International trade can significantly impact a nation’s environmental sustainability scores, says a new study from Michigan State University. Trading internationally improves sustainable development goals for developed countries but is detrimental to those in developing countries.
Scientists at Michigan State University and in China have examined how international trade affected seven of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, in countries trading both with other countries at a distance, as well as countries with which they shared borders.
Their study shows that trading internationally was generally good for nations in developed countries like the United States, Canada and most of Europe, but resulted in environmental losses for developing countries such as Russia and part of East Asia struggling to make gains in their SDGs scores, explains a statement.
It also showed not only was international trade an environmental plus for developed countries – it’s an environmental savior. Using an innovative analysis, the researchers found the SDGs scores of developed countries would sink lower than those of developed countries after excluding the function of international trade in the current world.
“A nation’s sustainability progress is not only dependent on deliberate actions within the nation, it also can become a victim of unintended and often hard-to-see consequences,” said Jianguo Liu of MSU. “Clearly, everyone wants to make positive economic progress, but we can only make crucial environmental improvements by being very clear-eyed about how one action affects another, even if these actions take place over hundreds or thousands of miles. Sustainability is a complicated business.”
The group assessed the impacts of international trade starting in 1995 on nine environment-related SDG targets likely affected by trade and for which there are clear quantitative metrics – goals that address sustainable water use, energy, economic growth, industrialization, forest management, consumption and production; and combating climate change. They compared these impacts with a scenario of what each country would be like were there no international trade in today’s world.
At the national level, international trade improved the SDG scores of 70% of the evaluated developed countries but reduced the SDG scores of over 60% of the evaluated developing countries.
Carbon emissions is a useful example. International trade has displaced 16 Gt of carbon dioxide from developed to developing countries from 1990 to 2008, which largely stabilized the carbon emissions of developed countries but doubled the carbon emissions of developing countries, the paper notes.
Using the framework of metacoupling, or human-nature interactions within as well as between adjacent and distant places, the researchers also found that distant trade offered more environmental benefit, partly because there was more trading to customers further away and partly because close neighbors likely also shared the same constraints that spurred distant trade in the first place.
The findings offer an opportunity for policymakers to view international trade beyond financial balance sheets.