Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations


Previous research has shown that no country currently meets the basic needs of its residents at a level of resource use that could be sustainably extended to all people globally. Using the doughnut-shaped ‘safe and just space’ framework, we analyse the historical dynamics of 11 social indicators and 6 biophysical indicators across more than 140 countries from 1992 to 2015. We find that countries tend to transgress biophysical boundaries faster than they achieve social thresholds. The number of countries overshooting biophysical boundaries increased over the period from 32–55% to 50–66%, depending on the indicator. At the same time, the number of countries achieving social thresholds increased for five social indicators (in particular life expectancy and educational enrolment), decreased for two indicators (social support and equality) and showed little change for the remaining four indicators. We also calculate ‘business-as-usual’ projections to 2050, which suggest deep transformations are needed to safeguard human and planetary health. Current trends will only deepen the ecological crisis while failing to eliminate social shortfalls.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Global performance relative to the doughnut’s safe and just space, on the basis of the biophysical boundaries and social thresholds measured in this study.
Fig. 2: Number of social thresholds achieved versus number of biophysical boundaries transgressed by countries over time, 1992–2015.
Fig. 3: Extent of shortfall below the social foundation versus extent of overshoot beyond the ecological ceiling across countries, 1992–2015.
Fig. 4: Historical trends (1992–2015) and projected business-as-usual trends (2016–2050) in country performance with respect to biophysical boundaries and social thresholds.
Fig. 5: National performance relative to a safe and just space for three countries in 1992 and 2015 and with projections for 2050 based on business-as-usual trends for each social and biophysical indicator.

Data availability

The data produced in the analysis are included in the Supplementary Information accompanying this article. The data are also available via an interactive website (, which allows users to query the dataset, generate visualizations and produce doughnut plots similar to Fig. 5 for all countries.

Code availability

The R code used to generate the results is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


  1. Raworth, K. A Doughnut for the Anthropocene: humanity’s compass in the 21st century. Lancet Planet. Health 1, e48–e49 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., Lamb, W. F. & Steinberger, J. K. A good life for all within planetary boundaries. Nat. Sustain. 1, 88–95 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Rockström, J. et al. Identifying a safe and just corridor for people and the planet. Earth’s Future 9, e2020EF001866 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UNGA, 2015);

  6. Raworth, K. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (Random House Business, 2017).

  7. Hoornweg, D., Hosseini, M., Kennedy, C. & Behdadi, A. An urban approach to planetary boundaries. Ambio 45, 567–580 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Fanning, A. L. et al. Creating City Portraits: A Methodological Guide from the Thriving Cities Initiative (Thriving Cities Initiative, 2020);

  9. Cooper, G. S. & Dearing, J. A. Modelling future safe and just operating spaces in regional social-ecological systems. Sci. Total Environ. 651, 2105–2117 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Turner, R. et al. Towards a Sustainable Cornwall: State of the Doughnut (Environment and Sustainability Institute, 2020);

  11. Cole, M. J., Bailey, R. M. & New, M. G. Tracking sustainable development with a national barometer for South Africa using a downscaled “safe and just space” framework. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, E4399–E4408 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Roy, A. & Pramanick, K. in Handbook of Environmental Materials Management (ed. Hussain, C. M.) 1–32 (Springer, 2020);

  13. Lamb, W. F. et al. Transitions in pathways of human development and carbon emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 014011 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Fanning, A. L. & O’Neill, D. W. The wellbeing–consumption paradox: happiness, health, income, and carbon emissions in growing versus non-growing economies. J. Clean. Prod. 212, 810–821 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Oswald, Y., Owen, A. & Steinberger, J. K. Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories. Nat. Energy 5, 231–239 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Vogel, J., Steinberger, J. K., O’Neill, D. W., Lamb, W. F. & Krishnakumar, J. Socio-economic conditions for satisfying human needs at low energy use: an international analysis of social provisioning. Glob. Environ. Change (2021).

