Performance of European countries against the SDGs
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015 by all 193 UN Member States, calls on all nations to combine economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability with peaceful societies. The SDGs represent an affirmation of European values. European countries, and in particular the EU leadership, played a key role in the adoption of the SDGs and have committed to achieving them. The SDGs are intimately linked with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (“Paris Agreement”), which is incorporated in SDG 13 (Climate Action). The SDGs and the Paris Agreement should be viewed as a package, with the SDGs oriented towards 2030 and the Paris Agreement oriented towards climate-neutrality by 2050, requiring major progress by 2030.
The SDGs also provide a roadmap for a sustainable, inclusive and resilient recovery from COVID‑19. This is not the time to lower SDG ambitions in Europe and globally (Sachs et al., 2020b). Particularly relevant in the COVID‑19 context, SDG 3 (Good Health and Well‑Being) calls for universal health coverage, increased access to and quality of care, and “early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks”. The 2020 Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy and the Recovery and Resilience Facility are meant to “guide and build a more sustainable, resilient and fairer Europe for the next generation in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.” (European Commission, 2020d).
According to the 2020 Global SDG Index, prepared by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), all ten countries closest to achieving the SDGs are in Europe, as are 17 of the top 20 countries – a remarkable performance from an international perspective. Yet there are significant gaps in performance across European countries: ranging from Sweden, Denmark and Finland (ranked the top 3) to Bulgaria, Greece and Romania (ranked 35th and lower). European countries also generate large negative spillover effects that undermine other countries’ efforts to achieve the Goals. Before the outbreak of COVID‑19, no European country was on track to achieving the SDGs. COVID‑19 is a major setback for sustainable development, with negative short‑term impacts in Europe as in the rest of the world, along with longer‑term impacts that are much harder to predict, as they largely depend on the ability of the global community to learn lessons from the pandemic with which to build more sustainable, inclusive and resilient economies.
The SDSN, in cooperation with IEEP, has developed a Europe SDG Index and Dashboards that draws on far richer and more timely data than is available for the global SDG Index. The Europe SDG Index and Dashboards cover the EU as a whole, the 27 individual Member States, the 4 countries of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland), as well as the United Kingdom. This comes to a total of 32 countries, plus the EU as an aggregate. This year’s edition includes 113 indicators. By design, the SDG Index goes beyond GDP to measure the progress of countries, by including measures of well‑being, environmental sustainability and good governance.
As described further in the methodology section (Annex 1) and in Lafortune et al., (2018), we score each country’s performance on every indicator on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 denoting the best possible score. Scores can be interpreted as percentages towards achievement of the SDGs. The methodology for the index and dashboards has been audited by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) (Papadimitriou et al., 2019). This report complements the official SDG monitoring report prepared by Eurostat, Sustainable Development in the European Union: Monitoring Report on Progress Towards the SDGs in an EU Context (Eurostat, 2020). As shown in a recent study that compared the findings of the SDSN/IEEP, Eurostat, OECD and ASviS monitoring reports for the SDGs, the choice of methodology and indicators to track the SDGs in the EU can lead to very different results and policy messages (Miola and Schiltz, 2019; Lafortune et al., 2020). Compared with other assessments, the SDSN/ IEEP report integrates more unofficial statistics, calculates distance to invariant thresholds that denote SDG achievement, and covers more extensively the issue of international spillovers.
Due to time lags in data generation and reporting, this year’s Europe SDG Index and Dashboards do not reflect the impact of COVID‑19. The projection of country trajectories based on recent progress (business‑as‑usual, or BAU, scenarios) may not provide a realistic sense of the likely future, as COVID‑19 risks impacting trajectories relating to many SDGs. At the same time, using country‑level data in the midst of the COVID‑19 crisis to evaluate progress on CO2 emissions, pollution and other environmental or social metrics may not be the most useful way to assess overall medium‑ and longer‑term trajectories, or government efforts towards decoupling. Section 1.5 discusses the observed and likely impacts of COVID‑19 on the 17 SDGs.
The “pre‑COVID‑19” Europe SDG Index and Dashboards remain useful for understanding goal‑by‑goal progress across countries and regions since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015. This serves three purposes in a world that is being transformed by the effects of COVID‑19. Firstly, the SDG data and dashboards presented in this report can help countries understand pre‑ crisis vulnerabilities and challenges, which partly explain why so many countries were ill‑prepared to respond to COVID‑19. Secondly, the SDGs provide a framework for the long‑term recovery from COVID‑19: the six SDG Transformations described in section 3 can help operationalise such a strategy. Thirdly, the SDG dashboards underscore the urgent need for investments in more timely and comprehensive SDG data.
