Weak sustainability is not sustainable: Socioeconomic and environmental assessment of Inner Mongolia for the past three decades

Chenwei Shang, Tong Wu, Ganlin Huang, Jianguo Wu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Inner Mongolia of China is distinguished by its size, expansive grasslands, and rich endowment of natural resources – particularly coal. Since China's “Reform and Opening Up” Inner Mongolia's socioeconomic trajectory has resembled that of China as a whole: a rapid rise in GDP, urbanization, and human development. But behind this rosy picture, has Inner Mongolia really been on a sustainable trajectory? To address this question, we quantified the temporal patterns of socioeconomic growth, energy consumption, and food and water footprints of Inner Mongolia from 1987 to 2015. Our results show that during the past three decades Inner Mongolia's per-capita income increased 8.5 times; urban population nearly doubled; adult literacy improved by nearly 30%; and life expectancy increased by more than 23% (about 15 years). However, this socioeconomic progress was accompanied by rapid rising environmental pressures. Between 1987 and 2015, water resource use increased four-fold, energy consumption increased approximately seven-fold, and large areas of natural grasslands were converted to agricultural, industrial, and urban land use. These impacts were exacerbated by large-scale coal production. To become more sustainable, Inner Mongolia's development needs to better balance socioeconomic development and environmental protection, following a strong sustainability-oriented development model based on China's new policy blueprint of “Ecological Civilization”. Towards this end, our study not only gauges the past unsustainable trajectory of Inner Mongolia, but also provides a scientific benchmark for promoting a more sustainable future for the region and beyond.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)243-252
Number of pages10
JournalResources, Conservation and Recycling
StatePublished - Feb 2019


  • Coal mining
  • Ecological footprint
  • Human Development Index
  • Inner Mongolia
  • Sustainability assessment
  • Water footprint

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Economics and Econometrics


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