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The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations

Abstract

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.

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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 (https://goodlife.leeds.ac.uk), 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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Authors

Contributions

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.

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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.

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Fanning, A.L., O’Neill, D.W., Hickel, J. et al. The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations. Nat Sustain (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00799-z

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