Land use efficiency, energy efficiency, and air quality are key indicators when assessing urban-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), yet recent trends and trade-offs in and around urban areas worldwide remain largely unknown. We use an Earth Observation approach to map the land-energy-air sustainability nexus and highlight distinct urban-rural gradients worldwide (2000–2015). In the Global South, urban areas perform relatively better in land-energy-air sustainability trends than rural areas, which are the least sustainable in our global comparative analysis. Comparatively, urban areas in the Global North tend to be less sustainable than their surrounding rural regions. Trade-offs among land-energy-air trends are mostly related to energy efficiency versus air quality in urban areas, while trade-offs between land use efficiency and the other two SDGs (energy-air) are more pronounced in rural areas. Integrating satellite-data is crucial for tracking the progress of the land-energy-air nexus and can guide context-specific strategies to account for urban-rural differences in achieving sustainability and creating more liveable environments for improving human wellbeing.