, and compare this to downscaled planetary boundaries for over 150 nations. We find that no country meets basic needs for its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use. Physical needs such as nutrition, sanitation, access to electricity and the elimination of extreme poverty could likely be met for all people without transgressing planetary boundaries. However, the universal achievement of more qualitative goals (for example, high life satisfaction) would require a level of resource use that is 2–6 times the sustainable level, based on current relationships. Strategies to improve physical and social provisioning systems, with a focus on sufficiency and equity, have the potential to move nations towards sustainability, but the challenge remains substantial.

The study scored countries on 11 social objectives established in previous research on what it would mean for countries to develop in “safe and just” way.  The objectives included healthy life expectancy, access to energy, and democratic quality among others.

The study benchmarked each country’s resource use against the planetary boundaries, and mapped these alongside the social indicators. The mapping showed no country performed well on both the planetary and social thresholds.

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We thank T. Kastner for providing the eHANPP data used in the analysis, and H. Haberl for his thoughts on the eHANPP results. We are grateful to A. Gouldson, K. Raworth and P. Victor for their helpful comments, and the Barcelona Degrowth Reading Group for further suggestions. D.W.O. was supported by an International Academic Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, which permitted research visits at the Centre for Global Studies (University of Victoria) and Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). A.L.F. was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 752358, while J.K.S. was supported by a Leverhulme Research Leadership Award on ‘Living Well Within Limits’.

Author information


  1. Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

    • Daniel W. O’Neill
    • , Andrew L. Fanning
    •  & Julia K. Steinberger
  2. Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), Berlin, Germany

    • William F. Lamb
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