Jason Hickel – National Responsibility for Ecological Breakdown

High-income countries are responsible for up to 93% of global excess material use over the period 1970-2017. Specific results depend on the methods used, ranging from 74-93%.

Jason Hickel is an academic at the University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. His book “The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions,” was published by Penguin in May 2017. This was followed in 2020 by “Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World” (William Heinemann)

Cross-posted from Jason’s website

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Human impacts on the Earth System are overshooting several planetary boundaries and driving a crisis of ecological breakdown. This crisis is being caused in large part by excess global material extraction and use, which has increased dramatically over the past half century. But not all countries are equally responsible for this crisis.

In a recent study published in the Lancet Planetary Health, we developed a novel method for assessing nations’ cumulative material use in excess of their fair shares of sustainable boundaries. These results can be interpreted as an indication of nations’ responsibility for the global ecological pressures related to excess material use.

The results are however sensitive to methodological choices.  In the original paper we used a “sustainability corridor” of 25-50 Gt of material use per year, which is widely used in the relevant literature.  Global material use exceeded 25 Gt in 1970 and 50 Gt in 1996. To operationalize this, for the years 1970-1996 we used the level of global material use as the boundary. For the years 1997 onward, we used 50 Gt, the maximum level.  The allowable quantity is then allocated in proportion to each nation’s share of the world population.

We opted to disregard any “undershoots”.  In other words, if a nation uses less than its fair share of material in one year, it cannot therefore use more in another year.  Fair shares cannot be distributed over time. This approach is technically consistent with the annualized nature of the material use boundary as proposed in the literature.  And it has the benefit of being ecologically conservative. But it does introduce a bias against countries that for most of the period used less than their fair share of the boundary. One might legitimately argue that using less in one year does enable you to safely use more in another year, although it depends on the type of material in question, and the timeframes involved.

In the original study, we tested our method using higher and lower boundaries (+/-20%), but we did not explore any alternative methods.

Here we compare the results of the original method with two other methods.  In one run, we accounted for undershoots and kept everything else the same (Method B).  In another run, we accounted for undershoots and also used the 50 Gt boundary across the whole period from 1970-2017 (Method C).  The rationale for the latter change is that this way the same boundary is applied consistently across the whole period in a way that is not sensitive to fluctuations in global material use.

The results of each method are displayed in the tables below.  Methods B and C show that the high-income countries have considerably more responsibility than the original method would suggest. Table 1 shows that their responsibility increases from 74% in Method A to 84% in Method B and 93% in Method C.  Table 2 shows results for regions, where the US is responsible for up to 35%.

It should be noted that Method A is more ecologically conservative (in that it permits a lower level of total global material use over the period) but more inequitable, while Methods B and C allow for a progressively higher level of total global material use (from 796 Gt to 970 Gt and 1,095 Gt respectively) but distribute it more equitably.

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