China and The U.S.: Moving Towards Sustainable Development Goals
Currently, the U.S. and China act as the world's largest national economies, producing in 2022, respectively, 25.2% and 17.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) at current prices, a total of about 43% of world production. When measured at purchasing power parity (PPP), China equaled and outperformed the U.S. in 2016–2017. The GDP at PPP shares of the U.S. and China in 2022 were 15.5% and 18.5%, together covering 34% of global GDP at purchasing power parity.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States surpassed United Kingdom, which at that time occupied the first place in the world in terms of production 1, and thus the U.S. leadership continued for about 120 years. At the same time, today the United States, previously holding the position of the country with the largest volume of production, shifts to the second place compared to China.
But no matter how the different measures of output are discussed, there is no doubt that the U.S. and China are now the largest national economies in the world.
However, the scale of the economies of these countries also contributes to their leadership in the negative sphere – they provide the highest total greenhouse gas emissions (kt of CO2 equivalent) among the rest of the world.
The population of these countries is also significant, especially in China – 1 billion and 412 million people and 333 million people in the United States – out of a global population of 7 billion 951 million – according to 2022 data.
The scale of the economies of these two countries and their role in global processes determine their importance for global progress towards sustainable development goals (SDGs). At the same time, the results of their progress towards the SDGs and their interaction are important not only for these countries themselves, but also in the global context, for other countries. In the statement of the Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November 2023 in San Francisco (USA), it is noted that the relationship between China and the United States is the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
Sustainable development has practically become a common global development paradigm, especially after the adoption of the SDGs in 2015 2.
The comparison of progress towards the SDGs of China and the United States is of interest not only within these two countries, but also in a broader context, which determines the relevance of the study. The purpose of the work is to, based on a comparison of approaches and indicators for achieving the SDGs of development in China and the United States, identify areas of success and problem areas, and show the connectedness found in progress towards the SDGs for these two countries.
SOURCES AND METHODOLOGY
The study relies on data on the SDGs from UN data on the Sustainable Development Goals Index, developed as part of a project led by J. Sachs 3, World Bank databases and separate information derived from national statistical services. The use of information from the Sustainable Development Goal Indices database allows for a fairly correct comparison of two countries, which is determined by common methodological approaches for constructing indices that are focused on cross-country comparison of indicators for achieving the SDGs.
The main methodological approaches implemented in this work were analytical and comparative calculations and estimates, cross-country comparisons in relation to general indicators characterizing the achievement of the SDGs, and individual macroeconomic indicators. For individual SDGs, additional analysis was carried out using information used to calculate the SDG Indices and other sources.
The comprehensive approach implemented in the study covers all SDGs for China and the United States and shows their interconnectedness.
The topic of sustainable development has been present in scientific literature since the 1980s. At the turn of the century, academic interest in sustainability and the number of corresponding publications markedly increased, especially when the international community first set global development goals in 2000, calling them the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (Resolution 55/2).
Based on the progress in the implementation of the MDGs and taking into account the current dynamics of solving global development problems, on September 25, 2015, the UN General Assembly approved the new document ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ (Resolution 70/1). The updated global development goals were called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To achieve the SDGs, just as before with the MDGs, 15 years were allocated.
The adoption of the SDGs gave additional impetus to the general literature in the field of sustainable development and work dedicated to achieving the SDGs. Despite fairly widespread criticism of approaches to the SDGs and definitions of the SDGs (see, for example, Mair S. et al 4, Swain R.B. 5 and Spangenberg J. H. 6) among the vast majority of political leaders and in scientific circles, a positive consensus has developed regarding the SDGs.
The fundamentally important point is that the SDGs are universal and, therefore, applicable to all countries, while the MDGs were intended only for developing ones.
Many scientific publications focus on various aspects of the SDGs. Among the modern ones, it is worth mentioning the annual UN report on progress towards the SDGs. However, it describes global trends and has virtually no country detail.
The overarching issues across all SDGs are explored in the book by Gutmann M. and Gorman D. which examines the reasoning behind each of the 17 development goals, revealing the global human connections, tools and governance structures of past efforts to address sustainable development issues 7.
Of great interest is a lengthy and detailed publication by Huck W. and Maaß J. that explores the legal framework underlying the SDGs and their implications for international law. The authors examine the meaning of the 5 components of the SDGs (5P – People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership), explain and classify all goals and objectives of the SDGs 8.
Current issues that generate both enthusiasm and concern are related to artificial intelligence. The dual nature of artificial intelligence, which can both contribute and hinder the achievement of the SDGs, is revealed in the publication by Sætra H.S. 9.
