Nature cover story: All global sustainability is local
January 2, 2020
Nations across the world are following a United Nations blueprint to build a more sustainable future – but a new study shows that blueprint leads less to a castle in the sky, and more to a house that needs constant remodeling.
Sustainability scientists have developed systematic and comprehensive assessment methods and performed a first assessment of a country’s progress in achieving all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) not just as a nation, but also at the regional levels, and not just as a snapshot – but over time.
In “Assessing progress towards sustainable development over space and time” in this week’s Nature, scientists from Michigan State University (MSU) and in China show that indeed all sustainability, like politics, is local. Even as a country can overall claim movement toward a sustainable future, areas within the country reflect the gains and losses in the struggle with poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation and for prosperity, and peace and justice. Most striking, the study found, is the disparities between developed regions and ones that are developing.
“We have learned that sustainability’s progress is dynamic, and that sometimes gains in one important area can come at costs to another area, tradeoffs that can be difficult to understand but can ultimately hobble progress,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MSU Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior faculty member, and senior author. “Whether it’s protecting precious natural resources, making positive economic change or reducing inequality – it isn’t a static score. We must carefully take a holistic view to be sure progress in one area isn’t compromised by setbacks in other areas.”
The group assessed China with methods that can be applied to other countries. China’s vast size and sweeping socioeconomic changes at national and provincial levels showed how progress in sustainability can shift. Between 2000 and 2015, China has improved its aggregated SDG score.
At the provincial level, however, there is disparity between the country’s developed and developing regions. East China – which is home to the country’s economic boom -- had a higher SDG Index score than the more rural west China in the 2000s. In 2015, south China had a higher SDG Index score than the industrialized and agricultural-intensive north China.