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


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.


Link to centre authors: Aguiar, Ana Paula, Wong, Grace
Publication info: Downing, A., Wong, G.Y., Dyer, M., Aguiar, A. P., Selomane, O., Jimenez Aceituno, A. 2021. When the whole is less than the sum of all parts – Tracking global-level impacts of national sustainability initiatives. Global Environmental Change Volume 69, July 2021, 102306, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102306


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