Among the Russian literature in this area, there is a notable monograph that examines approaches to the development of a green economy and adaptation of the SDGs in Russia 10, and another, more recent work devoted to the priorities of sustainable development in the world and in Russia 11. The assessment of the SDGs based on various philosophical concepts is also of interest 12.
As it was already noted, the number of publications in the field of SDGs is very large, therefore, taking into account the study objectives, special attention was paid to works that provide a comparative analysis of countries, primarily of China and the United States, in the context of progress towards the SDGs. These works belong to the researchers from China, the USA and other countries, including Russia.
Addressing the food, energy and water crises in China and the United States, the publication's authors call for expanded common efforts to solve these problems, from joint research to practical action 13.
In discussing policies towards carbon neutrality in China and the United States, the authors draw attention to fundamental differences in governance 14. The political systems in the United States and China are opposites of each other. The United States is a ‘Bottom to Top’ system while China is a ‘Top to Bottom’ one. A positive result can be achieved by mutually sharing the accumulated experience.
The work 15 devoted to a comparative analysis of green energy in China and the United States, concludes that the results of combating environmental problems in these two countries are generally successful, but taking into account the large potential for reducing emissions, recommendations are formulated for a wider use of tax policy and reducing political uncertainty in this area.
The publication 16 examining a comparison of water resource management in China and the United States highlights the need to change the paradigm of water resource use to achieve the SDGs, the need for an integrated approach to manage not only water, but also other biological resources.
The work of Goodman M. P. et al. 17 on the US-China SDG partnership notes that the SDG agenda is critically dependent on the ability of the US and China to work together to achieve many goals, particularly financing sustainable development projects.
The article by Biggeri M. et al. 18 is devoted to the study of the regional characteristics of China and the United States in the context of the SDGs. It is concluded that China has a more balanced position in terms of progress towards the SDGs and spatial distribution. At the same time, both countries have deep territorial differences and serious efforts are needed to reduce them in order to move towards the SDGs. At the same time, the need for joint efforts of the two countries to solve global problems is noted, synergies and compromises in the implementation of the SDGs that can promote or hinder sustainable development are identified.
Also of interest is the publication 19 showing one of the spillover effects of the work of China and the United States in sustainable development. It is suggested that joint work on the climate agenda to advance towards the SDGs can bring closer the positions of China and the United States and stabilize their relations. This will have a positive effect for the whole world, including Europe.
In the Russian scientific literature, there are also works related to the comparison of the actions of countries, including China and the United States, in the area of progress towards the SDGs.
The work by Ilyasov R.Kh. and Plotnikov V.A. 20 is devoted to analyzing the mutual impact of energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and economic growth trends using the example of China and the USA. Attention is drawn to the fact that the structure of China's economy is characterized by a greater energy intensity, and this makes it difficult to reduce emissions and achieve the SDGs.
The use of climate policy as a mechanism of competition between China and the United States is presented in the work of Aliev O.M. 21
The article by Moreva E.L. and Bekulova S.R. is devoted to analyzing the activities of several countries in the Arctic, including those of China and the United States, in the context of sustainable development issues 22.
Strategic planning issues that are closely linked to sustainable development are discussed in the article by Silvestrov S.N., Bauer V.P. and Eremin V.V. 23 The multi-horizon nature of strategic planning in China and the focus on balance are pointed out. A special feature of the United States is the high level of independence and responsibility of local authorities, the coupling of strategic planning with the national security strategy.
Also of interest is the dissertation 24 devoted to the idea of ‘sustainable communities’ in the context of addressing the global climate agenda using the example of the United States and China, where the conclusion is drawn about the need for a broader coordination of various parties in the development of sustainable communities.
Currently, a whole direction of scientific research has been formed in the field of bibliometric and scientometric analysis of existing sets of scientific works. Within the framework of this approach, work by Setiawan D., Rahmawati I.P. and Santoso A.A. 25 provides a bibliometric analysis of publications in the field of climate change and related modifications of corporate accounting. The results show that China and the United States are in the lead by the number of such publications.
Another bibliometric study by Li X., Du J. and Long H. 26 showcases an analysis and mapping of publications in China and other countries in the field of green development, with the prominent dominance of China and the United States.
Scientometric analysis 27 of global scientific efforts in the field of sustainable development also shows that China and the United States occupy the first positions in publications in this area of scientific activity.
Examination of relevant scientific publications allows to draw a conclusion that China and the United States hold leading positions in the field of research on the climate agenda research, energy and sustainable development in general. The number of publications covering various areas of interaction between China and the United States in the context of sustainable development and progress towards the SDGs is increasing.
