A sufficient operating space for development? Reconciling greenhouse gas emissions, life expectancy, and access to basic needs

William Lamb of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, UK, sought to elaborate on the actual energy utilization and emissions necessary to achieve high development outcomes.

William Lamb

William Lamb


Human development and climate change mitigation are linked via the consumption of energy services and access to key infrastructures. Where the provision of such services entails an increase in energy consumption and associated carbon emissions, contemporary debates about a “right to develop” take on a central role in informing the plausibility of global climate mitigation regimes. In this project we seek to elaborate on the actual energy and emissions necessary to achieve high development outcomes. The resulting estimates of “development space” are then compared to scenario spaces generated in an integrated assessment modeling framework for achieving climate stabilization at 2oC—in effect, revealing the differences between an efficiency-based method of allocating emission reductions and one which describes only the emissions needed for development.


The analysis investigates the bivariate relationship between five overlapping domains of human development (HD) and environmental impact (EC). When defining HD we proceed from the assumption that GDP per capita provides only a very narrow focus on economic activity [1]; thus we also look at life expectancy and calculate a composite indicator for basic needs (comprising access to sanitation, energy, water, education, nourishment, and health care). EC is defined as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and final energy consumption. We perform multi-year cross-sectional regressions on each pair of HD and EC indicators using functional forms from the literature [2]. The resulting elasticities of human development are used to project forward EC for Africa, India/South Asia, China/Central Asia, and Latin America. We compare the cumulative EC for each region to a MESSAGE emissions scenario which allocates mitigation effort according to equal GDP loss.

Results and conclusions

Our results indicate that there is sufficient space in the global carbon budget to accommodate high levels of achievement in human development; however, a careful allocation of emissions rights is necessary to avoid regional shortfalls. Of particular note is India/South Asia, where fast-growing HD and an insufficiently rapid decoupling rate lead to a significant deficit in the available carbon space required to achieve high outcomes of life expectancy and basic needs access. This analysis calls for further investigation into model parameters that may avoid such a fate, as well as a more detailed elaboration of the links between GHG emissions, energy services, and the delivery of human wellbeing.


[1] Stiglitz JE, Sen A, Fitoussi J-P (2009). Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

[2] Steinberger JK, Roberts JT (2010). From constraint to sufficiency: The decoupling of energy and carbon from human needs, 1975–2005. Ecol Econ 70, 425–433.


Narashima Rao and Nils Johnson, Energy, IIASA


William Lamb of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, UK, is a British citizen. He raised private funds and worked in the Energy (ENE) Program during the YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.

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Last edited: 29 September 2015

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