Our 2020 results show that no European country had achieved the SDGs before the start of the COVID‑19 pandemic. Moreover, no European country was on track to achieving all SDGs by 2030. Finland tops the 2020 Europe SDG Index, followed by two other Nordic countries – Denmark and Sweden. Interestingly, compared with other European countries, Finland has also managed so far to better mitigate the health and economic impacts of COVID‑19 (Section 2). Yet even these countries face major challenges in achieving several SDGs and are not on track to achieving all of the SDGs. Countries in Southern and Eastern Europe perform worse. COVID‑19 has in many instances increased these challenges, especially relating to socio‑economic goals, and has not resolved the climate and biodiversity crises.
European countries obtain best results on the socio-economic goals, including SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well‑Being) and SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). There are currently no good international measures to capture SDG target 3.d on preparedness for global health security issues. The existing measures have been poor predictors of countries’ ability to deal with COVID‑19 so far (Lafortune, 2020). We underline the need for further actions on SDG 5 (Gender Equality). Only one country (Norway) has achieved this goal as yet, and many are off track for achieving it by 2030.
By contrast, European countries perform poorly on goals related to responsible consumption and production, climate action, and biodiversity. Their poorest results are on SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action), SDG 14 (Life Below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land). In most cases, trajectories in the years preceding COVID‑19 were largely insufficient to achieve these Goals by 2030, or the objectives of the Paris Agreement. This aligns with the results presented by Eurostat in its 2020 report (Eurostat, 2020), apart from SDG 14, for which it provides no trends. An important difference between the two reports, however, is that all European countries perform poorly on SDG 2 (No Hunger) in the present ESDR, due to unsustainable diets, high and rising obesity rates, and unsustainable agriculture and farming.
Using the 2020 indicator set, we calculated the SDG Index retroactively to estimate progress made by Europe since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015 and over the past decade. Due to changes in the indicator selection, the 2020 SDG Index and Dashboards for Europe are not directly comparable with those of the 2019 edition. Overall, the EU as a whole and all European subregions have improved their scores: since 2010 and since 2015. Progress since 2010 has been fastest in the Baltic States (+6.6 percentage points), while the EU as a whole has improved by 4.6 percentage points since 2010 and by 2.0 points since 2015. Overall, there has been some degree of convergence in the EU since 2015 however, with subregions that started at lower SDG index scores (Baltic States, Central and Eastern Europe, Southern Europe) progressing more quickly than those with higher scores (Northern Europe and Western Europe). Even so, at current rates it would take the Baltic States, Central and Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe more than 20 years to achieve scores currently seen for Northern Europe (the best‑performing European subregion).
The SDGs call for addressing inequalities within and across countries. The “Leave no one behind” principle, incorporated into the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, is commonly invoked in reference to inequalities within each country. Compared with the rest of the world, Europe may be said to be the “most equal” continent. Few people face extreme poverty and undernourishment and in general there is widespread access to key services (including health and education) and infrastructure. Yet there are strong disparities across European countries in equity, and across population groups. Trends in relation to some equity measures are not all moving in the right direction (EESC, 2019).
The Leave no one behind (LNOB) Index measures inequalities within countries. As indicators related to leaving no one behind are distributed across many SDGs, we also present this standalone index to look at inequalities within European countries using a broad range of measures. The Index includes 29 indicators that track gaps in income and wealth across population groups; unequal access to public services and infrastructure; gender inequalities; and inequalities in access to food, health, education and other human‑development measures. All indicators included in the European LNOB Index are also part of the SDG Index and Dashboards.
Overall, three Nordic countries top the LNOB Index – Norway, Finland and Iceland. These three countries are also amongst the top five happiest countries in the world according to the World Happiness Report (Helliwell et al., 2020). By contrast, countries in Eastern and Central Europe face significant equity challenges, characterised by greater poverty rates and material deprivation, as well as gaps across population groups in access to care, quality education, and infrastructure (including broadband Internet connection).
Looking at trends over the past decade, all European subregions have progressed on the LNOB Index. Progress has been fastest in subregions with lower scores, including the Baltic States, Central and Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe, especially since 2015. By contrast, since 2015 LNOB index scores have stagnated in high‑performing countries, including the EFTA countries and those in Northern and Western Europe. Some specific indicators are not moving in the right direction in most European countries. For instance, on average the share of people in work but at risk of poverty increased in the EU between 2010 (8.6%) and 2019 (9.3%).
In Europe, many countries with high internal inequality are also lagging in overall SDG performance. Persistent inequalities in some European countries and slow convergence may require further attention, as they could fuel frustrations in relation to domestic and European politics, especially in the COVID‑19 context, amplifying inequalities.