At the same time, it should be noted that despite a very significant amount of scientific research on SDGs, the issues of achieving them by the United States and China are considered, as a rule, either in the context of individual areas of achieving the SDGs, for example, climate ones, or as an element of a broader country coverage. The novelty of this work lies in its focus on a comprehensive comparison of SDG achievement for two countries with the largest economic potential for each of the 17 goals, which allows taking another step to expand the field of research in the field of SDGs.
METRICS AND INDICATORS FOR ACHIEVING THE SDGS
Quantitative indicators are widely used to measure the achievement of goals, track progress and identify areas that require closer attention and additional efforts. To implement a triune approach to the SDGs – environmental, social and economic dimensions, 17 goals were determined, which are further divided into 169 tasks. To track progress in achieving the SDGs, a system of numerous indicators has been developed that characterize all the goals and objectives, with a total of about 230 indicators.
The existing large set of indicators leads to the need to develop approaches for comparing countries based on their progress towards the SDGs. The simplest thing is to compare countries by individual indicators. But there is also a need for generalizing approaches, comparison in progress on the SDGs themselves and in general. This question is answered by the development of generalizing SDG indices, of which the Index of Sustainable Development Goals, developed as a part of the project led by J. Sachs, is quite widely known and used 3. Briefly, the methodology for calculating the index can be characterized as follows: a limited number of available indicators (about 100) are selected to calculate the index, which cover all 17 SDGs, afterwards they are normalized following the scheme: 100 – the goal is fully achieved, 0 – the goal is not achieved at all. After receiving data on 17 SDGs, their arithmetic mean is calculated. It should be noted that this index is calculated not only from 2015, when the SDGs were adopted, but it also covers a retrospective since 2000, which allows us to see the dynamics of progress in achieving the SDGs over a longer period and expands the understanding of current trends in this area.
Despite the problems of generalizing indices noted in the scientific literature 28, some experts declaring their construction as ‘art’ 4, and development of alternative indices 5, the SDG Index database remains a widely used information resource. The methodology for calculating this index was audited by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, which recognized the feasibility of using this approach.
Overall, despite its shortcomings, the index is considered a satisfactory attempt to track countries' progress towards the SDGs.
INTEGRAL SDG INDICES OF THE USA AND CHINA
In general, the integrated SDG indices for the U.S. and China show positive dynamics, but at a different speed of advancement – over the period from 2000 to 2022, the growth rate of the Index for China was about 3 times higher than the growth rate for the U.S. 3. In 2000 China's SDG index lagged behind the U.S. level by 9.3 p.p., but by 2022 the gap narrowed to 3.9 p.p.
The dynamics of the SDG indices for the U.S., China and the world as a whole are shown in Fig. 1.
Source: calculations by the author based on data from 3.
The observed positive progress in both countries generally correlates with the growth of their economies.
This result summarizes the priorities and approaches to achieving the SDGs in these two countries. The U.S. initially occupied a fairly high position in the areas of development reflected in the SDGs, and, as one might assume, didn’t have enough motive for targeted work in this area. China occupied a less favorable starting position, which, among other things, determined the need for extensive political and organizational work. While in the U.S. the economic vector of interests is a priority, China demonstrates a more balanced approach in implementing the concept of sustainable development. At the same time, for a more detailed understanding of the situation, it is necessary to consider the positions of countries on individual SDGs.
SDGS FOR THE U.S. AND CHINA: CHARACTERISTICS AND RELATIONSHIPS
Comparing the performance of the United States and China in achievement of individual SDGs reveals both areas of success and problems that require attention and solutions. Table below shows index values for individual SDGs for China and the U.S. for 2022. The data are ranked by the difference between the indicators of the U.S. and China, from the largest deviation in favor of China to the largest deviation in favor of the U.S.
Source: calculations by the author based on data from 3.
In accordance with the presented assessments of the degree of achievement of 17 SDGs, China is noticeably ahead of the U.S. in the three of them. This applies to SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production); SDG13 (Climate Action); SDG2 (No Hunger).
In regards to Responsible Consumption and Production, it can be noted that in China, centralized management structures make it possible to effectively organize work in this area, including on the basis of administrative measures. In the US, where bans and restrictions are widely debated and perceived as human rights restrictions, progress towards achieving this SDG is somewhat more difficult.
