Just 6% of nations provide for citizens in just, sustainable manner

Researchers at The Ohio State University have developed a framework for quantifying how well countries around the world are doing at providing adequate food, energy and water to their citizens without exceeding nature’s capacity to meet those needs.

They found that only 6% of 178 countries provide for all their citizens in an ecologically sustainable way in both carbon sequestration and water consumption.

The study found that while 67% of nations operate safely and sustainably in regard to water use, only 9% do in regard to carbon sequestration, or reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

The study showed the United States was among the majority of countries that was able to safely and justly provide water to its citizens. While it provides for its citizens in regard to carbon use, it is not doing so in an ecologically sustainable manner.

The study was published recently in the journal One Earth.

For a country to be self-sufficient, its population needs access to food, water and energy, resources that can often only be provided by the surrounding ecosystem. Yet because human activities tend to cause unintended side effects like global warming or ozone depletion, said Bhavik Bakshi, co-author of the study and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State, it’s imperative that experts look for ways to develop society in an ecologically sustainable manner. At the same time, in order to be socially just, countries need to secure resources to meet the basic needs of all of its citizens.

“Most engineering disciplines traditionally ignore the role that nature plays in supporting our activities and more broadly, our well-being,“ said Bakshi, who has been working to advance the concept of sustainable engineering – the practice of designing products or systems with nature-positive decisions in mind – for decades. “In this study, we sought to ensure we could quantify these challenges in a way engineers could use to make better decisions.”

This study’s framework was created using a system called the framework of planetary boundaries and the concept of a “safe and just operating space,” which identifies a country’s ecological ceiling, or the scope human activities must work within to reduce the risk of causing irreparable damage to the Earth.

Ideally, human activities should exist between the limits of a society’s ecological ceiling and its social foundation, a boundary that describes the resources necessary to avoid critical human deprivation of food, water or energy, said Bakshi.

“If you are exceeding the ecological ceiling, then you’re not sustainable from an environmental perspective,” he said. “If you’re below the social foundation, then you’re not meeting basic human needs, and that can be frustrating from an equity point of view.”

Using recent water and carbon sequestration data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and other international agencies, Bakshi and his co-author and former PhD student Yazeed Aleissa analyzed how the needs of 178 nations around the world stacked up against their regions’ ecosystems.

The team found that the majority of countries emit far more than their national ecosystem can handle in terms of carbon, but tend to operate close to their water supply limits.

Sometimes countries do not have much of a choice. Findings showed that 37% of countries do not have the ability to provide for their citizens in a safe and just way in terms of carbon sequestration, and 10% lack the ability to do that with regard to water.

While the socioeconomic status of countries is often related to how well they can provide for their citizens in a sustainable manner, it doesn’t always work that way, the researchers said. “There are rich countries that are doing well and there are also some poor countries that are doing well, but the reasons for their successes are very different,” Bakshi said.

These differences often come down to how a nation deals with supply and demand.

Take Canada, a large, rich country with a relatively low population that has a large supply of natural capital like forests and lakes that can capture carbon. Because it has more than enough resources for its population, consumption levels would meet the safe and just limits of the framework.

On the other hand, poor countries such as Gabon have adequate natural capital to support more activities that improve human well-being, Bakshi said.

Other countries, such as those in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, cannot meet safe and just requirements for carbon because they lack vegetation to help carbon sequestration – capturing the carbon the country emits. Essentially, they need to rely more on carbon capture technologies and global trade.

Despite the study’s potentially bleak outlook, the researchers believe their work offers a glimmer of hope in combating the environmental risks of human development. The team’s results imply that many nations could secure the necessary resources they need to thrive at a much lower demand than current levels suggest.

One way to do this would be to adopt more renewable energy resources, introduce more plant-based diets into our food cycles, and change the way we produce certain goods and services to develop a sustainable circular economy instead of a linear one, said Bakshi.

Furthermore, if implemented when considering future engineering projects, the study suggests the framework could be used to guide technology, policy and trade decisions to better assist nations to meet their needs in a more safe and just fashion.

“From a positive perspective, our work provides opportunities for engineers and other professions to innovate and come up with new ways of doing things right,” said Bakshi. “Whoever is going to figure that out is going to be the future of a more sustainable and just world.”

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