High-income countries are responsible for 74 percent of excess resource use causing ecological breakdown

The transition to sustainable levels of resource use will probably require transforming our economies
- Jason Hickel
Looking up to sky through trees. Gennaro Leonardi on Pixabay

High-income countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, bear the overwhelming responsibility for global ecological breakdown and need to urgently scale down their use of natural resources by over 70 per cent to achieve a sustainable level of consumption, according to a new analysis published in the journal, The Lancet Planetary Health.

In the paper, researchers analyse 160 countries and quantify, for the first time, how much responsibility each country bears for the ecological damage caused by excess use of materials -  such as metals, minerals, fossil fuels and biomass -  between 1970 and 2017.

The country-level findings of resource use, with respect to fair shares, are available through an interactive website built by the research team.

The analysis is based on the concept that the planet’s resources and ecosystems are a commons – a natural shared wealth –  and that all people are entitled to a fair share within sustainable levels.

The researchers calculated each country’s "fair share" of resource use according to its population as a share of the global population.   

They found that high-income countries, which represent only 16 per cent of the world’s population, are responsible for 74 per cent of cumulative excess resource use worldwide. It was primarily the USA and the European Union – including the UK over the time span looked at - which over-consumed materials. They are responsible for 27 and 25 per cent of global damages, respectively.

China is responsible for 15 per cent of global excess material use and the rest of the Global South – the low-income countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Asia – is responsible for only eight per cent.

The overuse of these materials in higher income countries is driven disproportionately by the use of materials such as metals and minerals and fossil fuels, whereas in low-income nations it is driven by the use of biomass for crops and timber, for example.

Professor Jason Hickel, Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE's International Inequalities Institute and lead author of the research, said: “High income nations need to achieve a dramatic reduction in resource use to return to sustainable levels, which will require strong legislation.

“It is unlikely that these reductions can be achieved while pursuing economic growth at the same time. The transition to sustainable levels of resource use will probably require transforming our economies. This includes abandoning GDP growth as a goal, reducing inequality and organising the economy around human needs, while scaling down the production of unnecessary commodities.

“Evidence shows that these strategies can be deployed to achieve substantial reductions in resource use while providing good lives for all people.”

Nearly 2.5 trillion tonnes of materials were extracted and used globally from 1970-2017. Of this, 1.1 trillion tonnes were used by countries that exceeded more than their fair share of sustainable levels.

There are 58 countries -  representing 3.6 billion people -  that have remained within their fair shares of material use between 1970- 2017, including India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh. According to the analysis these nations bear no responsibility for excess resource use.

Huzaifa Zoomkawala, co-author of the paper, said: “The majority of the ecological pressure from excess consumption in rich nations is being outsourced to poorer nations.  This not only causes ecological damage in poorer nations but depletes them of the material resources that they could otherwise use to provide for people’s needs and expand their own industrial capacity.”

The researchers note that their findings are affected by the start date of the analysis.  High-income nations were overshooting their fair-shares prior to 1970, but this earlier period is not visible in this analysis.  An earlier start date would show a higher level of responsibility for high-income nations and a lower level for lower-income nations.  

Previous research has quantified national responsibility for carbon dioxide and climate change but not ecological damage related to excess material use.