Achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals at the Local Level May Shift Across Time and Geographical Areas

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

In 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations agreed upon a blueprint to end poverty, fight inequality, and protect the environment. Governments promised to meet 17 global sustainable development goals by 2030, thus establishing the Sustainable Development Agenda and a to-do list for people and planet. With only 10 years left until the deadline, assessing the progress towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is of the utmost importance to guide policy development and implementation.


The 17 SDGs are defined according to a list of 169 SDG targets—progress towards these targets is tracked using 232 unique indicators. Annually, an SDG report provides the overview of the world’s implementation efforts, highlighting areas of progress and areas where more action needs to be taken to ensure no one is left behind. It ranks countries on their progress towards each goal using a score out of 100, showing how countries are doing in comparison to each other and whether or not they’re on track to meet the goals.

The 2019 report notes progress in some areas, such as on extreme poverty reduction, widespread immunization, decrease in child mortality rates, and an increase in people’s access to electricity, but warns that global response has not been ambitious enough, leaving the most vulnerable people and countries to suffer the most. It points out that a much deeper, faster, and more ambitious response is needed to unleash the social and economic transformation needed to achieve the goals by 2030.

However, an improved response requires, among other factors, upgrades in data collection and analysis to better pinpoint challenges and opportunities, as these vary significantly across different geographical, political, and economic contexts. While the annual report provides a comprehensive picture of national SDG progress, it does not present information on different regions within the same country. In addition, it does not provide a direct year-to-year comparison of a country’s progress. Now, a team led by researchers from Michigan State University and China Agricultural University in Beijing shows that it’s possible to compare SDG progress across regions and over periods of time, rather than relying on snapshot assessments.


The SDG Index and Dashboards present a ranking of countries based on their progress towards meeting the SDGs. This data visualization shows groups of countries that are closest to meeting the SDGs (in dark blue) and those with the greatest remaining challenges (in the lightest shade of blue). CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia

The research, published at the beginning of this year in Nature, tracks the spatio-temporal dynamics of progress towards SDGs using newly developed systematic and comprehensive assessment methods. The study focuses on China—the world’s second-largest economy and the largest developing country both in areal extent and population. Over the past several decades, China has attained exceptional growth in gross domestic product while experiencing complex environmental and socio-economic challenges. Notably, since 2000, China has promoted sustainable development by successfully implementing a variety of policies such as the Western Development Strategy and the Natural Forest Conservation Program, one of the largest forest conservation programs in the world.

By analyzing China’s SDG Index score (an aggregate score representing the overall performance towards achieving all 17 SDGs), the study’s authors show that there are large spatio-temporal variations across regions. The SDG Index score increased at both national and province level from 2000 to 2015. However, eastern China—home to the country’s economic boom—had a higher SDG Index score than the more rural western China in the 2000s. Southern China had a higher SDG Index score than the industrialized and agricultural-intensive northern China in 2015. At the national level, the scores of 13 of the 17 SDGs improved over time, but the scores of four SDGs declined; specifically, the average SDG Index scores in developing provinces were increasing faster compared to developed provinces.

Thus, the study shows that progress in sustainability can shift depending on different factors, including geographical conditions, climate, infrastructure, and policy implementation, suggesting the need to track the spatio-temporal dynamics of progress towards SDGs. Senior author Jack Liu said in a press release: “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. 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.”

Interestingly, the study’s authors note in their paper that future research should include the analysis of spillover effects of one region’s actions on the sustainable development of other regions within China, and spillover effects across national borders.

The newly developed approach for the analysis of spatio-temporal patterns of SDG progress could be applied to other countries and across local and global levels. Thus, resources and attention could be directed where most needed, accelerating the achievement of shared prosperity in a sustainable world.


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