Impacts of international trade on global sustainable development


The United Nations has adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 targets. International trade has substantial influences on global sustainability and human well-being. However, little is known about the impacts of international trade on progress towards achieving the SDG targets. Here we show that international trade positively affected global progress towards achieving nine environment-related SDG targets. International trade improved the SDG target scores of most (65%) of the evaluated developed countries but reduced the SDG target scores of over 60% of the evaluated developing countries. The SDG target scores of developed countries were higher than those of developing countries when trade was accounted for, but those scores would be lower than those of developing countries if trade were not a factor. Furthermore, trade between distant countries contributed more to achieving these global SDG targets than trade between adjacent countries. Compared with adjacent trade, distant trade was more beneficial for achieving SDG targets in developed countries, but it more negatively affected SDG target scores in developing countries. Our research suggests that enhancing the accounting for and management of virtual resources embedded in trade is essential for achieving and balancing sustainable development for all.

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Fig. 1: The temporal change and spatial pattern of SDG target scores.
Fig. 2: Impacts of international trade on SDG targets differed between developed and developing countries.
Fig. 3: Comparison of SDG target scores between a distant-trade scenario and an adjacent-trade scenario.

Data availability

All the source data described in the ‘Data’ section can be obtained from the World Input–Output Database (WIOD) and World Bank. The intermediate data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

All computer code used in conducting the analyses summarized in this paper is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank R. M. Scarrow and S. Nichols for their constructive comments that have greatly helped improve the paper. We are grateful for financial support from the National Science Foundation (grant nos DEB-1924111 and DEB-1340812), Michigan State University, Michigan AgBioResearch, the Environmental Science and Policy Program (ESPP) Doctoral Recruiting Fellowships and the China Scholarship Council.

Author information




Z.X., Yingjie Li and J.L. designed the research. Z.X. and Yingjie Li contributed the data. Yingjie Li and Z.X. performed the data analysis and interpreted the results with support from S.N.C., J.L., T.D., C.L., L.W., J.Z., L.Z., Yunkai Li and M.G.C. Yingjie Li, Z.X. and J.L. wrote the manuscript with contributions from S.N.C. and T.D. All authors reviewed and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jianguo Liu.

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Xu, Z., Li, Y., Chau, S.N. et al. Impacts of international trade on global sustainable development. Nat Sustain (2020).

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