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Wealthy nations are making more progress toward sustainable development

In a new study from Michigan State University, researchers have discovered that progress on land conservation and sustainable development has outpaced efforts in marine environments, raising concerns about global inequality between high-income and low-income countries. 

The study, published in the open-access journal iScience, aimed to evaluate the progress made towards the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015, which seek to encourage global partnerships for sustainable development.

According to senior author Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MSU Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, keeping score of sustainability is important. “Making progress to maintain and improve life on Earth is a delicate balance in the telecoupled world,” said Liu.

In the study, titled “Global Decadal Assessment of Life below Water and on Land,” the researchers observed positive results in conservation efforts and the sustainable use of natural resources on land, especially in biodiversity hotspots such as Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Indonesia.

What the researchers learned

However, contrary to expectations, progress in ocean sustainability slowed after 2015. Study lead author Yuqian Zhang, a PhD student at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS), explained that “a closer look shows that low-income countries lagged, and the gap between high-income and low-income countries became wider over time.” 

Zhang noted that efforts to prevent and reduce marine pollution and to share the economic benefits of sustainable marine resource use with small island developing states had barely improved.

Between 2010 and 2020, global biodiversity conservation and sustainable development achieved positive progress on both land and sea. The sustainable use of natural resources and the prevention of resource degradation and biodiversity loss doubled the sustainable development goal estimates for that decade. 

However, the widening gap between wealthy and less affluent countries demands attention. High-income countries such as Croatia, Gambia, and Lithuania saw significant increases in metrics for life below water, while countries like Pakistan, Fiji, and Tonga experienced major decreases in water metrics.

The study highlights the importance of vigilance in understanding global progress at local and national levels and determining why some countries succeed while others falter. 

Zhang emphasized the need to “take a holistic look and discover the drivers for sustainability successes.” By gaining such insights, policymakers can design better-informed institutions for global biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

Yingjie Li, a former MSU-CSIS PhD student now at Stanford University, joined Liu and Zhang in writing the article. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and Michigan AgBioResearch.

More about sustainable development

Sustainable development is a concept that aims to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is a holistic approach that integrates economic, social, and environmental aspects to promote long-term prosperity, wellbeing, and ecological balance. Sustainable development is critical to humanity and the environment for several reasons:

Resource management

As the global population continues to grow, the demand for natural resources such as water, land, and energy also increases. Sustainable development encourages responsible use and management of these resources to ensure their availability for future generations.

Climate change mitigation

Sustainable development practices often promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. By adopting cleaner energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and promoting sustainable transportation, we can help mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on the environment and human life.

Biodiversity conservation

Biodiversity, or the variety of life on Earth, provides essential services to humanity, such as food, medicines, and ecosystem stability. Sustainable development practices aim to reduce habitat loss, overexploitation, and pollution, thereby conserving biodiversity and the benefits it provides.

Social equity

Sustainable development is not just about environmental protection but also about ensuring social equity and justice. It seeks to address issues such as poverty, income inequality, and access to education and healthcare, promoting a more inclusive and equitable society.

Economic growth

By fostering innovation, creating green jobs, and encouraging resource efficiency, sustainable development can drive long-term economic growth. It can help transition economies toward more sustainable industries and consumption patterns, ensuring stability and prosperity for future generations.

Improved quality of life

Sustainable development practices can lead to better health, education, and overall wellbeing for individuals and communities. By reducing pollution, providing access to clean water, and promoting healthy lifestyles, sustainable development contributes to a higher quality of life for all.


Sustainable development strengthens the ability of communities and ecosystems to adapt to change and recover from shocks, such as natural disasters or economic downturns. By promoting resilience, sustainable development helps ensure the long-term survival and wellbeing of both people and the environment.

In summary, sustainable development is a critical approach to securing the future of our planet and its inhabitants. By balancing economic, social, and environmental needs, sustainable development fosters long-term prosperity, wellbeing, and ecological balance, creating a better world for current and future generations.


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