Climate Action's position shows the need for more detailed comparisons of indicators to provide an informed understanding of the situation. The indicators taken into account to construct the index for this purpose are determined in tons of emissions per capita. China's population exceeds the United States nearly fourfold, and its greenhouse gas emissions is 2.3 times higher. Accordingly, China's per capita emissions are lower than those of the United States. This determines the given ratio of indicators. In addition, the United States is on a downward trend in overall emissions; China has only managed to slow down its emissions growth. The best performance for China appears to be formal and related to the methodology for calculating the index.
In terms of eliminating hunger, it should be noted that this problem is recognized and widely discussed in the United States, but the situation with it has not improved for decades. So, according to data for 1999, 10.1 percent of U.S. households, 31 million Americans, were food insecure, meaning that at some time during the previous year they were uncertain of having or unable to acquire adequate food sufficient to meet basic needs at all times due to inadequate household resources for food. In 2022, there were 12.8 percent of such households.
Some researchers link it to a focus on private charity, not just government food assistance programs 29.
For 9 SDGs, the differences do not exceed 10 percentage points, and are not particularly significant.
China is lagging behind U.S. in implementation of five SDGs: SDG15 (Life on Land), SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation); SDG9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure); SDG10 (Reduced Inequalities); SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals).
The difference in positions on Goal 15 (Life on Land) is largely due for the United States to the relatively lower anthropogenic and industrial load on nature, and a longer history of both research and regulatory and conservation measures. China only relatively recently turned to solving this problem, solving the priority tasks of increasing production and eliminating poverty.
The differences in performance under Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) are explained by the different starting positions of the United States and China, including the fact that the rural population in the United States is 17 percent and China's at 36 percent based on 2022 data. Improving living conditions is a long-term process.
Speaking about the Goal of Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, it should be noted that the United States as a whole is still the world leader in the field of innovation and industry, despite China’s active advancement in these areas and its superiority over the United States in terms of industrial production.
An analysis of the SDG10 (Reduced Inequalities goal) shows a dynamic change in the situation in China with a relatively stable level in the United States. In general, these two countries can be classified as countries with relatively high levels of inequality. Since the beginning of the economic reforms in China, the level of income differentiation, measured by the Gini coefficient, has increased rapidly, passed two peaks in 2002 and 2010, surpassed the U.S. level, and then began to decline. In the United States over the past 30 years, we can talk about a slight upward trend in inequality indicators, but mostly there have been fluctuations around the same level. Taking into account the use of other indicators that reflect inequality, additional analysis is needed to identify the real situation in terms of the level and dynamics of progress towards this goal.
Regarding the position where the gap is the largest – SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals) – the situation here is determined, among other things, by the difference in approaches and methodology that has developed in China and the OECD countries that are members of the ‘club’ of the Development Assistance committee.
These results reflect not only different starting conditions and the level and dynamics of economic development, but they also characterize different approaches to SDG management.
The serious attitude towards the work to achieve the SDGs in China at the political level is evidenced by the fact that after the approval of the SDGs, coordination of work in this area was assigned to a leading agency – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China and the key policy document for guiding was published China's commitment to SDG implementation – National Plan on Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, China uses innovation-driven demonstration zones for implementing the SDGs 30.
China incorporated the SDGs in 13th and 14th Five-Year Plan and 2035 development targets. In accordance with the UN recommendations, China, like most countries of the world, prepares and has already presented two Voluntary National Review (VNR) of progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2023b) since 2016. By July 2023, all UN Member States will have presented a VNR except for Haiti, Myanmar, South Sudan, the United States and Yemen.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, issues of sustainable development and the climate agenda, despite the economic crisis of 2008–2009 and opposition from the Republican wing of the American establishment, were paid attention to 31.
In November 30, 2015 during remarks by President Obama at the First Session of 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference he said: ‘Over the last seven years, we’ve made ambitious investments in clean energy, and ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions’, and also called on all countries to join forces in the fight against climate change.
During the presidency of D. Trump, SDG issues occupied a far less prominent place. Moreover, D. Trump has consistently and demonstratively declared the priority of the American economy over the climate agenda. As a result, on June 1, 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.
After J. Biden assumed the presidency, attention to the climate agenda and the SDGs in general increased; President Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris Agreement on January 20, 2021, his first day in office. Green energy programs and other programs related to the climate agenda began to roll out.
The topic has gained greater attention in public and academic circles and in a broader context of sustainable development.
In particular, there is a notable publication of the Brookings Center for Sustainable Development and United Nations Foundation report, where a recommendation was made to start preparing and submitting a Voluntary National Review, as the rest of the G7, G20 and OECD countries are doing 32, as well as other proposals for improving progress towards the SDGs.
