Sustainable welfare: would a mix of universal basic income and universal basic services help?


The following article is authored by Milena Buchs.



We urgently need new social-ecological policies to simultaneously tackle the climate emergency and create a fairer society. Such social-ecological policies would need to support societies to stay within planetary boundaries, satisfy everyone’s basic needs, achieve a fairer distribution of resources and opportunities, and enhance democratic governance. These objectives represent four main criteria for social-ecological policies or sustainable welfare, as they are also often called (Büchs, 2021).


Both Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Universal Basic Services (UBS) have been proposed as suitable approaches for policy reform, but they are often regarded as conflicting approaches. In a recent paper, I argue that UBI and UBS can complement each other in contributing to social-ecological policy outcomes if they are supported by the right institutional contexts (Büchs, 2021).


UBI is defined here as a regular income paid by the state to every resident, unconditional on employment, family status or other criteria, and at a level that contributes to needs satisfaction (Van Parijs and Vanderborght, 2017). UBI therefore differs from “minimum income” schemes where benefits remain means or needs tested. UBI can be “partial” which would mean lower than the level required to satisfy all needs, and I will argue below that this could be a way forward for combining it with UBS (Van Parijs and Vanderborght, 2017, pp. 165–169). UBS are publicly or collectively provided services for everyone in society free at the point of use. UBS address basic needs; examples include health, social care, education, housing, water, energy, transport and internet (Büchs, 2021).


How UBI and UBS can contribute to sustainable welfare


UBI is often seen as beneficial for all four sustainable welfare criteria because it reduces dependency on paid employment for people to fulfil their basic needs (Van Parijs and Vanderborght, 2017; Büchs, 2021). This can be advantageous in an era where unsatisfactory or even demeaning jobs are proliferating (Graeber, 2019). A guaranteed income would free up time for people to engage in activities that they value and that contribute to the satisfaction of their and others’ wellbeing, like spending time with friends and family or out in nature, participating in cultural and community activities and in democratic decision-making. This could reduce material consumption and associated environmental impacts, especially for those who consume to quench underlying unsatisfied needs. Having more time available could also support people to live a greener, slower life that involves more walking, cycling and public transport, cooking from scratch, making and mending things, etc. (Van Parijs and Vanderborght, 2017; Büchs, 2021).


However, UBS supporters often criticise UBI for solely focusing on the consumption side of the economy and ignoring production, hence relying on market provisioning (Coote and Percy, 2020). Reliance on market provisioning can indeed compromise the satisfaction of basic needs if essential goods and services are not available at an affordable price or sufficient quality. In contrast, UBS are said to provide these essential goods and services directly. Since UBS provision is public or collective, supporters also claim that it is much easier to design them in environmentally friendly ways. On top of that, UBS would offer similar benefits to UBI because basic service provision acts as an in-kind income that frees up people’s time for purposeful and green activities. However, critics counter that UBS risk being a “top-down” approach where responsiveness to people’s needs and pro-environmental design depend on political decisions by those in power.


The contexts that shape the performance of UBI and UBS


These points are valid and lead me to argue that the performance of UBI and UBS in relation to sustainable welfare objectives is not inherently given, rather that it depends on institutional contexts.


First, aggregate consumption in society – a key contributor to environmental impact – is influenced by a variety of factors that cannot be directly addressed by UBI and UBS, including social norms, energy efficiency of the economy and wider policy frameworks. It is therefore likely that both UBI and UBS will have to rely on internationally coordinated climate change regulations that cap emissions year on year in a fair way to ensure that production and provision of goods and services remain within planetary boundaries. UBI does not inherently rely on a neoliberal capitalist market economy and is compatible with ecological and social market regulation and public and collective provisioning.


Second, since it is not guaranteed that policy makers will decide to design UBS in environmentally friendly and needs-responsive ways, democratic governance that facilitates participation and accountability is a condition for UBS to perform well against sustainable welfare criteria.


Combining UBI and UBS


Given the right contexts, UBI and UBS can complement each other in supporting sustainable welfare. UBS are well suited to cater for needs where risk pooling and redistribution of resources is required (e.g., health and social care; public transport) or where goods and services are relatively uniform, like water, electricity or internet access. However, markets will still be required in a sustainable society to cater for needs where personal preferences and circumstances play a more important role, for instance for food or clothing. A partial UBI to support needs satisfaction in these areas, combined with market regulations that ensure environmentally friendly and socially just production, can make an important contribution here. Combining UBS and UBI could be achieved by expanding universal service provision to directly cater for people’s needs while also introducing an unconditional universal income for everyone to address needs for which market provisioning is likely to remain important. As argued above, UBI could be paid at a lower level in this context to avoid financial competition between the two schemes (Büchs, 2021).


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Büchs, M. (2021). "Sustainable welfare: How do Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services compare?" Ecological Economics 189 (2021) 107152,


Coote, A. and A. Percy (2020). The case for universal basic services. Cambridge, Polity Press.


Graeber, D. (2019). *******t jobs: a theory. London, Penguin Books.


Van Parijs, P. and Y. Vanderborght (2017). Basic income. A radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.




Milena Buchs is an Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics, and Low Carbon Transitions at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds, United Kingdom. Combining theories and methods from ecological economics, social policy, and sociology, her research focuses on sustainable welfare and just transitions.


The facts, ideas and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.