Study: World sustainability is different from sum of its parts

Global sustainable development cannot be achieved by countries that act alone, a study underscores. In Nature Communications.

Graphic that describes system integration in four interconnected circles.

As the world seeks paths to sustainability, a new study reinforces that it must be a group effort.

In a recent study in Nature Communications, an international group of scientists show how individual national efforts at reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play out. The new findings indicate that interactions among various countries shape global sustainability.

“Global sustainable development cannot be achieved by countries that act alone,” noted senior author Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University, in the article. “Efforts to improve economic conditions or solve environmental problems in one country, for example, can bring benefits to places near and far away. Or cause unintended problems elsewhere.”

Takeaways from the article “Global transboundary synergies and trade-offs among Sustainable Development Goals from an integrated sustainability perspective:”

  • To achieve sustainable development worldwide, it is important to apply the integrated framework of metacoupling that considers human-nature interactions not only within a country but also across the boundaries of adjacent and distant countries. This is because countries interact with each other through various types of flows like trade, river flow, ocean currents, and airflow.
  • High-income countries dominate cross-boundary interactions. The results showed that although high-income countries only comprised 14 % of the global population, they contributed considerably – some 60 percent - to total SDG interactions worldwide.
  • For international trade, there were more synergies among non-neighboring countries than neighboring countries, underscoring the potential for unintended or unappreciated impacts that demand attention for effective policy.
  • To facilitate the achievement of SDGs worldwide, it is essential to enhance collaboration among countries and leverage transboundary synergies.

In addition to Liu, the paper was authored by Hong Kong-based scholars Huijuan Xiao, Sheng Bao, Jingzheng Ren, Zhenci Xu and Song Xue. The work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and MSU AgBioResearch.

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