How the EU can Jumpstart Progress Towards the SDGs

2020 was a setback for the global goals. Here are 3 ways the EU can lead the way to a more sustainable future.

The beginning of 2021 marks a symbolic end to a year that will go down in history, unfortunately for may of the wrong reasons.

In the EU, while there’s much to be hopeful about, including the roll-out of effective vaccines and the Next Generation EU Covid-19 recovery package (NGEU), the resurgence of Covid-19 cases across the continent and the emergence of new strains of the virus has underscored that we are not out of the woods yet.

The pandemic continues to present a major setback – at least in the short run – for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with rising poverty, unemployment, and mortality in the EU an the rest of the world.

As we look to this New Year and beyond, achieving the SDGs in the EU will require better communication on the role and importance of the SDGs in EU policy-making, an integrated approach to SDG implementation, and regular reporting of progress towards targets.

The EU still has a mixed SDG scorecard

Even before the onset of the pandemic, no EU country was on track to achieve all 17 SDGs by 2030, as highlighted in the recent 2020 Europe Sustainable Development Report (ESDR). The report, prepared by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), tracks the performance of the EU and its Member States on the SDGs and makes recommendations for how to accelerate SDG implementation.

Compared with the rest of the world, the EU performs relatively well overall on the SDGs. Finland tops the 2020 Europe SDG Index, followed by two other Nordic countries – Denmark and Sweden. Yet, even these countries face major challenges and are not on Track to achieving all the goals.

2020 EU SDG Dashboards

(Picture credit: SDSN and IEEP, 2020.)The SDG Dashboards highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the European Union and sub-regions on the 17 SDGs. They underline the poor performance of all EU countries on climate and biodiversity goals (SDGs 12-15), sustainable diets and agriculture (SDG 2: No hunger), and persisting disparities across EU countries and regions on several of the socio-economic goals (SDGs 1- 10).

The EU faces its greatest SDG challenges in the areas of sustainable diets and agriculture, climate and biodiversity – and in strengthening the convergence of living standards across its countries and regions.

Additionally, unsustainable supply chains and trade-related spillovers from the EU continue to undermine other countries’ capacities to achieve the SDGs and increase the likelihood of future pandemics. For example, the 2020 ESDR’s International Spillover Index demonstrates that European countries are generating large, negative spillovers – for instance, textile consumption in the EU can be linked to 375 fatal accidents and 21,000 non-fatal accidents worldwide. This leads to serious environmental and social consequences for the rest of the world.

SDG Index and International Spillover Index Scores in the EU compared with other parts of the world

(Picture credit: Sachs et al, 2020.) The SDG Index measures the performance of all UN member states on the 17 SDGs. The International Spillover Index measures negative impacts outsourced abroad, including through trade and consumption, financial secrecy, tax havens, and profit shifting. The figure demonstrates that the EU is generating negative spillovers which undermine other countries’ ability to achieve the goals.)

The SDGs provide a powerful, shared roadmap to guide the EU’s recovery strategies.

Despite these challenges, the EU continues to be a testbed for proving the feasibility of the SDGs. The EU played a key role in the design and adoption of the Agenda 2030, the SDGs, and the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, and has since been instrumental in helping to mainstream the SDGs in various policy instruments and commitments.

These include the commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in the European Green Deal, which inspired other countries to adopt similar commitments, as well as highlighting the SDGs as a key facet of EU policy-making in the mission letters to Commissioners and in its 2020 and 2021 Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy.

Using the SDGs to recover from the pandemic and transform the EU

The EU recently adopted an unprecedented €1.8 trillion ($2.18 trillion USD) package to recover from the pandemic and to accelerate the transition to a greener, more digital, and resilient Europe. Individual Member States also adopted significant recovery packages.

The SDGs provide a powerful, shared roadmap to guide the EU’s recovery strategies. Yet the explicit link between the EU’s recovery plans and instruments and the SDGs – including the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the guidance given to Member States for preparing their recovery and resilience plan – is largely missing.

We identify three priorities for the EU to support an effective, coordinated and science-based implementation of the SDGs.

1. Put the goals on the agenda

First, the EU can do much more to effectively communicate the role and importance of the SDGs and define a clear narrative shared across Member States and stakeholders.

The SDGs are the right framework for “building back better” from Covid-19 and paving the path forward

The EU has legislative and policy tools in place (or in preparation) to address most SDG challenges and was astute in not launching a separate SDG strategy process for the EU in parallel to the European Green Deal.

Yet, even seasoned observers can get lost in the plethora of instruments. While the recent Staff Working Paper on the SDGs provides a useful grouping of activities, it’s difficult to discern the SDG priorities in EU policy processes. There is still significant room to strengthen and simplify the narrative for how the SDGs can and will be achieved inside and outside the Union.

Frameworks like the six SDG Transformations can help the EU frame a narrative that is operational and easy to communicate.

2. Find areas of overlap

Second, strengthened coordination between national and EU-level SDG policies is crucial.

European institutions and Member States are challenges with having to coordinate across several policy areas – such as biodiversity, nutrition, agriculture and climate, involving national and subnational governments. For example, some elements of the Green Deal will require cross-border infrastructure, such as power grids, that must be coordinated across Member States. European institutions and Member States will need to learn from one another about what works and what doesn’t.

The European Semester is a key process to help coordinate national and EU-level SDG policies and investments. Designed in the wake of the financial crisis, it has established itself as the annual cycle of coordination around economic policies, including structural reform, fiscal policies and the prevention of excessive macroeconomic imbalances. The policy guidance and country-specific recommendations are discussed and adopted in a six-month period from the beginning of each year, hence its name – the ‘semester’.

3. Targets matter

Thirds, the SDGs need to be carefully monitored against agreed targets. This will require clarity on critical targets, by synthesising and prioritising across the large number of EU policy instruments and decisions made by EU institutions.

These lead or headline SDG aligned targets and indicators should cover the EU’s domestic and international policies, including spillovers.

The SDGs are the right framework for “building back better from Covid-19 and paving the path forward. China’s carbon neutrality pledge and the new Biden administration in the United States hold the very real promise that multilateral diplomacy will refocus on the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda.

This year’s COP15 biodiversity conference in Kunming, China and the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, will also provide opportunities for real breakthroughs. By virtue of its policy leadership, its values, and its technological capabilities, the EU is well-placed to lead such international efforts.


This article was originally published on Apolitical on February 2, 2021.

Co-written by: Guillaume Lafortune (Director of SDSN Paris), Guido Schmidt-Traub (SYSTEMIQ), Adolf Kloke-Lesch (Executive Director of SDSN Germany) and Grayson Fuller (SDG Index Analyst, SDSN).

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