SDG 10 calls for reducing inequalities also between countries, which is generally referred to as “convergence” in Europe and by the EU leadership. One of the founding principles of the EU is the promotion of economic development in poorer Member States. Yet for some goals, performance across Member States still diverges widely.
Focusing on socio‑economic goals, the spread in performance found across European countries is largest for SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) where it exceeds 60 points between the best and poorest performing countries (Figure 1.7). The spread across country scores is also significant, exceeding 40 points, for SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). Detailed tables and scores are accessible at www.sdgindex.org.
Over time, progress on SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) suggests some convergence of European countries: the Baltic States and countries in Central and Eastern Europe which started with lower scores are progressing faster than others. Yet as suggested by other studies, the pace of convergence might be too slow and driven to a large extent by convergence in capital cities – with rural regions and smaller cities continuing to lag behind (Alcidi et al., 2018a, 2018b). This emphasises the need to reduce gaps in productivity levels and innovation capacities, to accelerate convergence across European countries and in particular among EU Member States.
The roles of territorial policies and SDG localization are critical in ensuring coherent SDG implementation. This is emphasised by the European Committee of the Regions (COR), the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC, 2020a) and the OECD. To go some way in addressing this need, the JRC has released a Handbook for SDG Voluntary Local Reviews (Siragusa et al., 2020).
To better understand the roles of cities and regions in supporting coherent implementation of the SDGs, the SDSN has released subnational editions of the SDG Index and Dashboards (Figure 1.6). This includes an edition on European cities, released in 2019 (in partnership with the Brabant Centre for Sustainable Development, TELOS) and other editions focussing on Italian and Spanish cities, led by the respective national SDSN networks (Cavalli and Farnia, 2018; Sánchez de Madariaga et al., 2018; Lafortune et al., 2019; Andersen et al., 2020). Further editions are in preparation on other cities in Europe and around the world.
Achieving the objectives of the 2030 Agenda, the SDGs and the Paris Agreement in Europe requires us to address negative impacts generated abroad, including those embodied into unsustainable supply chains. The SDGs are a global responsibility: Europe must ensure coherence between its domestic and its international policies (SDSN and IEEP, 2019). This is emphasised under SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), which calls on developed countries to take the lead in tackling international spillover effects (Schmidt‑Traub et al., 2019). SDGs 12 to 15 call for responsible consumption and production, climate action, and the preservation and restoration of marine and terrestrial biodiversity. SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) promotes decent work for everyone, the protection of labour rights, safe working conditions, and the eradication of forced labour and modern slavery.
International trade generates a great many jobs in Europe and abroad. About 293 million jobs globally – many of them in China and India – are generated to produce goods to satisfy demand in other countries (results updated for 2015, based on Lenzen et al., 2013; Alsamawi et al., 2014). An estimated $3,450 USD billion in wages is distributed annually to produce goods that satisfy consumption in other countries (Ibid). In the EU itself, 54 million jobs are generated to produce goods that satisfy foreign consumption, while 62 million jobs globally are generated to satisfy EU consumption. As emphasised by the OECD, all countries would lose from a shift away from interconnected economies to a localised regime of production (OECD, 2020). Yet poor working conditions and unsustainable supply chains have negative social impacts and negative impacts on climate and biodiversity that need to be addressed.
The EU leadership recognises the importance of trade policy and sustainable supply chains to achieving the SDGs and the European Green Deal. In her Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission, the President of the European Commission stated that “Trade is not an end in itself. It is a means to deliver prosperity at home and to export our values across the world. I will ensure that every new agreement concluded will have a dedicated sustainable-development chapter” (von der Leyen, 2019). The Green Deal recognises the role of trade policies in supporting the transformation of the EU (European Commission 2019b). The EU’s “Farm to Fork” strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system emphasises the extent and importance of spillover effects in food supply chains. The European trade policy review launched in June this year aims to reform EU trade policy to address the major global challenges facing Europe, including climate change and the impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic (European Commission 2020g).
Positive and negative spillovers must be understood, measured and carefully managed: countries cannot achieve the SDGs if spillovers from other countries counteract their efforts (Schmidt‑Traub et al., 2019). International spillover effects are said to occur when one country’s actions generate benefits or impose costs on another country that are not reflected in market prices, and therefore are not “internalised” by the actions of consumers and producers (Sachs et al., 2017). The benefits or costs may be referred to as positive or negative externalities.
For many years, the SDSN has been tracking countries’ performance on international spillover effects. International spillovers can be classified in three broad categories (Sachs et al., 2020a; Schmidt‑Traub et al., 2019), each of which impact the SDGs in different ways (Figure 1.11).
• Environmental and social spillovers cover international effects related to the use of natural resources, pollution and social impacts embodied into trade. Environmental spillovers, in particular, can be generated in two ways: i) through transboundary effects embodied in trade, and ii) through direct cross‑border flows in air and water. Using tools such as multi‑regional input–output (MRIO) databases, combined with databases on environmental (e.g. biodiversity) and social factors, we can estimate transboundary impacts embodied in consumption and trade. The export of toxic pesticides can also lead to health and environmental security issues. Generating better measures of cross‑border flows (through air and water) for each country remains an important research agenda. Environmental and social spillovers have a direct impact on SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG12–15 related to responsible consumption, climate and biodiversity and SDG17: Partnerships for the Goals. They also indirectly affect all other SDGs.
• Spillovers related to the economy, finance and governance cover international development finance (e.g., ODA), unfair tax competition, corruption, banking secrecy, and stolen assets. Spillovers related to the economy, finance and governance have a direct impact on SDG16: Peace, Security and Strong Institutions and SDG17: Partnerships for the Goals, and indirect impacts on all socio‑economic SDGs, notably through ODA.
• Security spillovers include negative externalities such as the trade in arms, particularly in small arms, and organised international crime – which can have a destabilizing impact on poor countries. Among the positive spillovers are investments in conflict‑prevention and peacekeeping. Security spillovers have a direct impact on SDG16: Peace, Security and Strong Institutions and SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals), but also on poverty, hunger and health as well as other socio‑economic goals.
To track the spillovers generated by each country, we present for the second time a European SDG Spillover Index (Figure 1.12) that captures spillover data across all SDGs. Scores range from 0 (worst performance) to 100 (best performance). The detailed list of indicators is available in the methods summary section.
On the positive side, European countries are the greatest per‑capita providers of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and international climate finance under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Yet net spillovers from European countries are large and negative, which can undermine other countries’ ability to achieve the SDGs. This is particularly true for wealthier European countries and those highly integrated in global value chains.
Most European countries generate large negative impacts through trade, which, inter alia, causes CO2 emissions, biodiversity loss and water scarcity. The import of textiles from countries with poor labour standards generates work accidents in exporting countries (Box 1). The export of toxic pesticides, often banned in the EU, generates adverse health impacts abroad. Tax havens and financial secrecy in European countries and several EU Member States and overseas territories undermine other countries’ ability to mobilise the public resources needed to achieve the goals. Finally, the large‑scale transfer of major conventional weapons from some European countries can promote insecurity.
The data underscores the urgency of tackling international spillovers, as part of an EU strategy to achieve the SDGs.
The textile supply chains generate significant and specific social and environmental impacts outside of the EU. The EU’s consumption of textile generates jobs abroad but poor working conditions, including for women and children, lead to 375 fatal and 21,000 non‑fatal accidents per year throughout the entire supply chain. The textile industry also emits large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution and generates large amounts of waste. The textile supply chains are fragmented and multi layered, lack transparency and are geographically dispersed (Fair & Sustainable Textiles, 2020). The lack of vertical integration (outsourcing of multiple production steps) makes traceability and accountability for social, human rights and environmental governance requirements rather complex.
In a study released in November, the Authors' identified three key priorities for the EU to reduce the negative impacts generated by its consumption of textile especially on social and human rights issues (Malik et al., 2020). These priorities focus on the EU’s domestic actions and due diligence of businesses operating in the EU, on the EU’s foreign actions including development cooperation and bilateral partnerships and on strengthening data ecosystems to track international spillovers at various levels (country, industry, business, product).
The COVID‑19 pandemic is having a negative impact on the SDGs in Europe and globally. Figure 1.14 (online) summarises observed and likely short‑term impacts of COVID‑19 on the 17 SDGs, both at the European level and globally.
The COVID‑19 pandemic impacts very directly and negatively the goals related to poverty (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2), health (SDG 3) and the economy (SDG 8). The IMF estimates that the global economy will face a recession of ‑4.5%, with 90% of countries in recession in 2020. The United Nations warn that poverty levels might regress to the situation thirty years ago. Hunger and food insecurity are also growing in many parts of the world, including in Europe. In France, during the first lockdown, an additional 25 to 45% requested food aid and assistance in 2020 (Birchem, 2020). The EU committed in early November to a sharp increase in the budget 2021–2027 allocated to food security and programmes (+870 million € for France) (FNSEA, 2020).
