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The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations

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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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1Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK. 2Doughnut Economics Action Lab, Oxford, UK.
3Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain. 4International Inequalities Institute, London
School of Economics, London, UK. 5Institute of Social Ecology, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, University of Natural Resources and Life
Sciences, Vienna, Austria. e-mail:
The doughnut-shaped ‘safe and just space’ framework (also
called the ‘doughnut of social and planetary boundaries’) has
received widespread attention as a holistic tool for envision-
ing human development on a stable and resilient planet1,2. However,
despite the urgent need to define, and move towards, a safe and just
future3, little is known about the pathways of countries over time
with respect to the multi-dimensional social and ecological goals of
the doughnut. This article advances integrated global sustainability
research by assessing whether any countries have lived within the
doughnut in recent decades, or are on track to do so in the future,
on the basis of current trends.
The doughnut combines two core concepts: (1) an ecological
ceiling that avoids critical planetary degradation, which is informed
by the planetary boundaries framework for Earth-system stability4;
and (2) a sufficient social foundation that avoids critical human
deprivation, which is closely aligned with the 12 social priorities of
the Sustainable Development Goals5. The doughnut visualizes the
goal of meeting the needs of all people within the means of the liv-
ing planet6.
Empirical research that combines social and biophysical indica-
tors in the doughnut framework is maturing, and the framework
has been applied to evaluate the performance of cities7,8, regions9,10,
countries2,11,12 and the world as a whole1,6. In general, places that do
well in terms of social achievement use resources at unsustainable
levels, while places that use resources sustainably do not reach a suf-
ficient social foundation2.
A large body of empirical research finds diminishing returns in
social performance as resource use increases, and this finding holds
across different social indicators or baskets of indicators, such as life
satisfaction, life expectancy or composite indices, together with CO2
emissions13,14, energy use1517, ecological footprint1820 and others2,21.
Modellers have described the impact on planetary boundaries of
achieving the Sustainable Development Goals22, the socioeconomic
effects of CO2 mitigation pathways23,24 and the energy requirements
of meeting a set of basic needs25,26. However, these studies either
do not disaggregate from the global to the national scale or do not
include multiple planetary boundaries and social indicators. To
date, O’Neill et al.2 provide the only global cross-national analysis of
the level of resource use associated with achieving minimum social
thresholds using the safe and just space framework, but their study
is limited to a single year.
There is an emerging view that achieving social thresholds with-
out overshooting biophysical boundaries requires a dual focus on
curbing excessive affluence and consumption by the rich while avoid-
ing critical human deprivation among the least well off2729. A better
understanding of country trajectories with respect to the doughnut
could provide insights into the type of action needed to transform
unsustainable systems of social and technical provisioning30.
Biophysical boundaries and social thresholds
We gathered historical data from 1992 to 2015 and analysed national
performance on 6 consumption-based environmental indicators
(relative to downscaled biophysical boundaries) and 11 social indi-
cators (relative to social thresholds) for over 140 countries (Table 1).
We also used these data to estimate dynamic statistical forecasting
models within each country, which act as empirical constraints on
a simple ‘business-as-usual’ projection of current trends for each
social and biophysical indicator, out to the year 2050.
The 11 social indicators include 2 measures of human well-being
(self-reported life satisfaction and life expectancy) and 9 need satis-
fiers (nutrition, sanitation, income poverty, access to energy, educa-
tion, social support, democratic quality, equality and employment).
To assess social performance over time, we compared these indica-
tors with the minimum threshold values identified by O’Neill et al.2,
with some adjustments and caveats (Table 1 and Methods). Since
the social support indicator series does not begin until 2005, only
ten indicators were considered in total for cross-national compari-
sons over the 1992–2015 analysis period.
The social shortfall and ecological overshoot
of nations
Andrew L. Fanning 1,2 ✉ , Daniel W. O’Neill 1, Jason Hickel3,4 and Nicolas Roux 5
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 indica-
tor. 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 transforma-
tions 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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... Therefore, the existing inequitable resource allocation mechanism serves as the main obstacle to sustainable development, and a fundamental institutional change is needed. Fanning et al. 16 expanded the research period to 1992-2015 and examined the historical dynamics of the same 11 indicators. The results reveal an overall positive trend, with the number of countries reaching the thresholds increasing for five socio-economic indicators, decreasing for two, and remaining relatively stable for the remaining four. ...
... Please refer to the research conducted by Cole et al. 5 , Dearing et al. 12 , Hoornweg et al. 17 , and O'Neill et al. 6 . The work of Fanning et al. 16 is excluded because they use the same indicator system as O'Neill et al. 6 (both studies share the same group of main contributors). methods for determining these thresholds: commonly accepted rules, accumulated experience, reference to typical samples, and desired targets set by the government. ...
... Third, concerning sample reference, O'Neill et al. 6 used the UK and the US as reference samples and set a threshold of 0.8 for the Voice indicator. Fanning et al. 16 followed a similar approach and further rescaled the values to 0-10. Lastly, certain thresholds proposed by Cole et al. 5 align with the standards of the Reconstruction and Development Programme 20 , a policy framework implemented by the South African government. ...
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This study constructs a downscaled “safe and just space” framework consisting of 13 processes to evaluate China’s sustainability status of socio-economic sphere in 2020, with a focus on the impact of COVID-19. To minimize subjectivity in threshold setting, the study adopts the expected targets outlined in the national and sectorial official documents of China’s 13 th Five-Year Plan. The results show that while overall employment and income have achieved satisfactory thresholds without deprivation, issues such as youth unemployment and wealth disparity have deteriorated. Social inequality and lack of trust remain prevalent despite high levels of self-reported life satisfaction. Developed areas exhibit a significantly higher average life expectancy than developing areas do, and gender imbalance persists as a chronic issue. The severity of energy deprivation compared with water is highlighted. In addition, this study confirms the validity of Hu Huanyong Line in dividing the spatial pattern of socio-economic sustainability status in China, as all the provinces meeting more than eight thresholds are located in the eastern part of the country. Based on these findings, the interactions between the socio-economic processes as well as their resilient behaviors to climate change under the COVID-19 impact are discussed. Finally, the study suggests future research directions to enhance the theoretical and methodological defects of the framework.
... Although a considerable attention has been linked to the emissions increase rates in each country, Fanning et al., (2022) suggest a more holistic approach to assess the ecological overshoot of nations. Again, Qatar and UAE topped the list in CO2 Emissions but interestingly also based on ecological footprint and UAE was the second highest worldwide material footprint after Singapore. ...
... Figure 3: Upper: World crude oil exports from GCC states as reported by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC,, Bottom: UAE Biophysical indicators indicating the overshoot of resources as calculated by Fanning et al., (2022) Little is known regarding the ecological degradation due to the booming GCC states development in the last decade (Afzal et al., 2022). For example, the impacts of coastal development in the UAE have not been widely independently assessed. ...
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The 2023 Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP28) will be hosted in one of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in November-December 2023. Having accelerated its signing of the Paris Agreement as the first Gulf nation to sign in 2016, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) wanted to establish itself as an international leader in sustainability. Moreover, diversifying its economy and making unprecedented investments in renewable energy and public transportation were the main pillars of UAE's strategies to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A review of the general vision which determines the paths of approved plans of the GCC states and UAE will be provided by this paper, followed by some comparisons to identify where disagreements and similarities are evident. In addition, we will explore the possibility of bias in climate change studies funded by the governments of the Gulf region. Moreover, we will investigate the contributions of the various rarely explored sectors and evaluate the convergence of policies announced with the sources of emissions. Importantly, we will explore the centralization of oil production in the UAE plans and the seriousness of energy transformation compared to countries with huge reserves outside the region like Norway. On the other hand, the share of the marine shipping sector may reach 20% of emissions by 2050, so we will try to engage with the challenges facing the sector under the consequences of climate change. The GCC states considered the oil production sector as non-negotiable, so in return, huge procedures and pledges are paid in adaptation plans to enhance environmental health and finance renewable energy plans for poor countries with a focus on the UAE as the host for COP28. These highly supported technologies basically included carbon capture utilization and storage technologies, supporting the cultivation of trees (and mangroves) inside and outside the region, and prioritizing green hydrogen investments. We will conclude by showing how GCC states must take serious actions to prioritize preserving a sustainable environment in the Gulf region along with burgeoning green investments.
... Some might profoundly disagree with the analysis presented here because it does not explicitly recognize that global development is in "overshoot" if we do not stop climate change and other ecological crises immediately 95 . These critics point to the dire projections in RCP 8.5, the findings of recent IPCC and IPBES reports that highlight how human development is fundamentally changing the planet in permanent ways, and that humans are toying with natural systems in ways that are, at the very least, incredibly risky and, at worse, immoral and negligent. ...
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Degrowth advocates argue for structural transformations in how economies and societies prioritize material wealth accumulation to reduce the negative effects of future anthropogenic climate change. Degrowth proponents argue that human economic activity could be lessened, and societies transformed to prioritize improved wellbeing, reducing the threat of climate change. This paper explores implications of alternative patterns of economic growth with transformational policy pathways (i.e., redistribution) to assess what effects economic growth and broader policies have on changing patterns of human development across both the Global North and South. Using the International Futures model, this article shows that negative growth and societal transformations in the Global North are possible without dramatically damaging long-term global socioeconomic development, though these interventions do not solve the global climate crisis, reducing future cumulative carbon emissions by 10.5% through 2100. On the other hand, a global negative growth scenario will significantly reduce future cumulative carbon emissions (45%) but also dramatically undermines the pursuit of global development goals, like the elimination of poverty. Even with global policies that significantly increase cash transfers to the poor and retired, dramatically improve income inequality, and eliminate military spending, the Global Negative Growth Big Push scenario leads to an increase of 15 percentage points in global extreme poverty by 2100.