  17. Baltruszewicz, M. et al. Household final energy footprints in Nepal, Vietnam and Zambia: composition, inequality and links to well-being. Environ. Res. Lett. 16, 025011 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Wackernagel, M., Hanscom, L. & Lin, D. Making the sustainable development goals consistent with sustainability. Front. Energy Res. 5, 18 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Knight, K. W. & Rosa, E. A. The environmental efficiency of well-being: a cross-national analysis. Soc. Sci. Res. 40, 931–949 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Abdallah, S., Thompson, S., Michaelson, J., Marks, N. & Steuer, N. The Happy Planet Index 2.0: Why Good Lives Don’t Have to Cost the Earth (New Economics Foundation, 2009);

  21. Steinberger, J. K., Lamb, W. F. & Sakai, M. Your money or your life? The carbon–development paradox. Environ. Res. Lett. 15, 044016 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Randers, J. et al. Achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals within 9 planetary boundaries. Glob. Sustain. 2, e24 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Riahi, K. et al. The shared socioeconomic pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: an overview. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 153–168 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. D’Alessandro, S., Cieplinski, A., Distefano, T. & Dittmer, K. Feasible alternatives to green growth. Nat. Sustain. 3, 329–335 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Millward-Hopkins, J., Steinberger, J. K., Rao, N. D. & Oswald, Y. Providing decent living with minimum energy: a global scenario. Glob. Environ. Change 65, 102168 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Rao, N. D., Min, J. & Mastrucci, A. Energy requirements for decent living in India, Brazil and South Africa. Nat. Energy 4, 1025–1032 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Gough, I. Defining floors and ceilings: the contribution of human needs theory. Sustain. Sci. Pract. Policy 16, 208–219 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Wiedmann, T., Lenzen, M., Keyßer, L. T. & Steinberger, J. K. Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nat. Commun. 11, 3107 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Oswald, Y., Steinberger, J. K., Ivanova, D. & Millward-Hopkins, J. Global redistribution of income and household energy footprints: a computational thought experiment. Glob. Sustain. 4, e4 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Brand-Correa, L. I., Mattioli, G., Lamb, W. F. & Steinberger, J. K. Understanding (and tackling) need satisfier escalation. Sustain. Sci. Pract. Policy 16, 309–325 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Ritchie, H. & Roser, M. Water Use and Stress (Our World in Data, 2017).

  32. Hickel, J. Is it possible to achieve a good life for all within planetary boundaries? Third World Q. 40, 18–35 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Bouwman, A. F. et al. Lessons from temporal and spatial patterns in global use of N and P fertilizer on cropland. Sci. Rep. 7, 40366 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Hoegh-Guldberg, O. et al. in Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) Ch. 3 (IPCC, WMO, 2018).

  35. Wackernagel, M. et al. The importance of resource security for poverty eradication. Nat. Sustain. (2021).

  36. Whitmee, S. et al. Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health. Lancet 386, 1973–2028 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Steffen, W. et al. Trajectories of the Earth system in the Anthropocene. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 8252–8259 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. Roberts, J. T. et al. Four agendas for research and policy on emissions mitigation and well-being. Glob. Sustain. 3, e3 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Hickel, J. & Kallis, G. Is green growth possible? New Polit. Econ. 25, 469–486 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Stratford, B. & O’Neill, D. W. The UK’s Path to a Doughnut-Shaped Recovery (Univ. Leeds, 2020);

  41. Hickel, J. Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (Penguin, 2021).

  42. Pirgmaier, E. & Steinberger, J. K. Roots, riots, and radical change—a road less travelled for ecological economics. Sustainability 11, 2001 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Stratford, B. The threat of rent extraction in a resource-constrained future. Ecol. Econ. 169, 106524 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Fanning, A. L., O’Neill, D. W. & Büchs, M. Provisioning systems for a good life within planetary boundaries. Glob. Environ. Change 64, 102135 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Hickel, J., Sullivan, D. & Zoomkawala, H. Plunder in the post-colonial era: quantifying drain from the global south through unequal exchange, 1960–2018. New Polit. Econ. (2021).

  46. Willett, W. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 393, 447–492 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Sachs, J. D. et al. Six transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Nat. Sustain. 2, 805–814 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Kallis, G. et al. Research on degrowth. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 43, 291–316 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Jackson, T. The post-growth challenge: secular stagnation, inequality and the limits to growth. Ecol. Econ. 156, 236–246 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Hardt, L. & O’Neill, D. W. Ecological macroeconomic models: assessing current developments. Ecol. Econ. 134, 198–211 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Daly, H. E. Toward a Steady-State Economy (W. H. Freeman, 1973).

