Sussex Sustainability Research Programme

Financial crises and environmental sustainability

What is the relationship between financial crises and the environment, and how can understanding this relationship help us better address the SDGs? The project is conducted by the Financial Crises and Environmental Sustainability (FCES) unit of the SSRP.




The team

PI and Co PI details

Principal Investigator


Project team
  • Dr Indra Widiarto, Global Studies,
  • Dr Patrick Schroeder, Chatham House: the Royal Institute of International Affairs,
  • Dr Lucia Pacca, UCSF Centre of Vulnerable Population,
  • Dr Martin Jung, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA),
  • Dr José María Maya-Manzano, School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dublin Institute of Technology
  • Bernardo Cantone, Science & Policy Research Unit (SPRU),
  • Dara Leyden, Centre for Global Political Economy (CGPE),

Where we are working

Our work investigates relationships between financial crises and environmental sustainability at the near-global level. We are currently working with datasets that cover almost 150 countries and more than 400 financial crises during the period 1970 - today.

Overview of project

Financial crises are associated with reduced consumption of goods, reduced industrial production, reduced energy consumption, reduced use of private means of transportation, and overall with reduced economic activity. In theory then financial crises may be good for the environment! Yet, circumstantial evidence from the current crisis suggest that paradoxically instead of ‘blue skies’ the crisis led to air pollution, illegal logging, slowdown in waste management activities and increase in pollution-related diseases. What is really the relationship between financial crises and the environment, and how can understanding this relationship help us address better the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? The project aspires to break new ground in this area by offering one of the first investigations into how global and local debt dynamics impact on the sustainability indicators of forest cover, air pollution and resource efficiency.

Project design: The first level assesses how national levels of debt (public, households, corporations) correlate with national level changes in forest cover, air pollution and resource efficiency (especially waste management and resource productivity). The second level explores how the above phenomena (debt, forest cover, air pollution, resource efficiency) correlate at the subnational level (regional/local), and what lessons and new hypotheses can be drawn from subnational differences/similarities. The third, level uses triangular / small-N comparisons to generate a deeper understanding of the interplay between debt and the aforementioned key sustainable living indicators. By integrating findings from these three levels the project aspires to generate a deeper understanding of the relationship between debt/indebtedness and key sustainability indicators and dynamics.

The project advances the SSRP aims by exploring trade-offs between economic and environmental policies and dynamics that have a decisive impact on the sustainability of our societies. It also advances SSRP’s transdisciplinary perspective by bringing together researchers from different natural and social sciences, aiming to generate new ideas and ways of seeing and researching the phenomenon of sustainability.

Full project description

The project aims to develop an analytical framework and methodology that aspires to capture: (a) how the emergence of a new model of debt-based political economy, especially after the 1980s, have effected a range of key sustainability indicators and trends, and (b) how economic and debt crises, which have been occurring ever more frequently and with ever more intensity during the above period, impact on the broader sustainability trends of debt-based economies and societies.

The project has developed a large dataset with financial crises and environmental sustainability data from developed, emerging and developing economies. In particular we are examining the relation between on the one hand financial crises and on the other Forest Cover, Air Pollution and Resource Efficiency at a global and national level. We are interested to find out how different types of debt (public, households, corporations) may impact on these key environmental aspects. We are also interested in how the level-of-income of a country and the type of its economy affect the relation between debt and the above environmental sustainability factors. We are examining both longer term trends through equilibrium assumptions and shocks generated by debt-crises.

We will then move from the global and national levels to the subnational level. Here, we are interested in similarities and differences between regions of the same country, how these may be explained according to debt and other socio-economic indicators, and how they may be influenced or inform policy making at national and international level.

Finally, the project will use the comparative method and carefully selected case-studies both for theory-testing and theory advancing purposes. The aim is to test a number of the assumptions produced in the first two phases of the project, but also to generate new insights through a bottom-up perspective on the dynamics that govern the interplay between financial crises and environmental sustainability.

The project is conducted by the newly created research unit ‘Financial Crises and Environmental Sustainability’ (FCES). The team of investigators include: Dr Andreas Antoniades, a trained political scientist, with expertise in global political economy, global debt and debt-based economies. He is currently leading the Global Debt Dynamics Initiative ( Dr Alexander Antonarakis, a trained natural scientist, with expertise in forest carbon cycles, land cover changes, GIS mapping, remote sensing and earth observation. Dr Patrick Schroeder, a trained social scientist with a PhD in Environmental Studies and extensive experience as a senior development consultant. He is an expert in circular economy within the context of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) systems and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Timeline and funding

The Debt and Environmental Sustainability (DES) unit was created in April 2017 and the implementation of the project started soon after. The unit was expanded and renamed to Financial Crises and Environmental Sustainability (FCES) in 2018. The targeted completion date is 31 November 2020. The project has been awarded £99,351.

Project poster

Antoniades project poster

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