... The following social indicators are used in their research: life satisfaction, healthy life expectancy, nutrition, sanitation, income, access to energy and education (see Table 4.6). The Doughnut model confirms that the boundaries of Social foundations of sustainable development are usually exceeded by low-income countries, and the ecological ceiling is overshot usually by highly developed countries (Fanning et al., 2022). ...
This chapter contrasts Communities Economies with Growthism, two radically different approaches of value creation and ways to organize economic activities. Growthism drives the institutionalization of privately appropriable rents and profit generating arrangements, often with little regard to ecological sustainability and genuine human needs. In this context emerge organizations and networks as vehicles of collective self-defence applying the principles and models of Community Economies. These principles and models are illustrated by two case studies: Health in Harmony is an international non governmental organization (NGO) operating health clinics in Indonesia, Brazil, and Madagascar with the aim to save rainforests by helping local villagers to adopt livelihoods not dependent on illegal logging; and Sustainable Food Network, a hypothetical system of consisting real-world organizations aiming to produce food through ecologically sustainable and socially just methods. Community Economies arrangements favour the provisioning of genuine social needs instead of profit making, prefer resource sharing over commodification and enclosures, allow other-than-monetary ways for human interactions, cultivate participatory practices based on flat hierarchical relationships, strive for material sufficiency, seek nonviolent technological solutions, and prefer common property ownership design. Community Economies are autonomy supporting social arrangements, characterized by providing opportunities to meaningfully contribute to the betterment of the individual or the household through the betterment of the community; in these environments people can experience and practise a wide range of prosocial activities.
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In order to address global environmental challenges many currently dominant societal ideas, institutions and practices related to the natural environment, science, technology and innovation need to be fundamentally rethought. Drawing on the recent Deep Transitions framework, this paper focuses on whether such shifts in the fabric of industrial societies can be detected during the past 120 years. Combining the text mining of newspapers with data from existing databases, we present empirical evidence on nine pervasive and durable traits of industrial societies from five G20 countries. We detect a sea-change in environmental discourse from the 1960s and an institutional rupture from the 1980s, but only a minor shift in practices. In contrast, technoscientific institutions have changed far less, whereas techno-optimist discourse has resurged in recent decades. In addition to alleviating environmental problems, we suggest that more attention should be turned to rethinking many societally dominant assumptions about science and technology.
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Non-technical summary Global income inequality and energy consumption inequality are related. High-income households consume more energy than low-income ones, and for different purposes. Here, we explore the global household energy consumption implications of global income redistribution. We show that global income inequality shapes not only inequalities of energy consumption but the quantity and composition of overall energy demand. Our results call for the inclusion of income distribution into energy system models, as well as into energy and climate policy. Technical summary Despite a rapidly growing number of studies on the relationship between inequality and energy, there is little research estimating the effect of income redistribution on energy demand. We contribute to this debate by proposing a simple but granular and data-driven model of the global income distribution and of global household energy consumption. We isolate the effect of income distribution on household energy consumption and move beyond the assumption of aggregate income–energy elasticities. First, we model expenditure as a function of income. Second, we determine budget shares of expenditure for a variety of products and services by employing product-granular income elasticities of demand. Subsequently, we apply consumption-based final energy intensities to product and services to obtain energy footprint accounts. Testing variants of the global income distribution, we find that the ‘energy costs’ of equity are small. Equitable and inequitable distributions of income, however, entail distinct structural change in energy system terms. In an equitable world, fewer people live in energy poverty and more energy is consumed for subsistence and necessities, instead of luxury and transport. Social media summary Equality in global income shifts household energy footprints towards subsistence, while inequality shifts them towards transport and luxury.
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Technical Report
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The report details the development of a conceptual framework, based upon the doughnut economics model of Kate Raworth (2012), that employs multiple indicators in order to establish an integrated assessment method for monitoring social and ecological conditions in Cornwall towards agreed strategic priorities.
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Contemporary consumption patterns, embedded in profit-maximizing economic systems, are driving a worsening socio-ecological crisis, in particular through the escalating production and consumption of goods with high material and/or energy intensity. Establishing minimum and maximum standards of consumption (or "consumption corridors") has been suggested as a way to address this crisis. Consumption corridors provide the normative basis for sustainable consumption, that is, enough consumption for individuals to satisfy needs, but not too much to collectively surpass environmental limits. Current consumption patterns (especially in the global North) do not yet fall within consumption corridors, and standards are not fixed over time. Consumption is socially constructed and can escalate due to socioeconomic , technological, or infrastructural influences. In this article, we propose a framework to understand such escalating trends. This approach can be used as a tool for comprehending how consumption evolves over time, as well as for identifying the most effective leverage points to intervene and prevent escalation from happening in the first place. We build on theories of human-need satisfaction and combine these conceptual understandings with insights from research on socio-technical provisioning systems, sociological approaches to consumption, and perspectives on infrastructure lock-in. We illustrate our framework by systemically considering escalation for a specific technological product-the private car.
The “Doughnut” of social and planetary boundaries is a framework for guiding and evaluating policy, where the goal is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. This policy brief considers what it would take to use the “Doughnut” instead of GDP growth to guide our Covid-19 recovery.