The rapid economic growth of China in the past decades has been accompanied by serious environmental problems. In the country, both economic development and environmental pollution show a geographically uneven pattern, with some regions displaying significantly better performance than others in economic and/or environmental performance. To understand the regional pattern of economic and environmental performance, this article analyzes sustainable development at the Chinese provincial level. Three sustainability indices are defined and computed by combining economic and environmental factors based on data envelopment analysis. The three indices correspond to the concepts of natural disposability, managerial disposability and null-joint relationship, respectively. Natural (managerial) disposability prioritizes economic (environmental) outcome in measuring sustainability. Furthermore, the assumption of a null-joint relationship implies that undesirable outputs are by-products of desirable outputs. We derive the three indices for the data on Chinese provinces over 2004–2017. We find that, in all indices, a small group of provinces have been maintaining very stable performance improvement over time, whereas a few provinces exhibit drastic swings in performance. Moreover, the fast-growing economies of some provinces contrast sharply with their poor sustainable development. Among the pollutants under study, carbon emissions play an important role in benchmarking the sustainability level for certain provinces. Further, provincial-level performance can be attributed to geographical and economic factors. Policy implications and future research are discussed based on the empirical results.
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