Science News

Study reveals global sustainability efforts play out on local level

By Brooks Hays   |   Jan. 2, 2020 at 12:23 PM
New research suggests economic development and sustainability efforts are playing out in different ways in different parts of China. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI

Jan. 2 (UPI) -- According to a new study, global sustainability is a lot like politics -- it's all local.

To slow global warming, curb environmental degradation and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, all while addressing the problems of poverty and inequality, scientists and policy experts with the United Nations suggest world governments must adopt more sustainable land-use and development practices.


At a 2019 United Nations summit in New York, world leaders and policy makers agreed upon 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

"The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all," according to the UN. "They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice."

To hold the 193 nations that agreed to work toward the 17 SDGs accountable, researchers have begun developing new ways to track progress.

But as a new study demonstrates, measuring sustainability is a hyper-local endeavor. Looking at sustainability efforts across an entire nation can offer mixed signals and disguise serious local problems.

"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," Jianguo "Jack" Liu, a professor of sustainability at Michigan State University, said in a news release. "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."

For the new study, published this week in the journal Nature, Liu and his colleagues used their systematic and comprehensive assessment methods to measure China's progress toward all 17 SDGs between 2000 and 2015.

Their analysis revealed the ways sustainable development efforts can play out in dramatically different ways in different parts of a large and complex country like China.

Between 2000 and 2015, China grew its aggregated SDG score. But when scientists took a more detailed look at China's progress, they discovered significant disparity between the country's developed and developing regions.

The new research showed developed provinces in China boasted better SDG scores than developing provinces. However, the data showed SDG scores in developing provinces increased at a greater rate.

"China's eastern region began developing during the reform and opening-up policy in the late 70s to spur economic development along the coasts, which was accompanied by better social services," Xu said. "In 1999, China started to address the rural western parts which had lagged in progress. That saw improvements both in infrastructure and ecological conservation, which seems to have boosted their sustainable development. The eastern parts have begun to struggle with the consequences of rapid economic growth -- such as pollution and inequities."

The latest research suggests sustainability scientists must look at how progress plays out and problems develop in different regions and localities. In doing so, scientists and policy makers can identify where and how to better deploy resources like education, healthcare and environmental conservation in order to meet SDGs.

"This study suggests the need to track the spatio-temporal dynamics of progress towards SDGs at the global level and in other nations," researchers wrote.