This discovery "demonstrates that much more carbon-efficient provisioning systems are possible," O'Neill and his colleagues wrote.
Likewise, the data suggest that the nutrition, income, sanitation and electricity needs of each and every person on Earth could be met "without significantly exceeding planetary boundaries" for sustainability, they wrote.
If someone could wave a magic wand and reallocate Earth's resources so that they were shared equally by everyone, it would probably be enough to meet everyone's basic human needs (the list that includes enough food to eat and enough money to avoid extreme poverty, among other things), O'Neill said.
But it still wouldn't allow everyone to enjoy "more aspirational goals like secondary education and high life satisfaction," he added. For that, "we need to become two to six times more efficient at transforming resource use into human well-being."
In theory, wealthy nations could cut way back on their resource use while maintaining their achievements on the social front. Some straightforward first steps include "switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, producing products with longer lifetimes, reducing unnecessary waste, shifting from animal to crop products, and investing in new technologies," the researchers wrote.
And in a future world "with very different social arrangements or technologies," there could be a different equation for converting natural resources into human well-being that allows everyone to enjoy all aspects of the good life, O'Neill said.
"Is this realistic?" he said. "I hope so, because the alternative could be environmental catastrophe."
The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Sustainability.
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