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Decoupling of SDGs followed by re-coupling as sustainable development progresses


Understanding the complex interactions among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is key to achieving all of the SDGs and ‘leaving no one behind’. However, research about dynamic changes of SDG interactions is limited, and how they change as sustainable development progresses remains elusive. Here, we used a correlational network approach and a global SDG database of 166 countries to analyse the evolution of SDG interactions along a progression of sustainable development measured by the SDG Index. SDG interactions showed nonlinear changes as the SDG Index increased: SDGs were both more positively and more negatively connected at low and high sustainable development levels, but they were clustered into more isolated positive connection groups at middle levels. The identification of a process of decoupling followed by re-coupling along the SDG Index strengthens our understanding of sustainable development and may help to suggest action priorities to achieve as many SDGs as possible by 2030.

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Fig. 1: Metrics and countries used in the network analysis.
Fig. 2: Effects of SDG Index score on the structure of both positive and negative correlation networks of SDGs.
Fig. 3: Connectivity of individual SDGs along the SDG Index.
Fig. 4: Module composition of synergy networks and their changes at different SDG Index score levels.

Data availability

All of the data used in this paper can be obtained from the Sustainable Development Report ( and the World Bank World Development Indicators (

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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This research was financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (42041007, B.F. and S.W.), the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2017YFA0604701, B.F. and S.W.), the China National Postdoctoral Program for Innovative Talents (BX2021042, X.W.), the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2021M700458, X.W.) and the US National Science Foundation (1924111, J.L.). We thank M. R. Felipe-Lucia et al. for sharing the R script for network analysis in their publication (

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Authors and Affiliations



B.F. and X.W. designed the research. X.W., S.W. and S.S. performed the data analysis. X.W., B.F., S.W., S.S., Y.L., Z.X., Y.W. and J.L. contributed to the interpretation and writing.

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Correspondence to Bojie Fu.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Mustafa Moinuddin, Tiffany Morrison and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–8 and Tables 1–4.

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Wu, X., Fu, B., Wang, S. et al. Decoupling of SDGs followed by re-coupling as sustainable development progresses. Nat Sustain 5, 452–459 (2022).

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