  52. Doyal, L. & Gough, I. A Theory of Human Need (Red Globe Press, 1991).

  53. Gough, I. Universal basic services: a theoretical and moral framework. Polit. Q. 90, 534–542 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Mattioli, G., Roberts, C., Steinberger, J. K. & Brown, A. The political economy of car dependence: a systems of provision approach. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 66, 101486 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Lenzen, M., Moran, D., Kanemoto, K. & Geschke, A. Building Eora: a global multi-region input–output database at high country and sector resolution. Econ. Syst. Res. 25, 20–49 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Lucas, P. L., Wilting, H. C., Hof, A. F. & van Vuuren, D. P. Allocating planetary boundaries to large economies: distributional consequences of alternative perspectives on distributive fairness. Glob. Environ. Change 60, 102017 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Wugt Larsen, F. & Lung, T. Is Europe Living Within the Limits of Our Planet? Report No. 01/2020 (EEA, 2020);

  58. Hickel, J. Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. Lancet Planet. Health 4, e399–e404 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. World Population Prospects 2019 (UN Population Division, 2020);

  60. Oita, A. et al. Substantial nitrogen pollution embedded in international trade. Nat. Geosci. 9, 111–115 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  61. Roux, N., Kastner, T., Erb, K.-H. & Haberl, H. Does agricultural trade reduce pressure on land ecosystems? Decomposing drivers of the embodied human appropriation of net primary production. Ecol. Econ. 181, 106915 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Galli, A. et al. Questioning the ecological footprint. Ecol. Indic. 69, 224–232 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Dearing, J. A. et al. Safe and just operating spaces for regional social–ecological systems. Glob. Environ. Change 28, 227–238 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Edward, P. & Sumner, A. in Sustainable Development Goals and Income Inequality (eds van Bergeijk, P. A. G. & van der Hoeven, R.) Ch 5 (Edward Elgar, 2017).

  65. Reddy, S. G. & Pogge, T. How Not to Count the Poor (Inititative for Policy Dialogue, 2009);

  66. Allen, R. C. Poverty and the labor market: today and yesterday. Annu. Rev. Econ. 12, 107–134 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Moatsos, M. Global absolute poverty: behind the veil of dollars. J. Glob. Devel. 7, 20160033 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  68. Allen, R. C. Absolute poverty: when necessity displaces desire. Am. Econ. Rev. 107, 3690–3721 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Ekins, P., Simon, S., Deutsch, L., Folke, C. & De Groot, R. A framework for the practical application of the concepts of critical natural capital and strong sustainability. Ecol. Econ. 44, 165–185 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Hyndman, R. J. & Khandakar, Y. Automatic time series forecasting: the forecast package for R. J. Stat. Softw. (2008).

  71. Hyndman, R. J. & Athanasopoulos, G. Forecasting: Principles and Practice (OTexts, 2019).

  72. Wiedmann, T. & Lenzen, M. Environmental and social footprints of international trade. Nat. Geosci. 11, 314–321 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We are grateful to K. Raworth, J. K. Steinberger and M. Wackernagel for their kind reviews and constructive comments on earlier drafts. A.L.F. was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 752358. N.R. was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 765408. This research was further supported by funding from Research England’s QR Strategic Priorities Fund and an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.L.F. and D.W.O. designed the study. A.L.F. and N.R. assembled the data. A.L.F., D.W.O., J.H. and N.R. performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew L. Fanning.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Luca Coscieme, Kai Fang and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Average number of biophysical boundaries respected and social thresholds achieved per country (1992–2015).

Average values are calculated from the sample of countries with data for all six biophysical indicators, and at least 9 of the 10 social indicators that span the analysis period (N = 91). Ideally, countries would achieve all social thresholds while respecting all biophysical boundaries, as indicated by the “Safe and Just Space” line at the top of the figure.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Average extent of ecological overshoot by country group for each biophysical indicator in two periods.

Country groups as per Figs. 2 and 3 in the main text. If there is no country group bar shown for a given biophysical indicator, then this group has no ecological overshoot in this period.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Average extent of social shortfall by country group for each social indicator in two periods.

Country groups as per Figs. 2 and 3 in the main text. If there is no country group bar shown for a given social indicator, then this group has no social shortfall in this period.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion and Tables 1 and 2.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

This spreadsheet contains the country-level data for the 6 biophysical and 11 social indicators generated in our analysis. The data include historical observations (1992–2015), and business-as-usual (BAU) projections (2016–2050) with 66% upper and lower confidence intervals.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Fanning, A.L., O’Neill, D.W., Hickel, J. et al. The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations. Nat Sustain 5, 26–36 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing