Peformance of European Countries against the SDGs
The adoption in 2015 of three major international agreements – the 2030 Agenda with its SDGs, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development – represented major global breakthroughs for the international community. For the first time in history, all UN member states agreed on a common set of goals for sustainable development (to be achieved by 2030, with mid-century goals for the Paris Climate Agreement) and established major principles and priorities for their financing. These commitments were made possible only through decades of work and advocacy by scientists, experts, governments, and civil society. Yet multiple health and security crises, amplified by the climate and biodiversity crises, are now putting the sustainable development agenda at risk. The global and European SDG Indices show that SDG progress has stalled since 2019.
The SDG Index and Dashboards for Europe provide an overview of the SDG performance of the European Union and of 38 individual European countries (including candidate and partner countries such as the United Kingdom). We highlight areas of achievement as well as opportunities for progress, and use the data to benchmark the progress of European sub-regions. We also discuss the impact of COVID-19 on SDG goals and indicators and where there are signs of recovery. Due to time lags in data reporting, this year’s edition does not reflect the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although we discuss its potential implications in the short term.
This year’s edition covers the 27 EU member states, 4 countries of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland), the United Kingdom, EU candidate countries (Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Türkiye) as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Due to their very recent accession to the status of candidate country, and in light of significant data gaps and lags, Ukraine and Moldova are not included in this year’s edition. Future editions may include all candidate countries, including those added earlier in 2022.
The methodology of the ESDR is based on the Sustainable Development Report. This methodology has been peer-reviewed has been peer reviewed by Cambridge University Press and Nature Geoscience, and statistically audited by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) (Sachs et al., 2022a; Schmidt-Traub et al., 2017; Papadimitriou et al., 2019a). The 2022 SDG Index for Europe includes 110 indicators from official and non-official statistics. For 98 of these indicators, it was possible to evaluate progress towards the SDG targets over time, from 2015 until the most recent data point available. Annex 1 provides more details about the methodology. The database and data visualisation portals are accessible online (www.sdgindex.org).
The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other crises are slowing down progress on the SDGs in Europe and the rest of the world. The EU27 SDG Index score has continued to stall for a second year in a row. Over the period 2015–2019, the EU progressed on the Index by an annual average of 0.7 percentage points (p.p), largely driven by progress in European sub-regions that started from lower SDG Index scores, such as the Baltic States, candidate countries, Central and Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, which until 2019 were all improving on average by 0.9 p.p. each year. Since 2019, however, the rate of annual SDG progress in the EU has halved (+0.3 p.p.), with some socioeconomic indicators now moving in the wrong direction. Figure 1.1 presents the actual SDG Index score compared to its projected value using growth rates prior to the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
Within Europe, there are major differences in SDG performance and progress across regions, countries and goals. Overall, the EU27 obtains an overall SDG Index score of 72 (out of 100). Northern European countries perform best, with an average SDG Index score of 81. Finland tops the SDG Index for Europe for the third year in a row, followed by Sweden and Denmark. By contrast, candidate countries have greater gaps to close to achieve the SDGs, with an average SDG Index score of 58, driven notably by poorer performance on socio-economic goals (SDG 1, SDGs 3 through 9) and on SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions).
Halfway into the SDGs, we estimate that the EU has achieved or is on track to achieve a bit more than two-thirds of the SDG targets (Figure 1.2). While Northern Europe has achieved or is on track to achieve approximately 78% of the targets, for more than 10% of the targets the trend is heading in the wrong direction both in the EU as a whole and in Northern Europe. Both Southern Europe and Central and Eastern Europe are below the EU27 average, with respectively 59% and 53% of the SDG targets achieved or on track to be achieved, while candidate countries are on track to achieving fewer than half (44%) by 2030 and are heading in the wrong direction on 22% of the SDG targets.
Our results show that some convergence has occurred over the past decade, with European regions and countries that began from lower SDG Index scores progressing faster than those that from the start in 2015 had higher scores (Figure 1.3). From 2015 to 2021, the scores of Central and Eastern European countries and candidate countries grew at an average annual rate of 0.8 p.p., whereas the SDG Index score of Northern Europe grew at an average annual rate of 0.2 p.p. However, the pace of convergence is slow. If average growth rates since 2015 continued unchanged, candidate countries would take 30 years to even reach Northern Europe’s current SDG Index score.
Slow progress on the SDG Index since 2019 has largely been driven by stagnation or even reversal of progress on the socio-economic goals and targets (Figure 1.4). Vulnerable groups and populations in Europe and in the rest of the world have been particularly affected by COVID-19 (Lancet COVID-19 Commission, 2021). In Europe, COVID-19 caused a decline in life expectancy that hadn’t been seen for 70 years (Aburto et al. 2021), and caused delays in health interventions and increased mental health issues (OECD 2021). Levels of material deprivation and unemployment rates, however, remain above pre-pandemic levels in the EU27, while some indicators were showing signs of recovery in 2021, including reductions in the share of young people not in employment, education or training (NEET). But the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the energy crisis, inflation and budgetary constraints all threaten to slow down or even reverse this recovery.
The 2022 SDG Index for Europe is topped by Northern European countries. Finland ranks first for a third year in a row, followed by Sweden and Denmark – which all have scores close to or above 80 (out of 100). Yet the SDG dashboards show that even these countries face major challenges (red dashboard rating) in achieving at least two goals.
Overall, Europe faces four major SDG challenges. The first is related to poor performance on environmental goals, covered under SDG 2 (Zero hunger) and SDGs 12 through 15 (climate and biodiversity goals). Unsustainable diets and food systems, domestic and imported greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity threats drive poor performance on these goals at the EU27 level.
As one example, even the top-ranking countries in Northern Europe perform poorly on indicators related to sustainable diets. Dietary composition is measured in the SDG Index by trophic levels (Figure 1.5). Specifically, these levels describe the positions that a species occupies in a food web, ranging from primary producers to apex predators (a range of 1–5, starting at 1 with plants) (Bonhommeau et al., 2013). Herbivores like cows feed on plants – thus, their trophic level is 2. A country with a half cow/half plant diet would have a trophic level of 2.5. Between each trophic level, there is a loss of energy, meaning that more primary production is required to sustain higher trophic levels. The trophic levels of diets in Northern Europe are among the highest in the world. They exceed 2.57 in Iceland and Finland, where typical diets are to a large extent composed of meat, fish or dairy products, with only a low consumption of vegetables. In Iceland, the national trophic level has decreased since the early 1960s, however, whereas it has increased over the same period in Western European countries such as France or Germany. In a country like Nigeria, trophic level is close to 2. IPBES reports and other scientific studies emphasize the urgent need to transition to more sustainable and healthy diets to achieve climate, biodiversity and health-related SDGs.
The second challenge relates to inequalities within countries. From an international perspective, social protection systems and other socio-economic policies make Europe one of the most equal continents in the world. However, there are persisting gaps in access to and quality of services and opportunities across population groups in some EU member states and candidate countries. Vulnerable groups are particularly impacted by multiple health, security and economic crises. This is covered more in the next section (1.3), which presents the 2022 ‘leave no one behind’ Index.
The third challenge relates to persisting differences in SDG performance across European countries and regions. This is generally referred to as ‘convergence’ in Europe and by EU leaders. Northern Europe, EFTA countries and Western Europe all perform above the EU27 average on the SDG Index score. On the other hand, Baltic States, Southern Europe, and Central and Eastern European countries perform slightly below the average EU27 score, although these subregions have progressed more rapidly over the past decade, and candidate countries perform well below the EU27 average, driven mostly by poorer performance on socio-economic goals and on SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions). The pace of convergence is slow, and is likely driven by better performance in capital regions or urban agglomerations, with other regions and rural areas lagging behind.
The fourth challenge is related to negative international spillovers embodied into trade and financial flows. Through unsustainable consumption, exports of toxic pesticides and plastic waste, unfair tax competition, and profit shifting (among other reasons), many European countries often undermine other countries’ ability to achieve the SDGs. At the same time, the EU and its member states are the largest providers of official development assistance (ODA) in the world – although the current multiple crises are putting additional pressures on the concessional finance that European countries provide to promote sustainable development globally. Section 1.4 discusses the International Spillover Index and policy priorities to curb negative impacts generated by the EU abroad.
The LNOB Index measures inequalities within countries. It is composed of a subset of 32 indicators (all also used in the overall SDG Index and Dashboards) and reflects the progress of European countries on four main dimensions of inequality:
• Extreme poverty and material deprivation (e.g. poverty after social transfers, and disparities in the coverage of health insurance);
• Income inequality and the respect of fundamental labor rights;
• Gender inequality (e.g. gender pay and employment gaps, and representation of women in leading positions in the public and private sectors);
• Access to and quality of services (e.g. disparities in access to and quality of key services, including education and health, by population group).
The LNOB index is scored on a scale of 0 to 100, where higher scores represent better performance and therefore less inequality. More information on indicator sources and aggregation is accessible in the Methods’ summary section.
The SDGs call for addressing inequalities within andacross countries. The ‘leave no one behind’ principle, which is incorporated into the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, is commonly invoked in reference to inequalities within each country. SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals) call for reducing inequalities across countries and for increased partnerships. In Europe and by EU leadership, this is generally referred to as ‘convergence’. The case for addressing both types of inequalities, within and across countries, has been reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the threats posed by geopolitical tensions and climate change, including rising energy and food prices that disproportionally affect the most vulnerable countries and population groups.
To measure inequalities within countries, including their evolution over time, SDSN has developed a ‘leave no one behind’ – or ‘LNOB’ – index for European countries. From a global perspective, the EU is among the most equal regions in the world, offering the most advanced social protection system and universal access to basic services. The European version of the LNOB Index aims to capture persisting gaps and differences across European countries and to identify areas where policymakers must remain vigilant, due for instance to stagnation or reversal of progress in recent years.
Northern European countries obtain the highest scores on the 2022 European LNOB Index (Figure 1.8). Norway, Finland and Iceland are at the top of the index, with scores ranging from 85.6 to 87.7, points, mainly driven by low levels of income inequality and material deprivation in these countries. On the other hand, stark within-country inequalities are seen in the Baltic States and Central and Eastern European countries, which appear at the bottom of the 2022 Europe LNOB Index (with average scores of around 70). EU candidate countries face many difficulties in catching up with Europe in terms of the LNOB index, primarily due to their much higher rates of material deprivation and poverty.
Since the adoption of the SDGs, most European countries have made some progress towards meeting the LNOB ideals, although progress has stalled on a number of its dimensions since 2019. Central and Eastern European countries have made the most progress overall. Since 2019, however, only the LNOB sub-pillar related to gender equality has shown any significant progress (Figure 1.9). This shift has been driven by an increasing share of women in parliament and in management positions in many EU countries. Still, no EU country has fully achieved SDG 5 (Gender equality). Other dimensions show no progress or even negative trends, including on extreme poverty and material deprivation, and access to and quality of services for all. Even countries that perform rather well should remain vigilant to reversals of progress on LNOB in the context of rising inflation and likely economic recession in 2023 in many European countries, which will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Previous editions of the ESDR have discussed the relationship between LNOB and sustainable development at large (Lafortune et al., 2021).
SDSN and its partners have been documenting territorial inequalities in SDG performance for some years now. SDG Indices and Dashboards reports for cities and regions underline differences in SDG achievements within countries and territories (Figure 1.10). SDSN Networks have recently published assessments for Greek, Italian and Spanish cities, and also for cities and regions in Benin, Brazil and Malaysia, among others. These reports provide a more comprehensive overview of SDG gaps and challenges at the territorial level. Global, regional and subnational editions are increasingly being used by policymakers and by multilateral development banks and private financial institutions to inform sustainable investment decisions (notably in the context of innovative sovereign financing instruments, including SDG bonds).
The spread in performance across European countries is still very broad on certain goals, suggesting that the convergence process remains too slow (or is driven mainly by large cities). SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure) is at once the goal for which the greatest number of countries score ‘green’ on the dashboards (very high performance) and the one showing the most ‘red’ scores (very poor performance). Strengthening EU performance on SDG 9 will be key to improving productivity and living standards across the continent. Countries and regions that began in 2010 with lower SDG 9 scores have grown faster than those that began with higher scores, yet the convergence between European countries on this goal, and their social convergence – measured by the LNOB Index score, are still insufficient (Figure 1.11).
Figure 1.11 | Progress on SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure) goal scores by European subregion (2010-2021)
The promotion of economic and social convergence among EU member states is at the core of the European project. This is more important than ever in the context of increasing geopolitical tensions and major crises, where EU-wide unity and solidarity are needed for decisive and swift actions. To avoid a wave of relocations and offshoring due to rising energy prices in Europe and other factors, it is also crucial for the EU to strengthen its industrial and innovation capacities.
The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs recognize the importance of international spillovers in several crucial ways. SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals) calls for ‘policy coherence’ for sustainable development, SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production) stresses the need for more sustainable production and consumption, and SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth) demands the eradication of child labour and modern slavery. The EU has called for ‘zero tolerance’ of child labour and proposed using trade to export European values throughout the world (von der Leyen, 2019).
Spillovers – both positive and negative – must be understood, measured and carefully managed. Until now, institutional frameworks to assess the SDGs have mainly focused on domestic performance (Ino et al. 2021). Governments at the national and regional levels (including at the EU level) must increase their capacity to measure how their societies impact the ability of other countries to progress on the SDGs. These benefits or costs may be referred to as positive or negative externalities. Countries cannot achieve the SDGs while negative externalities from other countries are counteracting their efforts (Schmidt-Traub et al., 2019). International spillovers occur when one country’s actions generate benefits for or impose costs on another country which are not reflected in market prices and therefore not ‘internalized’ by the actions of consumers and producers (Sachs et al., 2017). The International Spillover Index is structured around four main dimensions (Box 2.).
The 2022 European Spillover Index comprises 14 indicators that are all included in the overall SDG Index. It measures Europe’s progress in reducing environmental and social spillovers embodied in trade, spillovers related to economic and financial flows across countries, and peacekeeping and security spillovers.
SDSN is working with partners to strengthen the availability and timeliness of data on international spillovers, including through flagship initiatives such as the Global Commons Stewardship Index, which measures countries’ impacts beyond domestic concerns (Lafortune, Wendling, et al., 2021; SDSN et al., 2020) and specific supply chains studies (Malik et al., 2021).
Conceptually, international spillovers in the context of the SDGs can be grouped into four categories:
• Environmental and social spillovers embodied in trade. These cover international impacts related to pollution and the use of natural resources, as well as social impacts generated by the consumption of goods and services. Multi-regional input–output (MRIO) models, combined with satellite datasets, provide powerful tools to track impacts generated worldwide by consuming countries. This category of spillovers also includes exports of toxic pesticides and the illegal wildlife trade. They are particularly connected to SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth), SDGs 12 through 15 (related to responsible consumption, climate and biodiversity), and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals). They also indirectly affect all other SDGs.
• Spillovers related to economic and financial flows. These include unfair tax competition, corruption, banking secrecy, profit shifting, tax havens and stolen assets, which all undermine the capacity of other countries to leverage resources to achieve the SDGs. They also include positive spillovers (or handprints) such as international development finance (for example, ODA). These types of spillovers are closely related to SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals) – and indirectly to all other SDGs, notably through ODA.
• Peacekeeping and security spillovers. These include negative externalities such as organized international crime or exports of major conventional weapons or small arms, which can have a destabilizing impact on poor countries. Among the positive spillovers in this category are investments in conflict-prevention and peacekeeping. These spillovers are particularly related to SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals), but also indirectly connected with most of the SDGs, including poverty, hunger and health as well as other socio-economic goals.
• Direct cross-border flows in air and water. These cover effects generated through physical flows – for instance of air and water – from one country to another. Cross-border air and water pollution are difficult to attribute to a country of origin, and this remains an important data gap. Unfortunately, the International Spillover Index does not currently include any indicators to track these types of spillovers. They are particularly related to SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation) and SDGs 12–15 on climate and biodiversity, but they also concern many other goals, including SDG 3 (Good health and well-being).
Further details on indicator sources and aggregation for the International Spillover Index are provided in the methodology annex and online.
The EU performs better than the rest of the world on the global SDG Index, due mainly to better relative performance on socio-economic goals (SDGs 1 to 9). But it comes last on the International Spillover Index compared with other world regions. This is driven by unsustainable consumption along with persisting challenges related to illicit financial flows, unfair tax competition, and profit shifting in some European countries. In this context, the EU’s active engagement in reducing sources of adverse spillovers is fundamental to meeting the SDGs at the global level.
Focusing on spillovers embodied into trade, we find, for example, that 40% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions are in fact generated abroad. The EU’s consumption is responsible for 16% of tropical deforestation worldwide, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). SDSN and the University of Sydney have further documented how, each year, close to 400 workers die in the production of textiles used by EU citizens (Malik et al., 2020). Biofuel mandates in Europe and other major economies have accelerated tropical deforestation and land displacement in other parts of the world. Growing demand for raw materials, notably for renewable energy and other technologies in the EU can increase GHG emissions and forced labour practices in other countries, while the shipment of waste to countries and regions that cannot manage its disposal effectively has profound ecological and health impacts abroad, especially in South Asia.
There are no signs of structural decoupling between economic prosperity and negative spillovers. While many countries – including the US, Japan, France and Germany – have managed to decrease their domestic CO₂ emissions in absolute and per capita terms compared with the early 2000s (though still too slowly to meet the 2030 Agenda and Paris targets), there is currently no evidence of a structural decrease in CO₂ emissions from their imports (Lafortune et al., 2021). Increased demand for raw materials associated with the EU’s renewable energy transition and other new technologies may further increase the negative impacts embodied in EU’s supply chains (Malik et al., 2022). Since 2015, greenhouse gas emissions and accidents at work associated with the EU’s consumption of raw minerals and mineral products have been on the rise (Figures 1.13 and 1.14). High-income countries were responsible for more than 80% of cumulative imported CO₂ emissions between 2010 and 2018 (Sachs et al., 2021). This is one more reason why rich countries have a historical responsibility to act and lead on international climate change efforts.
The Europe Sustainable Development Report 2022 is the fourth edition of our independent quantitative report on the progress of the European Union and its member states towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The report was prepared by teams of independent experts at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and SDSN Europe.