Europe Sustainable Development Report 2020 Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) have published the 2020 Europe Sustainable Development Report (ESDR), the second independent quantitative report on the progress of the European Union, its member states, and other European countries towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by all UN member states in 2015. The 2020 Europe SDG Index can be found within the report.

The 2020 ESDR is part of the broader Sustainable Development Report (SDR) series which track the performance of countries and municipalities around the world on the SDGs since 2015. It builds on a peer-reviewed and statistically audited methodology, and includes country profiles for the EU, its member states and partner countries.

The report comes at a critical time when a new US administration has verbally committed to re-joining the Paris Agreement. China, Japan, South Korea, and other countries have joined the EU in pledging zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. This is the time for the EU to promote shared goals for sustainable development ahead of landmark 2021 climate and biodiversity summits in the United Kingdom and in China.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a serious setback for sustainable development in Europe and around the world, but the EU is right not to compromise on its vision or its values.

The SDGs are the global affirmation of European values. They are the “future we want”. While the goals are achievable and financially affordable, meeting them will depend on strong political leadership and ambitious policies. Sound data is also imperative to track progress. This report by SDSN and IEEP, provides such data, as a complement to the official Eurostat report on the SDGs.

The most pressing priority for Europe is to suppress the pandemic – through non-pharmaceutical interventions and the introduction of a safe vaccine as early as science permits.

Compared with countries in the Asia-Pacific region, European and EU responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been far less effective. Learning from countries that have succeeded in suppressing the virus and have better managed to mitigate its health and economic impacts will be key to achieving SDG target 3.d on preparedness for global health security issues. Greater preparedness, coordination and resilience are also needed to prepare Europe for other critical threats, including climate risks.

The SDGs are a framework on which to “build back better” under a post-COVID-19 economic recovery, and for financing within Europe and globally.

The investment-led recovery should support a sustainable, inclusive and resilient recovery from COVID-19 based on the European Green Deal and addressing all 17 SDGs. More than stimulus packages that boost aggregate demand, the crisis calls for a recovery driven by transformative public investments that support green infrastructure, digitization, and responsible consumption and production. This must be accompanied with increased efforts and investments to boost education and skills throughout Europe and to accelerate the convergence of living standards. Coordinated efforts to reform tax systems, and in particular digital taxes, are crucial to finance these transformations in Europe and in the rest of the world.

Europe 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.

This year’s SDG Index and Dashboards presents pre-COVID-19 data. Even before the onset of the pandemic, no European country was on track to achieve all 17 SDGs by 2030. The EU and partner countries were performing especially poorly on SDG 2 (No Hunger), due to unsustainable diets, high and rising obesity rates, and unsustainable agricultural and farming practices. Major performance gaps are seen for SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action), SDG 14 (Life Below Water), and SDG 15 (Life on Land). Education and innovation capacities must be strengthened to accelerate the convergence in living standards across EU Member States, and to equip EU citizens with the skills they need to thrive in a digital economy.

Unsustainable supply chains and trade-related spillovers from the EU undermine other countries’ capacities to achieve the SDGs and increase the likelihood of future pandemics.

The 2020 International Spillover Index shows that European countries are generating large, negative spillovers outside the region – with serious environmental, social and economic consequences for the rest of the world. For instance, imports of textile products into the EU is related to hundreds of fatal workplace accidents (and more than 20,000 non-fatal accidents) every year.

The EU needs an integrated and comprehensive approach to implementing the SDGs and must communicate clearly against the SDGs.

The European Commission was astute in not launching a separate SDG strategy process for the EU in parallel to the European Green Deal. Key elements of an SDG strategy for the EU have already been in place and are addressed in the Commission President’s political guidelines and the Commission’s annual work programmes. Gaps can be identified and filled notably through the European Green Deal and without an additional overarching strategy process. Yet, this approach still needs to be worked out and implemented across the EU’s policies.

An integrated approach to the SDGs must focus on three broad areas: internal priorities; diplomacy and development cooperation; and negative international spillovers.

The concept of SDG Transformations, introduced in the 2019 Europe Sustainable Development Report (ESDR 2019), can help the EU frame a narrative that is operational and easy to communicate. By grouping major synergies and any trade-offs, the transformations can focus attention on the greatest implementation opportunities and challenges that the region faces.

For any questions or if you are looking to get involved, please contact us at info@sdgindex.org.