Exceptional fiscal measures and recovery plans introduced by the EU and Member States, in a context of low interest rates, have helped to mitigate the health and economic consequences of COVID‑19. But they have also increased debt levels. Rising debt may negatively affect future EU generations, if recovery strategies and packages do not focus extensively on transforming the region for the future, including via massive investments in clean technologies, infrastructure, and digitization. New forms of resources should be identified to set appropriate incentives towards achieving the SDGs, while helping to repay debt.
Limited access to international financing in low‑income countries (LICs) and emerging markets (EMs) may affect their ability to respond to the health and economic crises. This calls for further actions by the international community. As rightly emphasised by Ursula von der Leyen (2020a), further efforts may be needed to strengthen international solidarity, including through debt relief and restructuring, but also through ODA to avoid prolonged health and economic impacts and sovereign debt crises in LICs and EMs.
SDG3 (Good Health and Well‑Being) is directly affected by COVID‑19 mortality, as well as by the indirect effects of lockdowns. The global COVID‑19 death toll as of mid‑November 2020 exceeds 1.2 million people, including more than 250,000 deaths in Europe (EU, EEA and UK: ECDC, 2020). Strains on health systems can also lead to excess mortality from other causes. Many people who have otherwise recovered from the virus may continue to experience fatigue and chronic lung and heart issues (Townsend et al., 2020; Fraser, 2020; Yancy and Fonarow, 2020), while mental distress has also increased due to social distancing measures and job losses, among other reasons.
Vulnerable countries and population groups (including the elderly, people with pre‑conditions, homeless people, low‑skilled workers, and refugees) are disproportionately affected by the short- and medium‑term consequences of the COVID‑19 crisis. This can be expected to result in growing inequalities, undermining progress towards the achievement of SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities).
The pandemic is also having other negative social impacts, some of which are related to gender and schools. On SDG 5 (Gender Equality), early evidence suggests that women are in many ways disproportionally affected by the health and economic crises. Women are more exposed to labour‑market disruptions, and domestic violence against women and girls has increased during the lockdowns (Inter‑Agency Standing Committee, 2020; UNFPA, 2020; Wenham et al., 2020). In the EU, women aged 18–34 were more likely to lose their job during the crisis than men of the same age (11% compared to 9%) (Eurofound, 2020). However, COVID‑19’s mortality rate is higher among men, possibly due to greater pre‑existing behavioural risk factors such as higher smoking rates, or to other co‑morbidities or biological factors (Ford, 2020). The crisis also has negative impacts on access to education, especially for populations that are not sufficiently equipped with digital technologies.
The pandemic has additionally had certain adverse impacts on the functioning of political and legislative systems and the rule of law (SDG 16). Some governments have introduced exceptional measures that increase their powers, allowing them to rule by decree, and limit freedom of speech (Transparency International, 2020). In his call for a global ceasefire, United Nations Secretary‑General António Guterres called attention to the fact that the consequences of COVID‑19 are exacerbated in fragile states, including in countries that face conflicts and civil wars (United Nations, 2020a).
The impacts on climate and biodiversity remain unclear. Emission of CO2 and nitrogen dioxide, a major air pollutant, declined sharply in China and other G20 countries during the early months of the pandemic (Myllyvirta, 2020), although both are now rebounding strongly (CREA, 2020). The pandemic may also have had a negative impact on the enforcement of environmental laws, including those on deforestation, with industrial lobbies pressuring public authorities to loosen restrictions or even postpone the adoption of new measures (Reuters, 2020). Meanwhile, it is unclear what impact COVID‑19 will have on investments, policies, and other short‑term actions to tackle climate change.
The COVID‑19 pandemic is a serious setback for sustainable development. Yet, as advanced by Amina Mohamed, Deputy Secretary‑General of the United Nations, COVID‑19 could be used as a “springboard” to achieving the SDGs (United Nations, 2020b). Recent critiques of the SDGs (Naidoo and Fisher, 2020; Nature, 2020; Zeng et al., 2020; Hickel, 2020) conflate several issues (Sachs et al., 2020b; Lafortune and Schmidt‑Traub, 2020; Bhattacharya et al., 2020; Lafortune and Schmidt‑Traub, 2020b) – the SDGs remain technically achievable and financially affordable, but they require strong political leadership and ambitious policies. The SDG and their targets still represent “the future we want” and set the right vision, although the official indicator set has many limitations, especially in tracking environmental and biodiversity progress. We also need more timely data to enable tracking of health outcomes, hunger, environmental destruction and other key SDG metrics in real time, or close to it.
The SDGs provide a remarkable framework for post‑COVID‑19 economic recovery and financing, and for decoupling economic development from negative environmental impacts in Europe and globally.