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.

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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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D.W.O. designed the study. D.W.O., A.L.F, W.F.L. and J.K.S. assembled the data, performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel W. O’Neill.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    The theoretical framework (text), Supplementary References 1–92, Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–5.

  2. Supplementary Data

    Country-level data for the 7 biophysical and 11 social indicators analysed in the Article.

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