Wealthy Countries Are More to Blame for Environmental Crises, Study Finds

Cut timbers in Washington State in the U.S. Mint Images / Getty Images

Environmental destruction is a global problem, but not everyone on Earth is equally responsible. 

A first-of-its-kind study published in the Lancet Planetary Health April 1 found that wealthy countries led by the U.S. and Europe have contributed far more to unsustainable resource use over the last 50 years than poorer nations. 

“[H]igh-income nations are the primary drivers of global ecological breakdown and they need to urgently reduce their resource use to fair and sustainable levels,” the study authors concluded. “Achieving sufficient reductions will likely require high-income nations to adopt transformative post-growth and degrowth approaches.” 

The researchers calculated the “fair share” of resources that every country could sustainably use based on their population size, The Guardian explained. They then subtracted that number from the amount of resources that countries actually used between 1970 and 2017. The difference was how much each country had overshot sustainable resource use, determining its culpability for the global environmental crisis. 

The researchers found that wealthy nations were responsible for 74 percent of excess resource use during the study period. The U.S. was the single biggest resource thief, responsible for 27 percent of the global overshoot. The EU and the UK together followed with 25 percent, while other wealthy countries including Australia, Canada, Japan and Saudi Arabia were responsible for 22 percent. 

“We were all shocked by the sheer scale of the high-income nations’ contribution to excess resource use,” study lead author professor Jason Hickel of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) in Barcelona 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.”

On the other side of the spectrum, China was responsible for 15 percent of excess resource use, but the rest of the poorer nations in the Global South were responsible for only eight percent. A total of 58 countries did not exceed their fair use at all, the study authors wrote. Among them were India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh. The research team has set up an interactive website that allows you to check resource use by individual country.

Previous studies have tried to assign relative responsibility for the climate crisis, but this is not the only crisis the Earth faces. Human activities are also overshooting planetary boundaries in the realm of land-use change, biodiversity loss, and the addition of novel entities like plastic pollution.  

“These problems are being driven in large part by global resource use, through processes of material extraction, production, consumption, and waste,” the study authors wrote. 

The authors said that wealthy nations owe an “ecological debt” to the rest of the world and should therefore rapidly reduce their resource use by adapting degrowth or post-growth strategies. Hickel noted on Twitter that the wealthy world probably owed even more than the report indicated, since the study did not consider overshoots prior to 1970 and did not give countries credit for years of undershooting their fair use of resources. While not everyone in wealthy nations is equally responsible for the high resource use, the current economic model funnels more resources towards these countries overall. 

“A new era in global accountability is opening up, thanks to powerful analyses like this one,” Kate Raworth, a senior associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute who was not involved in the study, told The Guardian. “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.”

Degrowth is the idea that a society should prioritize the health and wellbeing of the planet and human beings over corporate profits and overconsumption, according to Degrowth.info. While degrowth would reduce production and consumption in wealthier countries, the idea is that it would ultimately make everyone’s lives better because the economy would be structured around human needs and wellbeing instead of profits for a few. 

A related idea is Raworth’s “doughnut economics,” which seeks to find the sweet spot between the minimum every human needs to thrive with the planetary boundaries humanity cannot sustainably overshoot. 

“Between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive,” the website explains. 

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