The EU and its member states face the greatest challenges on goals related to climate, biodiversity, and circular economy, as well as in strengthening the convergence in living standards, across countries and regions. In particular, countries need to accelerate progress towards climate change (SDG 13), sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), protection and conservation of biodiversity (SDGs 14 and 15), and sustainable agriculture and food systems (SDG 2).
Leave No One Behind
Many countries are falling back on “leave no one behind” (LNOB), so the EU’s SDG strategy must place emphasis on strengthening social inclusion for all people living in its territory. Education and innovation capacities must be improved to raise living standards in poorer member states and accelerate the convergence in living standards.
European countries also generate large, negative spillovers that impede other countries’ ability to achieve the SDGs. Such spillovers comprise environmental spillovers (such as greenhouse gas emissions or biodiversity loss embodied in trade), financial and governance spillovers (such as banking secrecy), and security spillovers (such as weapons exports). The EU’s SDG strategy must identify and address negative international spillovers.
Priority I: Internal SDG priorities for the EU and member states.
The new European Commission, working with the European Parliament and the European Council, has the vital role to ensure that EU processes are in place to achieve the SDGs, including under the framework of the European Green Deal. Based on the SDG Index data, we identify three primary EU-wide SDG priorities to be pursued with all member states. Individual countries may need to tackle additional challenges.
1. A European Green Deal for Sustainable Energy, Circularity, and Land Use & Food. At the heart of the EU’s strategy to achieve the SDGs, the European Green Deal must include an EU-wide strategy to (i) fully decarbonise the energy system (including transport, building, and industry) by 2050; (ii) to promote the circular economy and achieve greater efficiencies in resource use and far lower waste; and (iii) develop integrated policies to promote sustainable land use and food systems by 2050.
2. A Sustainable Europe Investment Plan. The EU needs to increase investments in sustainable infrastructure, including through greater EU resources. New sources for public revenues should be considered to finance the investment plan, which will require adequate resourcing.
3. Skills and Innovation: EU Education Area and Horizon Europe 2030. Europe needs to increase investments in education, job skills, and innovation, with a focus on STEM education at all levels and R&D for sustainable technologies. Just as China has its Made in China 2025 Initiative and the U.S. has its America AI Initiative, Europe should intensify its R&D efforts.
Priority II: European Diplomacy and Development Cooperation for the SDGs
European Diplomacy for the SDGs: The SDGs represent Europe’s values, so the EU should use them as part of its external action. Indeed, a critical part of Europe’s role in achieving the SDGs includes global leadership through diplomacy and international economic relations. The core areas for the EU’s SDG diplomacy are manifold and include:
1. EU leadership for the SDGs in the international conventions, particularly the climate and biodiversity conventions, where the EU needs to push for climate and biodiversity neutrality by 2050.
2. EU SDG leadership in multilateral forums to protect and strengthen multilateralism.
3. Bilateral fora with key partners, particularly with the African Union (AU), Mercosur, China, Japan, North America, and Russia
4. EU-China Partnership for Sustainable Investment. Europe should offer to link its own Sustainable Europe Investment Plan with the Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative, under the condition that BRI also adopts a sustainable investment framework.
European Sustainable Development Cooperation: The EU is the world’s biggest donor and contributor to climate finance. It now needs to align its development cooperation with the SDGs to serve the needs of emerging economies and poor countries. The EU should consider launching a bold AU-EU Partnership for African Education to help ensure that all African children are enabled to complete education.
Priority III: Tackling international spillovers.
To ensure international legitimacy, the EU’s diplomacy and sustainable development cooperation must be coherent with its internal ambitions. This will require addressing negative international spillovers. The EU needs to systematically track such spillovers and assess the impact of European policies on other countries and the global commons. In particular, trade policies and decarbonisation strategies need to be reviewed with a view towards international spillovers. EU member states also need to make further efforts in curbing banking secrecy and unfair tax competition.
Aligning the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027 with the SDGs. The next MFF should be the MFF for the SDGs. This includes phasing out expenditures that are not aligned with the SDGs and increasing spending on sustainable development priorities. New MFF principles and their alignment with the SDGs should be integrated into all EU funds. The MFF should also identify clear SDG metrics that can track progress towards the goals.
Strengthened SDG measurement and indicators. As we show in the report, monitoring frameworks across EU policy fields are not aligned with the SDGs and lack coherence. This can and needs to be changed quickly by identifying headline SDG indicators that should guide all tools, including budget, member state coordination, and external action. Moreover, Eurostat and other EU bodies charged with collecting SDG data will require greater resources to track key SDG data, including on international spillovers. Another important priority is better real-time data on the implementation of the European Green Deal and other critical SDG strategies.
Putting the SDGs at the core of the European Semester. The scope of the European Semester should be expanded slightly to cover all major SDG dimensions. This will not require a major change since the European Semester is already meant to track social and several environmental targets; and a clear SDG focus should not divert attention away from macroeconomic coordination, which is also needed to achieve the SDGs. Member states might be requested to present their long-term national strategies in support of the European Green Deal and other SDG priorities – alongside macroeconomic policies and fiscal frameworks. The European Semester process would then map national strategies against EU-wide strategies to identify and address opportunities for greater alignment and flag issues arising out of implementation.
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