When the whole is less than the sum of all parts-Tracking global-level impacts of national sustainability initiatives

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The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are described as integrated and indivisible, where sustainability challenges must be addressed across sectors and scales to achieve global-level sustainability. However, SDG monitoring mostly focuses on tracking progress at national-levels, for each goal individually. This approach ignores local and cross-border impacts of national policies and assumes that global-level progress is the sum of national, sector-specific gains. In this study, we investigate effects of reforestation programs in China on countries supplying forest and agricultural commodities to China. Using case studies of rubber and palm oil production in Southeast Asian countries, soy production in Brazil and logging in South Pacific Island states, we investigate cross-sector effects of production for and trade to China in these exporting countries. We use a three-step multi-method approach. 1) We identify distal trade flows and the narratives used to justify them, using a telecoupling framework; 2) we design causal loop diagrams to analyse social-ecological processes of change in our case studies driven by trade to China and 3) we link these processes of change to the SDG framework. We find that sustainability progress in China from reforestation is cancelled out by the deforestation and cross-sectoral impacts supporting this reforestation abroad. Narratives of economic development support commodity production abroad through unrealised aims of benefit distribution and assumptions of substitutability of socio-ecological forest systems. Across cases, we find the analysed trade supports unambiguous progress on few SDGs only, and we find many mixed effects – where processes that support the achievement of SDGs exist, but are overshadowed by counterproductive processes. Our study represents a useful approach for tracking global-level impacts of national sustainability initiatives and provides cross-scale and cross-sectoral lenses through which to identify drivers of unsustainability that can be addressed in the design of effective sustainability policies.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102306
JournalGlobal Environmental Change : Human and Policy Dimensions
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 01.07.2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: The work of ASD, GYW, MD, OS, APA and AJA were supported by the GRAID programme at Stockholm Resilience Centre. The input of Andrea Downing was also made possible by funding from the Erling-Persson Family Foundation through Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. We thank Patrick Flege for his research contributions in the early stages of the project.

Publisher Copyright: © 2021

    Research areas

  • Sustainable Development Goals, China, Telecoupling framework, Reforestation, Trade routes, Cross-system social-ecological burdens
  • Sustainability education