Unlike China, with its centralized structures and plans for sustainable development, the United States is more focused on the actions of individual companies, communities, local and regional authorities, providing support from the federal level, including in the form of grants.
As noted in the previously mentioned work 14, the top-down and bottom-up approaches of China and the United States have their merits and these approaches should be studied and used taking into account the characteristics of countries and differences in sustainable development goals.
INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF THE SDGS OF CHINA AND THE USA
Despite existing differences, a comparison of the level of SDG indicators of the two countries allows to speak about a certain relationship between the levels of implementation of the SDGs. It highlights the existence of areas of success and areas with insufficient progress towards the SDGs. Figure 2 shows the relationship between index values for individual SDGs. Each dot corresponds to the index values for the US and China for the corresponding SDG, the number of which is located next to this dot.
The straight line illustratively shows the average relationship between the indicators.
Source: calculations by author based on data from 3.
In the success area, SDGs include two goals where the indicators for both the United States and China are already close to 100%: SDG1 (No Poverty) and SDG4 (Quality education). In addition, SDG9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) can be attributed to the area of success. Three SDGs in the overall area with insufficient progress towards goals include: SDG10 (Reduced Inequalities), SDG15 (Life on Land), and SDG14 (Life Below Water).
A comparison of the SDG indicators of the two countries shows that for most of them, the proportionality and interconnectedness of the indicators are revealed, which, despite all the differences between countries, demonstrates the similarity of the hierarchy of existing problems and priorities. The areas of success testify to the priority and importance of development for both the United States and China in those areas. SDGs that are generally difficult to achieve are left in the insufficient progress area. This indicates the need to expand cooperation, especially for problematic SDGs, since joint efforts can make it possible to solve existing problems more effectively.
Structural changes that have taken place over the past 20–30 years have formed a deeply penetrating system of interaction and interdependence not only between the US and China, but also between most other countries. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased tension in international relations lead to the reformatting of this global complex system, which adversely affects the progress of the world community and individual countries in sustainable development. At the same time, the ideas of sustainable development that are accepted by the world community and reflected in the SDGs, not only do not lose their relevance, but also act as a framework for world development.
The novelty of this work lies in the comparison of the positions of China and the United States on all 17 SDGs based on information from the Sustainable Development Goal Indices database and the identification of the interconnectedness of progress towards the SDGs despite differences in volume and structural economic indicators and, in particular, organizational approaches aimed at promoting progress towards the SDGs. The results show that China is ahead of the United States in three indicators of the SDG Indexes, lags behind in five indicators, and the countries are at approximately the same level in nine indicators.
Countries’ political and organizational approaches to mechanisms for moving towards the SDGs also differ. China has historically demonstrated centralized and hierarchical schemes, operating mainly on a top-down basis, which makes it possible to initially establish a holistic and balanced approach and ensure consistency in the implementation of plans. The US is characterized by a more bottom-up approach, which allows greater flexibility, initiative and responsibility at the corporate and local levels. At the same time, especially at the federal level, dependence on changes in political attitudes during the transfer of power between presidential administrations remains high.
Separately, the interconnectedness of indicators of progress towards the SDGs was analyzed based on the analysis of the ratio of indicators of the SDG Indices for China and the USA. The results show that, despite all the existing differences in economic and political systems for most of the SDGs, such a dependence exists and common zones of success and lag for the two countries can be identified. Both joint zones of success and, in particular, joint zones of lag suggest the need to harmonize and combine efforts for a faster and a more productive progress towards the SDGs.
The multidimensional nature of the mutual dependence of the economies of the United States and China, the direct or indirect influence of these largest economies in the world makes it necessary to increasingly coordinate actions and correlate the policies pursued. That is why, despite the competition and rivalry between the United States and China, opinions about the need for joint efforts on the climate agenda 33 and in the field of sustainable development in general 34 become more frequent. Some authors explicitly state that US–China cooperation is vital to global plans for a healthy environment and sustainable development 35.
The complexity of the processes of transition to sustainable development and the impossibility of one country to solve them completely on its own creates the need for a coordinated and complementary policy. It is necessary to consider ways to achieve the SDGs in the broad context of cooperation between interested countries.
At the same time, it is necessary to take into account and to assess the use of the economic potential of countries for their advancement in the direction of sustainable development, to make efforts to improve its efficiency, including on the basis of intercountry cooperation, highlighting those areas where the interests of countries are the closest and the most interdependent.
Such work should be based on reliable and holistic data, which implies continued improvement of the methodology for calculating SDG summary indicators and taking into account associated effects in order to adequately assess the progress of countries towards sustainable development.
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