The Environmental Sustainability of Nations: Benchmarking the Carbon, Water and Land Footprints against Allocated Planetary Boundaries

K. Fang, R. Heijungs, Z. Duan, G. R. de Snoo

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


Growing scientific evidence for the indispensable role of environmental sustainability in sustainable development calls for appropriate frameworks and indicators for environmental sustainability assessment (ESA). In this paper, we operationalize and update the footprint-boundary ESA framework, with a particular focus on its methodological and application extensions to the national level. By using the latest datasets available, the planetary boundaries for carbon emissions, water use and land use are allocated to 28 selected countries in comparison to the corresponding environmental footprints. The environmental sustainability ratio (ESR)an internationally comparable indicator representing the sustainability gap between contemporary anthropogenic interference and critical capacity thresholdsallows one to map the reserve or transgression of the nation-specific environmental boundaries. While the geographical distribution of the three ESRs varies across nations, in general, the worldwide unsustainability of carbon emissions is largely driven by economic development, while resource endowments play a more central role in explaining national performance on water and land use. The main value added of this paper is to provide concrete evidence of the usefulness of the proposed framework in allocating overall responsibility for environmental sustainability to sub-global scales and in informing policy makers about the need to prevent the planet's environment from tipping into an undesirable state.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11285-11305
Number of pages21
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • environmental sustainability assessment environmental footprints planetary boundaries sustainability gap environmental sustainability ratio nations ecological footprint regenerative capacity human appropriation safe framework displacement humanity accounts systems space Science & Technology - Other Topics Environmental Sciences & Ecology

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