The US and Europe are responsible for the vast majority of global ecological damage caused by the overuse of natural resources, according to a groundbreaking study.
The paper is the first to analyze and assign responsibility for the ecological damage caused by 160 countries over the last half century.
It finds that the US is the biggest culprit, accounting for 27% of the world’s excess material use, followed by the EU (25%), which included the UK during the analysis period. Other rich countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and Saudi Arabia were collectively responsible for 22%.
While China overshot its sustainability limit to claim 15% of resource overuse, the poorer countries of the global south were en masse responsible for just 8%, the analysis found.
“High-income nations are the primary drivers of global ecological breakdown and they need to urgently reduce their resource use to fair and sustainable levels,” it says.
Because of the ecological debt they owe the rest of the world, “these nations need to take the lead in making radical reductions in their resource use to avoid further degradation, which will likely require transformative post-growth and degrowth approaches,” the study published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health adds.
Its lead author, Prof Jason Hickel of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) in Barcelona, said the findings were dramatic and disturbing.
“We were all shocked by the sheer scale of the high-income nations’ contribution to excess resource use,” he told the Guardian. “We didn’t expect it to be so high. If they are now to achieve sustainable levels, they need to reduce their resource use by about 70% on average from existing levels.”
The evidence suggested that this would require rich countries such as the UK and US “to stop focusing on GDP growth as a primary objective and organize their economies instead around supporting human wellbeing and reducing inequality”, he said.
Hickel and the paper’s other authors distributed fair shares of globally sustainable levels of resource use to countries based on population size. They then subtracted these shares from the countries’ current resource use to determine ecological overshoots in the 1970–2017 period.
Australia led the world in tonnes of overshoot per capita with 29.16, closely followed by Canada on 25.82 and then the US on 23.45.
The research analyzed domestic extraction as well as the materials involved in global trade flows for resources such as fossil fuels, timber, metals, minerals and biomass, using data from the UN’s international resource panel and extrapolated calculations.
Janez Potočnik, the co-chair of the UN panel and a former EU environment commissioner, described the study’s conclusions as “logical and correct”. “High-income countries are the ones really overshooting planetary boundaries,” he said. “They have set the rules of the economic game and the [global] standards and they have to show they are able and ready to lead the way back to sustainability.”
The economist Kate Raworth, a senior associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, said: “A new era in global accountability is opening up, thanks to powerful analyzes like this one. New metrics such as these bring powerful new ethical clarity to longstanding injustices between the global north and global south. The undeniable responsibility of the world’s richest nations for destroying the life-support systems of our planetary home must now be turned into meaningful reparations for those worst affected.”
About 44% of the planet’s nearly 2.5tn tonnes of extracted materials were used by countries that had exceeded their fair share of resource use, the new study said.
Over the same period, 58 countries including India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh stayed within their sustainability limits.
Degrowth strategies could improve people’s lives if they obliged producers to end practices such as built-in obsolescenceexpanded public transit and incentivized repair, recycle and reuse, Hickel said.
Earlier this year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment on climate adaptation cited Hickel and others to contend that such strategies offered “sufficient social transformation to guarantee maintenance and [a] rise in wellbeing coupled with reduced ‘footprints’”.
Another of the report’s authors, Dr Andrew Fanning of the University of Leeds, stressed that “not all people in wealthy nations are equally responsible for ecological breakdown. Besides reducing inequality between countries, reducing our growth dependence also means reducing inequalities of lived experience within them.”
The IPCC’s last report earlier this week said that degrowth pathways may be “crucial” for combining social progress with technically feasible mitigation strategies.
Dr Gemma Cranston, the business and nature director at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, said the degrowth idea had potential but would “require a paradigm shift from the corporate sector and an active transformation of consumption [patterns]”.
“Countries and businesses alike need to go beyond simply reducing our impact and instead follow approaches that are regenerative and restorative,” she said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism