Ten ideas to strengthen the EU's Sustainable Development Goals leadership (Experts' Contributions)
Image 3.1 | Adolf Kloke-Lesch, Co-Chair of SDSN Europe
Image 3.2 | Anna-Katharina Hornidge, Director, German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), co-chair of SDSN Germany
As the EU repositions itself in a multipolar world, it should strengthen its strategic autonomy by forging cooperative alliances with a diverse range of partners and aligning its external policies to the global common good. Already in 2016, The Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy (European External Action Service, 2017) spoke of ‘times of existential crisis’ and set out to navigate a ‘difficult, more connected, contested and complex world‘. While nurturing ‘the ambition of strategic autonomy’ and calling to strengthen the Union on security and defense, the strategy also recognised that Europe ‘cannot pull up a drawbridge to ward off external threats’: the EU needed to ‘invest in win-win solutions, and move beyond the illusion that international politics can be a zero-sum game‘. The Strategy not only noted that ‘our security at home depends on peace beyond our borders’ but also that ‘prosperity must be shared and requires fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals worldwide, including in Europe‘. In 2022, for most of Europe the world looks quite different from that of 2016. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been acknowledged as a ‘watershed moment in global politics’ (von der Leyen, 2022), but this and its political ramifications should also be seen as part of a broader and long-term global sea change that was already becoming palpable when the Global Strategy was conceptualised.
For years, increasing geopolitical and regional tensions as well as substantial processes of social polarisation and political autocratisation have been observed on all continents. The climate and biodiversity crises are contributing to a further increase in social and economic inequalities, especially in societies where livelihood systems are highly dependent on nature. Social fragmentation and the strengthening of authoritarian regimes are intricately linked with weakening multilateralism. Just as many people no longer feel sufficiently heard and represented in their societies and political systems, many (re-)emerging countries in particular doubt the chances of being able to develop their potential within the framework of the existing international order. Both sentiments form a breeding ground for conflict and violence within and between societies; internationally, they make diplomatic and multilateral conflict-management based on international law more difficult and significantly limit the scope for cooperatively addressing our common global challenges.
Although some of these trends are alluded to in the EU’s new Strategic Compass for Security and Defence (European External Action Service, 2022), they are framed primarily as threats to the Union: responses are formulated solely in terms of security and defence policy. The Compass lacks any reference to the universal sustainable development agenda, nor does it offer or an adequate partnership concept of its own (Blockmans et al., 2022). Though concern for EU unity and autonomy is warranted, especially in the fields of security and defence, such a limited and short-sighted approach leaves a strategic void and runs the risk of backfiring – and most importantly, it harms the global common good. Precisely because the proclaimed ‘comprehensive concept of security’ is all but comprehensive, its threat-oriented strategic approach is about to dominate the EU’s entire external policy discourse, from diplomacy to trade to international partnerships. Yet in a multipolar world, peace cannot be assured solely through ‘defence against’ thinking or the ‘dangerous logic of zero-sum competition‘ (Weiss, 2022). It also requires a ‘cooperation for’ approach – for a sustainable, peaceful future (Hornidge, 2022). Long-term reciprocal and trusted partnerships can reduce insecurities, uncertainties and safety risks.
The EU has some good traditions in this regard and disposes of rich potential and appropriate instruments that must be strengthened and adapted to a changing global landscape. To this end, the EU should swiftly and comprehensively review and reinvigorate its 2016 Global Strategy, to avoid the trap of aligning its external policies solely with the Strategic Compass for Security and Defence. This update should capitalise on key policy documents issued by the EU over the past six years, including the February 2021 plan to "Strengthen the EU's contribution to rules-based multilateralism" (European Commission, 2021) and the June 2022 approach on "The power of trade partnerships: together for green and just economic growth" (European Commission, 2022). In both documents, the SDGs rightfully take centre stage. Already in 2017, the New European Consensus on Development (European Commission, DG DEVCO, 2018) laid the basis for orienting international partnerships towards achieving the SDGs. In its recent Report on the implementation of the European Union’s external action instruments (European Commission, DG INTPA, 2021 and 2022) the Union self-reports to what extent its instruments contribute to achieving the SDGs.
The EU should not perceive multipolarity as a threat, but rather value it as an opportunity. A multipolar world can become more stable, peaceful and prosperous the better it is supported by networks of cooperation involving different actors across a wide range of issues, and the stronger these actors align themselves with the global common good. In embracing such a trajectory, the EU’s strategic autonomy can only grow. Therefore, the EU should resist simplistic dichotomies of 'democracy versus autocracy', as well as the temptation to organize its partnerships in concentric circles around the G7, EU, and NATO spheres. Such a worldview not only ignores how multifaceted and multi-layered the multipolar world has become, but also threatens to deepen geopolitical divides and hamper strategic autonomy.
Furthermore, the EU must invest in its own credibility. This includes addressing double standards, historic responsibilities and broken promises, and ensuring greater policy coherence between internal and external policies. The EU responded to the impacts of the global financial crisis in Europe with a ‘whatever it takes’ approach. It has addressed the socio-economic consequences of COVID-19 in Europe with a ‘whatever it takes’ approach and is now reacting with a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to the domestic repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In such times of crises, other concerns and the concerns of others are in danger of being overshadowed – to the detriment of global solidarity (Beisheim et al., 2022). It is time for the EU to rise to the occasion, move beyond inward-looking, Europe-focussed responses, and invest 'whatever it takes' – diplomatically, financially, through cooperation and coherence – in the global common good, epitomised and documented in the 2030 Agenda and its 17 SDGs. The SDG agenda is the only common narrative that offers the world and the EU a peaceful and mutually strengthening path to a multipolar world. It is not enough for the EU to rhetorically reaffirm the SDGs. To achieve the SDGs, the EU must redesign its strategies to reflect a changing geo-economic and geopolitical landscape.
The mission of the SDGs calls for coalitions that work across geopolitical fault lines. If the EU is to reaffirm and regain its leadership on the SDGs, it must gear its own internal policies more explicitly towards the SDGs and give the 2030 Agenda strategic priority in all its external policies. So far, the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy lacks clarity on how to universally realise the 2030 Agenda. Yet, especially in a world characterised by increasing tensions, a systematic SDG diplomacy can help build bridges, strengthen multilateralism, and promote the EU’s geopolitical position. It is not sufficient to refer to the SDGs solely for guidance in cooperating with poorer countries; the EU must also leverage its relations and its economic and political weight with countries like the US, China and Australia to drive SDG implementation forward – within these countries, between them and the EU, and in their external actions with other countries. The statement of the EU-US Summit 2021 ‘Towards a renewed Transatlantic partnership’ (European Council, 2021), with its explicit reference to the 2030 Agenda, is one small step in this direction. Interestingly, and in contrast to the new EU Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, the recently published US National Security Strategy (although debatable in some respects) at least rhetorically refers to the SDGs and global sustainability challenges (The White House, 2022).
Attempting to forge global alliances around the SDGs solely from within the G7 will be futile. Instead, the EU and its member states should jointly strengthen, reform and work through more diverse and universal forums, such as the G20 and the United Nations. The recent G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia and COP27 in Sharm-el-sheik, Egypt have demonstrated that staying the course and working with diverse sets of partners can contribute to global understanding and commitments on SDG- and climate action. The EU should invest in advancing the international order to ensure that other regions and countries have a greater voice and influence in shaping our common future – for example, by joining others in proposing and pushing through full membership of the African Union in the G20, turning it into a G21. The EU, France, Germany and Italy – as members of the G20 – should form a dedicated “Team Europe for the SDGs” that works closely with the incoming G20 presidencies of India (2023), Brazil (2024) and South Africa (2025) to get the 2030 Agenda back on track and ensure that both the United Nations 2023 SDG Summit and the 2024 Summit of the Future effectively advance the decade of SDG implementation (Kloke-Lesch, 2021). Brazil’s parallel G20 and BRICS presidencies in 2024 coinciding with Italy’s G7 presidency should be embraced as opportunities to build bridges. Additionally, the EU should explore joint SDG acceleration initiatives with the African Union, ASEAN, Mercosur, as well as other regional or bilateral partners.
In parallel to diplomatic initiatives towards achieving the SDGs and global governance in a multipolar world, the EU should significantly expand and strengthen issue-specific alliances with regions, countries and societies on all continents, including those with whom it does not agree on other topics. The 2021 Just Energy Transition Partnership Agreement with South Africa, negotiated at COP 26 in Glasgow, is a good example of such topic-specific cooperation. The European Green Deal and broader domestic implementation of the SDGs provide great opportunities, as well as necessitating cooperation with other countries and regions of all income levels in reciprocally transformative partnerships, such as restructuring value and supply chains to support sustainable production and consumption (Iacobuţă et al., 2022).
The European Parliament has recently stressed that a ‘renewed political impetus for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is urgently needed to take into account the impact of COVID-19 and the global consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine’ (European Parliament, 2022). It is high time the EU fully engages ‘whatever it takes’ to develop a cooperation strategy for the global common good. Design such a strategy should be a collaborative process involving partners across all geographic regions, respectful of globally diverse visions of the future, based on solidarity and guided by democratic, liberal and emancipatory values.
Image 3.3 | Elise Dufief, Director, Research Fellow, Financing Sustainable Development, Institut du développement durable et des relations internationales (IDDRI)
European institutions have committed to financing sustainable development, but the multiple strategies currently in place are not yet adequately articulated to address the financing gap in a coherent way. Between the Global Gateway, the Sustainable Development Goals and the European Green Deal, Europe needs an integrated approach to financing sustainable development that can bring these priorities together to meet real-world needs. To that effect, the numerous European actors in the development space must develop more collaborative relationships with external partners, working in dialogue with partner countries and complementing other international initiatives to finance sustainable development.
At the European Development Days in Brussels in June 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, presented one of the latest EU initiatives: the Global Gateway. She described this new infrastructure investment strategy as ‘Europe’s offer to a world that needs massive investment. It aims at mobilising EUR 300 billion by 2027. EUR 150 billion of them in Africa. It has the size to make a difference and, just as importantly, it lays out a new approach to big infrastructure projects’ (European Commission, 2022). Initially launched in December 2021, the initiative’s unveiling instantly raised multiple questions: How different was the Global Gateway to existing initiatives? How would it be financed? How new would the approach be? How would it be put into practice and monitored?
The Global Gateway illustrates the EU’s aim to incorporate development and cooperation work into its broader foreign policy strategy. The initiative is designed to mobilise both public and private actors, going beyond development aid to also serve geopolitical interests (Furness and Keijzer, 2022; Teevan et al., 2022). It is presented as an opportunity to promote a new approach to development finance, particularly in relation to Africa. However, to date, the initiative has struggled to deliver.
Financing sustainable development in the Global South is more necessary than ever. The needs are varied and increasing, pushing achievement of the SDGs by 2030 further and further out of reach. Together with its member states, the EU remains the largest multilateral donor in the world, providing over €50 billion in aid annually. A significant share of the EU institutions’ bilateral official development assistance goes to financing infrastructure, to which individual contributions from member states and their agencies should be added (Figure 3.1).
But for Europe to fully play its role in financing sustainable development, it must look beyond financial volumes. Specifically, Europe must 1) examine its ecosystem of development priorities and determine how they can work coherently, and 2) understand the practical implications of changing its method of development finance, both within the EU and with respect to international partners.
In the last few years, the EU and its member states have launched numerous strategies to drive external action and provide financing for sustainable development abroad. With priorities multiplying, however, policies need to become more efficient and coherent in order to maintain clear objectives and demonstrate progress.
While the Global Gateway initiative is focussed on financing infrastructure, at least two other agendas have been identified as core to the work of the EU. First, the Green Deal, launched in July 2021, unveiled the EU’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, and second, the EU committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. But how do these infrastructure, climate and sustainable development agendas work together? Are they competing, complementary or compartmentalised? While individually they respond to key needs, their articulation has not yet been clearly spelled out, which raises questions about their transformative potential in partner countries.
In principle, the Global Gateway focuses on financing five sectors: digital, health, transport, climate and energy, and education and research (European Commission, 2021a). There is an overlap between these and the priorities of the European Green Deal, and also with the SDGs as targets to be reached by 2030 – already identified as a key compass to inform the EU’s external work (United Nations, 2022). Although the European Commission has stated that the Global Gateway will align with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, there is no concrete plan outlining how this alignment will be achieved, or where its sustainable development principles lie. In fact, questions have been raised about whether the implementation of EU projects abroad would take sustainability into account from a social and environmental standpoint. Similarly, while the Green Deal is meant to significantly shift the way the EU does cooperation work, specific external goals (such as how it will be implemented in partner countries and its links to the 2030 Agenda) have yet to be defined (Hackenesch et al., 2021).
Discussions in the run-up to the launch of these initiatives seem to have been siloed and lacking a horizontal coherence incorporating the multiple dimensions of the EU’s external policy objectives. These are all different parts of a complex but unified system of operation: addressing specific issues in one area could either create or solve others in another. The EU needs an integrated approach that unifies its policy goals and guides concrete action, both in the short and longer terms.
In addition to its strategies for financing international development, the EU’s credibility lies in the financial means it has at its disposal to deliver on its promises. In the last few years, the EU has undergone significant changes, following negotiations to simplify its aid and development architecture and render it more efficient and impactful. In June 2021, the EU adopted the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – ‘Global Europe‘ – its new and unique instrument for cooperation work with partner countries, allocating it €79.5 billion for the 2021–2027 period, which is to include a stronger focus on private sector mobilisation through guarantees (European Commission, 2021b). Due to the need to also reform the EU’s financial architecture, the European Investment Bank has been given a new role in financing climate action and supporting international cooperation objectives (European Investment Bank, 2022). And yet, some of the criticism around the Global Gateway lies in the magnitude of the figures announced by the Commission, which clearly go beyond its development and cooperation means. There is little clarity on where additional financing will come from, or where there might be funding gaps to which other stakeholders, including from the private sector, could contribute. Repackaging or rebranding existing programmes would only postpone these challenges and make it harder for them to be addressed, especially when some partner countries’ debts limit the type of support they can provide.
So that informed decisions can be made in both the short and long terms, the EU needs to define a clearer approach under an integrated agenda. To minimise uncertainty and maintain constructive dialogue, this should be accompanied with a concrete financing plan and defined milestones to measure achievements, including by contributing to existing global agendas such as the SDGs.
In 2019, von der Leyen called for a ‘partnership of equals’ with the African continent and more broadly as a renewed approach to international cooperation. This echoed calls for change in cooperation methods at multiple levels: within the EU and its member states to reduce fragmentation of action, with other international stakeholders to ensure complementarity and with partner countries to rebuild trust and legitimacy.
Given the increasing needs and diversity of projects in which Europeans are engaged, the number of European stakeholders in development activities has increased over time – mixing public and private actors from governments, their agencies, development banks and the private sector. Launched in April 2020 in response to the global consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Team Europe approach aims to gather all these actors under one shared umbrella, each providing some level of financing or expertise, and sharing tasks and responsibilities that build on their respective strengths (European Union, 2022; Jones and Sergejeff, 2022). This approach has resulted in numerous Team Europe initiatives, all contributing to the overarching strategies mentioned earlier, including the Global Gateway and the Green Deal. To be successful, the Team Europe approach will require a strong European leadership supported by a shared long-term vision. As highlighted by the European Parliament resolution on implementing the SDGs, the 2030 Agenda can provide some of this long-term integrated sustainable development vision, on which specific EU priorities can be based (European Parliament, 2022). Such a framework also offers the opportunity to monitor and track progress so that adjustments can be made when needed. In this regard, Team Europe may be better able to track their contributions to identified needs and global goals if they can reconcile existing results-framework partner country strategies and align them with the OECD-UNDP Impact Standards for Financing Sustainable Development.
A stronger and more unified European leadership on sustainable development finance would also help ensure complementarity with the work done by other international stakeholders. From a development perspective, European efforts could gain more by being complementary to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, rather than in opposition to it (Kastrop et al., 2022). Similarly, the EU could benefit from close cooperation with the recently launched G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (The White House, 2022). A development approach could further enhance this complementarity by contributing to specific goals while ensuring sustainability of these investments from a social and environmental standpoint.
A final concern over the Global Gateway is the relative absence of consultation and dialogue with national counterparts from the Global South. Financial support should come with a better way of doing things, one that promotes collective development impact and reduces power asymmetries among parties. This involves addressing trade-offs and finding ways to reconcile diverse agendas such as sustainable development with trade, or the just energy transition with the fight against poverty. These objectives were at the roots of the European regional project; they should still be at the heart of its approach, internally and externally.
In 2023, the EU will find itself at a crossroads. This will be a year in which the Union will collectively present its SDG review ahead of the second ‘SDG Summit’ (which marks the midpoint in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs); assess how its NDICI and other development tools have been used, and to what effect; and evaluate the midterm progress of the von der Leyen cabinet. The EU also has a major opportunity in 2023 to better align its development finance priorities and coordinate among stakeholders to meet the needs of partner countries.
Image 3.4 | María Cortés Puch, Vice President of Network Program, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)
Achieving the green and digital transformations will require investments in high quality education for all and in sustainable research and development.
The European Green Deal and the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility, which the European Commission negotiated last year, have become critical vehicles for achieving the SDGs. As shown in this report, Europe faces major challenges in achieving SDGs 12 through 15 (related to responsible production and consumption, climate change and biodiversity) and SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), which is the goal with the largest divergence across EU member states, highlighting major gaps in innovation and productivity across the region. Taking concerted action to improve education (SDG 4) is one of the key factors in moving forward. Almost all children complete basic education in Europe, but there are persistent gaps in learning outcomes by socioeconomic status, in access to lifelong learning, and in access to and the quality of education in non-EU countries (especially for pre-primary education). The transformations promoted by the Green Deal require investments in education and skills at all levels – pre-primary, primary, secondary, tertiary and lifelong learning – to ensure that no one is left behind and to further the convergence of living standards and productivity across member states. This is particularly crucial in the face of the multifaceted crises that are affecting the most vulnerable, including young people, women and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In the context of the twin green and digital transformations, this paper proposes three priorities for improving education systems and boosting skills and innovation for sustainable development across Europe. 1) Strengthen education and curb inequalities in access to, and the quality of, education by socioeconomic status – inequalities that the pandemic has aggravated. This action is crucial to advance convergence in living standards and productivity within and across European countries. 2) Further promote education for sustainable development in school curricula at all levels. 3) Increase support for research and development and sustainable innovation, including further leveraging Horizon Europe and scientific networks, to both accelerate progress towards the SDGs and improve European competitiveness in strategic sectors and technologies. Achieving these three priorities will require a combination of EU-wide initiatives – such as the implementation of the European Education Area – and targeted policies at the member state level.
The first principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights is the right to quality education and lifelong learning. Yet even before the pandemic, almost one quarter of 15-year-olds in Europe failed to complete basic mathematics, science and reading tasks (OECD, 2018). Most OECD countries have suffered further losses in reading and mathematics outcomes as a result of the pandemic (OECD, 2022). This is particularly troubling given that education outcomes are influenced by socioeconomic status, with students from disadvantaged backgrounds overrepresented among underachievers.
The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds (OECD, 2022; European Commission, 2021), who have most likely ‘lost further ground’ (European Commission et al., 2021). These circumstances will increase overall European inequalities and could become a barrier to achieving the twin green and digital transformations.
These transformations and Europe’s long-term prosperity will depend on improving inclusiveness for all socioeconomic groups through greater investments in educational quality and skills for lifelong learning. Over the last two years, most European countries have increased investment in education systems as part of their pandemic recovery strategies. However, it is unclear to what extent these increases reflect investments made simply to adapt to the pandemic: such as training teachers for online schooling, improving building ventilation, or providing masks to school personnel (OECD, 2022). While necessary to keep education systems running, these investments are not focused on the transformations needed to ensure that no students are left behind, neither do they address the need to better integrate sustainable development into school curricula. What is needed are investments in quality early childhood education and targeted efforts in socioeconomically deprived areas that have proven success in reducing inequalities in education outcomes. Investments should be directed particularly to areas in the EU regions that score low on metrics related to educational performance or level of education attainment, as continues to be the case, for example, in many rural areas.
The EU has been working since 2017 to establish a European Education Area (EEA) that can enhance collaboration, resilience and inclusiveness in education across the continent. The EEA is focused on upgrading educational quality, fostering skills for lifelong learning, and promoting digital skills for all. As well as establishing education systems that ensure no worker is left behind, European governments must consider the needs of its companies that must compete with cutting-edge enterprises from China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and elsewhere. This will require that the EU and its member states work toward equipping every worker for the new sustainable economy, including by integrating a sustainable development focus across all new programming.
The Commission’s proposals for the establishment of the EEA by 2025 have identified critical education challenges across the EU that must be addressed. Though some progress has been made, there is a sense that efforts toward comprehensive implementation of the EEA have been insufficient, given the vision’s ambitious goals. Given the documented impact that the pandemic has had on education outcomes, the well-defined goals of the EEA to improve inclusiveness and outcomes for those at risk of being left behind, and the considerable resources and political buy-in it already has, completing the EEA is an urgent priority. Overcoming the challenge of execution is the clear next step.
Heriard, Prutsch and Thoenes (2021) offer several recommendations to advance this effort. These include developing a comprehensive evaluation framework consistent with SDG 4 on education, investigating synergies with the European Research Area and the European Higher Education Area and laying out exactly what the EEA will require from local and national partners to ensure buy-in. This last recommendation is particularly important given that the EEA is being developed within an already crowded landscape of EU-driven initiatives across a range of issues, from education to climate change to energy security. In the current context of pandemic recovery, global energy and food-price shocks, and a war in Europe that is dominating leaders’ agendas, it is crucial to get it right in laying the groundwork for recovery and sustainable growth that can help European societies move beyond today crises.
There are some good examples of how this is being done at the member-state level. The Spanish Recovery and Resilience Plan (Government of Spain, 2021a), presented to the European Commission in 2021, explicitly aims to offset the foreseeable negative impacts of the pandemic on the two groups hardest hit by the previous financial crisis: women and young people (Government of Spain, 2021b). It directs €750 million to addressing youth unemployment via a series of programmes that include innovative training adapted to the sustainable development economy, as well as through policies aimed to develop a dynamic, resilient and inclusive labour market that will have a place for young people with varying levels of education.
In addition, the Spanish plan offers measures to promote entrepreneurship and increase training and employment rates for women and girls, and to improve maternal care systems to facilitate women’s access to education and to labour markets. This initiative is a good example of how member states can address inequalities by directing exceptionally mobilised funding towards education, life-long learning, and necessary support systems that promote access to education.
As well as addressing inequalities and ensuring that no worker is left behind, the green and digital transformations will also depend upon increased support for cutting-edge education, especially higher education, which goes hand-in-hand with world-leading research and innovation. Achieving this will depend in part on better integrating education for sustainable development towards a long-term alignment of educational, economic and environmental goals.
At a more advanced level, as the largest research funding programme in the world, Horizon Europe will be an important mechanism of support at a more advanced level. It must commit its support to resolving innovation challenges and developing the technologies that will be needed to achieve the SDGs and implement the Paris Climate Agreement. In this sense, Horizon Europe’s focus on the four Green Deal missions (adaptation to climate change, restoring oceans and waters, developing climate-neutral and smart cities, and restoring healthy soils) presents a promising model for delivering high-impact innovation that aligns with the six SDG transformations. The Horizon Europe investment programme could also be an important tool to strengthen innovation systems in member states with weaker research and development systems and to encourage leading European companies to develop digital technologies, including artificial intelligence and targeted sustainable technologies.
One key feature of Horizon 2020 is the concept of ‘sister projects’: large,complex research and innovation projects conducted by consortiums of research institutions, government agencies, civil society and the private sector which share knowledge with other sister projects. This innovative and resourceful way of addressing sustainable development challenges through an ecosystem of projects that advance in parallel has proven to be extremely effective.
It is SDSN’s philosophy that networks will become the institutional infrastructures best fit to address the complex challenges of sustainable development. For Europe, these networks would draw on various EU frameworks and funding mechanisms to advance action at local and national levels. The scale of the transformations that the SDGs require, the ambitious timeline for achieving them, and the nature of the challenges make collaboration across disciplines, sectors and countries essential.
At SDSN we have identified several advantages that networks offer when it comes to addressing complex challenges, including but not limited to: the rapid and efficient exchange of information; a richness of perspectives, expertise and knowledge; coordinated action, reducing redundancies and balancing trade-offs; the capacity to adapt to emerging opportunities; and resilience to unexpected changes or crises (Barredo et al., 2019). While the Horizon 2020 sister projects is already a valuable innovation, ideally in the years to come, the European Commission and member states will increase their support to networks as an essential form of institutional infrastructure.
Image 3.5 | Marc Ringel, Chairholder, European Chair for Sustainable Development and Climate Transitions, Sciences Po
The European Green Deal is Europe’s climate and growth strategy. It aims to turn the European Union into the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, while maintaining economic growth (European Commission, 2019). A key component is the decarbonisation of the energy sector, responsible for some 80% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, however in its underlying climate scenarios the Green Deal is conceived as a long-term strategy, still relying on fossil resources well into the next decade (Capros et al., 2018; Elkerbout et al., 2020; Hainsch et al., 2022). But the war in Ukraine and related fossil fuels shortages, along with resultant price hikes from energy suppliers, have raised concerns that the EU might give up on its climate objectives to address the energy supply crisis (Osička and Černoch, 2022). Indeed, many European member states have taken short-term measures that hint at such a shift, reactivating coal-fired power plants or replacing Russian gas with shipped-in liquefied natural gas (Saul, 2022). These actions have in turn led to price increases on global energy markets, transforming the European crisis into a global issue (IEA, 2022b).
Despite these short-term contingency measures to safeguard fuel provision, the Green Deal – or an update of it – can serve as a blueprint for both decarbonisation and energy security. This possibility becomes evident from key statistics underlying the present situation: in 2020, about a quarter of the energy consumed in Europe was imported from Russia, either directly or indirectly (European Commission, 2022a). This dependence becomes even more pronounced when looking at individual energy sectors. The EU relied on Russia for some 26% of its crude oil imports, 43% of natural gas imports (more than 80% for some EU members), and 54% of hard coal imports. In monetary terms, these amounted to an annual fuel bill of €99 billion (Rodríguez-Fernández et al., 2022; European Commission, 2022c).
Turning from present statistics to projections for the future, these costs can be expected to increase significantly. Europe is facing a fossil fuels crisis. The (politically induced) present situation can be interpreted as a ‘fast forward’ into a not-so-far-off future where fossil resources are scarce and global demand elevated, and where increased competition for resources leads to amplified market uncertainties and related price spikes. With 60% of its fuel needs dependent on imports, the EU has a keen interest in avoiding entering such a future unprepared. When this impending crisis is combined with the costs of climate change (IPCC, 2021), there is a very compelling argument for front-loading the Green Deal and implementing it more quickly.
Advancing the Green Deal is by no means a simple task. Many scientific observers already see the EU as caught in a ‘polycrisis’ that is crippling its capacities to adequately respond to each separate crisis (finance, Covid, economic recovery, energy and climate) (Schimmelfennig, 2022; Zeitlin and Nicoli, 2021; Zeitlin et al., 2019). At the same time, a clear focus of present policies is the need to find alternative energy suppliers and diversify supply (Lambert et al., 2022), raising the risks of diminishing the solidarity among EU member states and missing climate targets (Osička and Černoch, 2022). Despite these challenges, there is strong evidence that the original enthusiasm for the Green Deal has only grown stronger in the present crisis, thereby opening a window of opportunity for more stringent climate and energy policies (Ringel et al., 2021; Ringel and Knodt, 2019; Steffen and Patt, 2022; Grajewski, 2022).
The window is wide open: following adoption of the ‘European climate law’, with its legally binding objectives to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050 (European Commission, 2020), the European Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ package aims to adapt all relevant EU legislation to meet new, higher levels of climate ambition (Erbach and Jensen, 2022). Relevant EU directives addressing clean energy are still under negotiation and may be upgraded to deliver a front-loaded version of the Green Deal, serving to support both climate objectives and clean and secure energy policies.
In its RePowerEU plan of May 2022 (European Commission, 2022d), the European Commission outlined its expectations for such updates, which are strongly aligned with proposals from the International Energy Agency to safeguard Europe’s energy supply (IEA, 2022a). Focussing on supporting the climate transition, the RePowerEU plan proposes the following (Widuto, 2022):
1. Raise the target for the share of renewable energies – from 40% to 45% by 2035
2. Increase the objective for energy savings from 9% to 13% by 2030 (with the European Parliament asking for 14.5–16%)
3. Apply short-term measures to save energy, as outlined in the separate EU Save Energy communication (European Commission, 2022b)
4. Incorporate detailed provisions into the updated renewable energy and energy efficiency directives (RED III and EED) that will support more ambitious targets in both policy fields
5. Channel finance into these areas and increase funding for European research and development programmes such as Horizon Europe or EU-LIFE
6. Accelerate technologies and partnerships to open up green hydrogen as a new resource for Europe, both through domestic production and import partnerships
These proposals merit a critical appraisal to put them in perspective.
First and foremost, the proposals are notably more ambitious than previous goals and thereby advance implementation of the European Green Deal. But while a swift transformation is commendable, this speed will also increase ‘transformation pains’ in terms of accelerated regional restructuring. Such measures will only be successful if they can attract broad public support (Filipović et al., 2022). A just transition, with the promise to leave no one behind, will be key.
Second, while the Green Deal is a strategy for Europe, it has global impact (Smol, 2022). By delivering a successful blueprint for a climate and energy transition, the EU can contribute to advancing similar transitions across the globe. In this way, the EU can live up to its commitment to act as the global climate leader (Oberthür and Dupont, 2021). Leadership, however, does not mean that the EU cannot benefit from lessons learned in other regions of the world. EU leaders are advised to seek out such benefits by fostering international partnerships.
Third, expert concerns about achieving on ever more ambitious policy targets need to be taken seriously. As seen in 2020, a multitude of obstacles can prevent even comparatively low objectives from being met. Along with facing a steep learning curve in policy coordination and monitoring (Knodt et al., 2020; Bertoldi and Mosconi, 2020), clear and binding national targets and multi-level-governance arrangements will be required to support the targets and related policy measures (see, for example, Ringel, 2016). Stronger intra-European coordination will be crucial.
Fourth and last, there is no silver bullet for solving the climate and energy transition challenge. The full potential of these policies will only be achieved if they can be enacted stringently and swiftly. At COP 13 in 2007, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency addressed the general assembly by highlighting that all policy options were on the table, leading to three clear recommendations: ‘Implement, implement, implement’ (Tanaka, 2007). Fifteen years later, the EU and its member states are well advised to remember these words, as well as act on them.
Image 3.6 | Aziza Akhmouch, Head of the Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development division (OECD)
Image 3.7 | Stefano Marta, Coordinator of the programme A Territorial Approach to the SDGs (OECD)
Using the SDGs to manage trade-offs in urban policies
Globally, one in two people lives in a city; and cities are expected to host 5 billion people by 2050. As an engine of growth, cities provide tremendous agglomeration benefits. They boost productivity, innovation and job creation; they attract skills and talents; they provide higher wages and income; and they facilitate access to a wide range of services and amenities. But if ill-managed, cities can also generate agglomeration costs (OECD, 2015). All countries – be they advanced, emerging or developing – face problems related to slums and overcrowded settlements, urban sprawl, air, noise or water pollution, inadequate or unaffordable housing, and insufficient or costly access to basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation, transport, education or health. The larger the city, the bigger the inequalities across demographics, places, and services. Recent health and environmental crises have magnified challenges in cities that lack quality urbanisation.
Housing and transport are often top policy priorities to unlock the sustainability potential of cities (OECD, 2022a). Indeed, across OECD countries, households spend from one-tenth to onethird of their disposable income on housing (including rent and maintenance). In OECD countries, transport is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (24% in 2018), with road transport accounting for 88% of total transport emissions (OECD, forthcoming).
Despite the 2030 Agenda’s dedicated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 on ‘Cities and Communities’ and specific targets on housing (11.1 on ensuring access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrading slums) and mobility (11.2 on providing access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, and improving road safety), cities are not on track to achieve these goals.
National governments will not solve the challenge on their own. Cities and regions are key partners to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and at least 65% of the 169 SDG targets cannot be achieved without the direct engagement of subnational authorities. Local and regional governments hold key responsibilities in areas like housing, transport, infrastructure, land use, water and climate change, among others. In OECD countries, they will fund 55% of total public investment and 37% of total public expenditure.
Despite increasing uptake of the SDGs at the local level to reshape plans, strategies, and investments from the ground up, much remains to be done to reach the goals. Data measuring the progress of more than 650 cities from OECD and partner countries show that at least 70% of cities have not yet achieved the end values suggested for 2030 in 15 of the 17 SDGs (OECD, 2020). The SDGs in which most cities lag relate to the environment – SDG 13 (Climate action) and SDG 15 (Life on land) – and gender equality (SDG 5). At least 95% of cities have not met the suggested end values. Cities also have high disparities in their distances from meeting the objectives of Goal 7 (Clean Energy). While 30% of the cities measured have reached the end values for this goal (meaning that more than 81% of their electricity production comes from renewable sources with no use of coal or fossil fuels), the remaining 70% are only halfway towards achieving the recommended outcomes (OECD, 2020).
The SDGs are not an endpoint, but rather a means to an end. They should first and foremost facilitate the design and implementation of policies that benefit people and the planet. Beyond complying to goals and targets of the SDGs, cities can use them to guide greater coherence across departments and policies, and between levels of government.
The SDGs also offer a framework for shaping recovery from cascading and interlinked crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war on Ukraine, climate change, or social discontent. Because the SDGs offer a long-term, stable framework, they provide a blueprint for the radical transformations needed to build inclusive, green, smart and resilient cities. A recent survey conducted by the OECD and the European Committee of the Regions (OECD-CoR ) found that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, no less than 40% of surveyed cities and regions had been using the SDGs before the pandemic and were already using them to shape the recovery phase. Another 44% plan to do so in the future (Figure 3.2) (OECD, 2022b).
Two key policy areas where cities are critical for accomplishing the SDGs are sustainable mobility and quality, affordable housing.
Promoting sustainable mobility and transitioning to low-carbon transport (SDG 11) are key to reducing air pollution and building sustainable cities, but they require managing trade-offs between policy areas, such as improving air quality while striving to reduce inequalities. For instance, to promote sustainable and inclusive mobility, cities strive to reduce dependence on cars in favour of more accessible, quality and affordable public transport alternatives – while also responding to the needs of a growing and ageing population and considering the impact that climate measures might have on inequality (for example, in the form of potentially more costly renewable energy sources or congestion charges). Cities must pay special attention to the impacts on vulnerable groups, in particular the elderly and young people. The SDGs provide an integrated framework to analyse interlinkages and manage trade-offs across those policy areas (OECD, 2022c).
According to the OECD-CoR survey (OECD, 2022b), 49% of cities and regions consider that improving multi-modal transport, such as ensuring active and clean urban mobility, is a main contributor to sustainable mobility and accessibility, and the achievement of SDG 11. This option is followed by developing regional public transport and better integrating rural areas into public transport networks (32% of cities and regions), adapting public transportation systems to the need for physical distancing and to changing patterns in work and commuting habits (15%) and addressing negative agglomeration externalities, such as traffic congestion and air pollution, by reducing the use of private cars through congestion charges and ad hoc regulations that account for specific exemptions (7%) (Figure 3.3).
Figure 3.3 | Which policies and actions can most contribute to sustainable mobility and accessibility and thus achieve SDG 11 in your city or region?
In the German city of Bonn, improving air quality and reducing CO₂ emissions are high on the political agenda. However, lowering CO₂ levels to meet European norms is challenging in the face of a growing population and high individual motorised-vehicle traffic due to large commuting flows, among other reasons. Mobility is thus an important issue in the local public debate from both health and social standpoints. The promotion of cycling has already gained traction in city policy through the Bonn Cycle Route concept. Planned investment in these areas offers an opportunity to improve the city’s overall transport system.
Housing supply, quality and affordability are also key areas for local action. Cities above 50,000 inhabitants are projected to house 55% of the global population by 2050 – 81% of young people who moved within the same country between 2006 and 2016 settled in an urban or intermediate region (OECD, 2019). Providing sufficient housing quality and quantity, while maintaining and developing green spaces, is a daunting task for many cities and regions. City leaders face complex trade-offs in addressing such challenges: for example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions means maintaining and developing green spaces, yet another goal is to cater to a growing need for affordable housing. The SDG framework can facilitate an integrated approach to urban planning that seeks efficient use of space, provides access to quality and affordable housing, and maintains green areas, contributing to balanced urban development.
Measures to respond to those challenges include sustainable construction based on waste recycling (which tackles housing and recycling deficits at the same time), sharing with real estate developers the social infrastructure costs linked to housing projects and using private financing to make housing more affordable.
Spatial planning is one policy area that requires considering both the core city and its neighbouring municipalities (the commuting zone), whose labour market might be integrated with the city. Densifying the urban space, such as by adjusting building codes and spatial development regulations in urban and regional planning, can be a tool to provide more efficient land use, avoid urban sprawl and achieve sustainable urbanisation in the long term.
In the region of Flanders in Belgium, ‘smart living’ is among the priorities outlined in the government’s Vision 2050. Households in Flanders spend on average 28% of their expenses on housing, which is more than in 70% of OECD regions. The Flemish Housing Agency and its partners are experimenting with transition management principles to involve the private sector in contributing to smart living in Flanders. Their work focusses on developing sustainable neighbourhoods conducive to sustainable lifestyle choices (for example, living and working in the same neighbourhood), while experimenting with new private financing mechanisms to increase housing affordability (OECD, 2020).
Despite the urgent need to manage short-term emergencies and crises, cities should maintain a long-term perspective and embrace the radical and costly transformations required to be fit for the future. The SDGs represent a unique tool with which to recover from existing crises and address structural challenges, such as housing and mobility, that are magnified in the current context – through combining short-term responses with medium and long-term sustainable solutions.
Image 3.8 | Angelo Riccaboni, Co-Chair of SDSN Europe, Full Professor of Business Economics at the University of Siena, PRIMA Foundation
Image 3.9 | Peter Schmidt, President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment (NAT)
Image 3.10 | Simone Cresti,SDSN Mediterranean Network Manager, University of Siena, Santa Chiara Lab
The Russian war of aggression on Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated famine and aggravated the situation of the world’s most vulnerable populations and countries. With these phenomena occurring alongside, and contributing to, the worsening consequences of the climate crisis, it has become urgent to manage natural resources more effectively and ensure greater social inclusion, innovation and international cooperation and partnerships.
Sustainable agrifood systems have a key role to play in ensuringthe health of both people and the planet, as well as paving the way for social prosperity. Food production provides the basis for wellbeing, peace, economic prosperity and security; it also has impacts on water, soil, biodiversity and energy resources. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2022) marks a step change in recognizing the links between food and the climate crisis, as more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to how we produce, process, and use food.
Food systems, in turn, are suffering from multiple climate calamities – changing weather patterns, ecosystem collapse and degradation of land, soil and waterways (Jordi, 2022) – as well as from global trends such as urbanisation and population increases. Moreover, due to the value of trade in agricultural commodities (wheat, corn, sunflower oil, and fertilizers) and its implications on energy sources, trade and global logistics, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has disrupted the food supply chains at a time when global food and energy prices were already elevated. More than 30 countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for at least 30% of their wheat imports, and at least 20 depend on them for 50% of their wheat imports. Such countries have therefore been extremely vulnerable to price shocks and supply shortfalls (IPES-Food, 2022).
In this context, the impact of commodity speculation on the global crisis in the price of food should be further examined. The scope and scale of current price volatility can only be partially explained by market fundamentals (EESC, 2022a). One of the underlying flaws in the food system that has turned the Ukraine crisis into a global food security crisis is the opaque and dysfunctional nature of grain markets (IPES-Food, 2022).
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has also had major impacts on food security and nutrition across the world. Families close to the poverty threshold, women, migrants, marginalised groups and people with seasonal, insecure and informal work have been hit the hardest. These same social groups were more vulnerable to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, because of their dietary habits, limited purchasing power, or lower awareness of the connection between diet and health.
COVID-19 has made the relationship between food and individual health more explicit, as the most vulnerable were people with diseases often related to malnutrition, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. As some 700 to 830 million people worldwide faced hunger in 2021 – 150 million more than in 2019 (FAO et al., 2022) – it became apparent that hunger and food poverty are problems even outside developing countries. It also became clear that food safety and food security go hand in hand, as the right of access to food implies the availability of nutritious food, and in adequate quantity. Given that approximately 14% of the world’s food, valued at $400 billion, is lost each year between harvest and the retail market, and a further estimated 17% is wasted at the retail and consumer levels (FAO 2021a; UNEP, 2021), addressing such a paradox between need and waste is becoming a priority.
Food’s centrality is pushing many countries to consider strategic food autonomy as a solution to food and fertiliser shortages. Becoming autonomous implies overcoming an emergency logic in favour of a strategic approach that pursues the medium-long-term objective of building sustainable agrifood systems and creating resilience to future crises. In particular, EU food systems should be more diversified; the agricultural workforce should be strengthened, especially by attracting young people and ensuring decent working conditions and remuneration; and trade policies should align with EU food sustainability standards (EESC, 2021a). It must be noted that food autonomy should not mean food sovereignty: the future of food systems and solutions to the next unavoidable international and national crises lie in cooperation, and not in selfishness and closed borders.
The problem with trying to transform food systems is not a lack of solutions but a lack of concerted action, holistic approaches1 and international political determination to address structural challenges. Some governments are considering enhancing the sustainability of their food systems but, at the same time, are falling back on old practices of intensive industrial agriculture (IPES-Food, 2022). The impacts of the war in Ukraine should not lead to compromises on actions to address climate change and sustainability, as provided for in the United Nations Agenda 2030 and the European Green Deal. Exceptional derogations from these commitments should be granted for a limited time only (EESC, 2022b).
The United Nations system and the EU both emphasise the key role of food systems (UN General Assembly, 2022), and the new EU Common Agricultural Policy aims at supporting and boosting the transition towards sustainable food production. At the heart of the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork strategy promotes a just transition, with the awareness that a shift to a sustainable food system can bring environmental, health and social benefits, offer economic gains, and ensure that crisis recovery puts countries onto a sustainable path.
The EU recognises the influence that the private sector could have in such a shift and encourages companies to adhere to the Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices (European Commission, 2021). The European Economic and Social Committee also recently urged food companies to align with the Agenda 2030 (EESC, 2021b).
In particular, it acknowledged that business operators often view sustainability requirements as complex and burdensome rather than as an opportunity – and therefore recommended the use of more readily understandable language (a ‘grammar for sustainability’) to change this.
All of these policies and initiatives require the main actors of the agrifood system to collaborate to overcome constraints and boost sustainable transformation. Farmers, businesses and social partners all play crucial roles – from the smallest family farms to large multinational corporations and industry consortia, together with financial institutions, investors and philanthropic organisations. However, despite the importance of the private sector in achieving the SDGs, it has so far been difficult to capture and precisely quantify its contribution (FAO, 2021b).
To accelerate the contribution of the private sector, several issues must be tackled.
First, regulations should focus on each product’s contribution to healthy and sustainable diets, and not on their absolute degree of sustainability. Second, in addition to focusing on their internal operations and their contribution to healthy and sustainable diets, companies should be mindful of the sustainability of their value chain and how they behave in and contribute to their communities. Third, technological, organisational and social innovation must be harnessed to boost the adoption of more sustainable farming and breeding practices (EESC, 2022c) and the use of raw materials for more sustainable internal processes and value chains, and to reduce the negative impacts of products and production and transformation processes. Innovation is needed in environmental as well as social aspects. Here, problems lie in the difficulties that small businesses face in innovating, in addressing their internal culture, and in their lack of financial resources.
Big companies are better equipped in terms of human resources, knowledge, skills and capacity to recognise megatrends and international orientations. Consequently, they are often more able both to face the challenge of sustainability and to use its grammar – which is essential to answering to the needs of consumers, regulators and financial institutions. And while small businesses often have a lower impact on the environment, they are frequently unable to show it. Accountability frameworks, monitoring mechanisms and funding opportunities are usually better adapted to large companies. This is a gap to be urgently filled, since European food systems are predominantly made up of small and medium-sized enterprises.
More support is needed to assist agrifood companies throughout their transition and help them to develop a "grammar for sustainability". This support should include providing access to self-assessment tools, promoting networking between companies and entrepreneurship and sustainability educational programmes, creating communities of practice and promoting good practice, facilitating access to innovation ecosystems, to markets and market information, and offering financial incentives to encourage growth. The European Economic and Social Committee has also recommended the creation of an expert group to formulate Europe-wide sustainable dietary guidelines that take cultural and geographical differences between and within member states into account (EESC, 2019).
Ad hoc support for small and medium-sized enterprises can be provided by European, national and local policies and institutions. Universities and research centres can also be valuable in such a process, as well as food policy councils.
A key factor to promote the transition to a more sustainable agrifood system is greater encouragement of responsible consumption habits through education initiatives aimed at both schools and public opinion. Investing in teaching children about sustainable diets from an early age would help young people appreciate the value of food, and potentially transfer this appreciation to their parents.
Image 3.11 | Lisa Tostado Head of International Climate, Energy and Agriculture Policy Program, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union
Europe’s transition to a circular economy requires plans with ambitious and measurable targets to tackle consumption patterns and the environmental impacts associated with them. Even though the EU is a global leader in circular economy policies (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020; INEC and OREE, 2020), the European Green Deal itself notes that measures so far have been insufficient, and that ‘consumption of materials and energy […] has continued to increase’. The EU’s per capita material footprint has not changed significantly for about a decade, and is approximately twice what is considered sustainable and just (Bolger et al., 2021; Bringezu, 2015; Friends of the Earth, 2022). A review of EU policy measures, strategies and programmes, shows that circular economy objectives remain mostly discursive and ambiguous, lacking measurable and ambitious goals, including clear milestones and reduction pathways.
As part of the Green Deal, the European Commission published its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) in March 2020. The plan outlines 35 actions related to natural resources use, product and systems design, and waste management. Although having this plan is a clear step forward, a crucial piece of the puzzle is still missing: the Commission backtracked on its goal to set an absolute reduction target for its material footprint (that is, independent of economic growth). It had initially aimed to reduce consumption by 50%, halving the volume of raw materials consumed in products and services, including imports. The final CEAP includes only a weak commitment to further develop indicators on resource use as part of its ‘monitoring framework’.
The final CEAP is not coherent with recommendations from other EU institutions and experts. In 2021, the European Parliament backed a report urging the European Commission to set binding targets to reduce the EU’s absolute material footprint (European Parliament, 2021). The 8th Environment Action Programme, which guides the Union’s environmental policy, also stipulates that the EU must ‘significantly decrease its material and consumption footprints to bring them into planetary boundaries as soon as possible, including through the introduction of Union 2030 reduction targets’ (European Union, 2022).
The lack of clear EU-level targets in the CEAP to reduce the EU’s ecological and material footprints is a significant missed opportunity.
Here is why.
First of all, the CEAP is failing to bring the EU’s footprint into line with planetary boundaries, as stipulated in the 8th EAP: Europe is still overconsuming natural resources. Its material footprint is twice – or by some measures, three times – what is considered a sustainable level (Bringezu, 2015). An absolute reduction target of 50% would be a scientifically sound minimum. Reducing resource use only in relative terms, in relation to economic growth, is not a solution since it does not curb overconsumption.
Second, without a reduction in resource use, SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and many other SDGs will remain out of reach. In its Green European Deal, the European Commission notes that ‘resource extraction and processing account for more than 90% of global biodiversity loss and water stress impacts, and for approximately half of global climate change emissions’. Research shows clear links between the circular economy and SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth) and SDG 15 (Life on land) (Khajuria et al., 2022; Schroeder et al., 2019; van Kruchten and van Eijk, 2020). Recent scholars also suggest that a circular economy could support social goals such as SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG 2 (Zero hunger), SDG 3 (Good health and well-being), SDG 5 (Gender equality) and SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities)(Sutherland and Kouloumpi, 2022; Schroeder et al., 2019). Circular economy policies can also contribute to international peace by reducing the EU’s dependence on imported and raw materials, which are often imported from countries under authoritarian regimes. This point is timelier than ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Third, having a consumption target could allow discussions to move beyond eco-design and waste management to rethinking the way Europeans consume. There is no empirical evidence that economic growth can be decoupled from environmental pressures at the scale needed to deal with the various environmental crises (Parrique et al., 2019). Policymakers’ current focus on green growth – building on the assumption that decoupling can be achieved through increased efficiency without limiting economic production and consumption – gives reason for concern. But setting an absolute reduction target for the EU could open the door to a radical rethink of green growth policies. Rather than pursuing incremental efficiency gains within established production and consumption systems, a deep transformation is required: including new ways of consuming, for example by owning less and sharing more. At the very least, agreeing on an absolute reduction target – even if it is less ambitious than is needed – could spur deeper discussion on what growth, progress, well-being and sustainability really mean.
Fourth, having an absolute reduction target would similarly spur discussions around consumption-based indicators. These metrics are important tools for building awareness of the many negative spillovers the EU causes and designing policies to reduce the outsourcing of environmental problems. Data shows, for example, that since 1990, carbon emissions in the EU have slightly increased, not decreased, when taking imports into account (Becqué et al., 2017). It is not sufficient to reduce emissions at home without also addressing imported emissions. Sweden, for instance, may become the first country to set a consumption-based target to curb CO₂ emissions generated abroad to satisfy its domestic consumption (Marczewski, 2022). Could similar targets be set at the EU level, covering issues such as imported deforestation and the social impacts of consumption?
In terms of circular economy and zero pollution, the EU generates negative spillovers via imports as well as exports. One example is its continued export of highly hazardous pesticides that are no longer approved for use in the EU due to human health and environmental concerns. Under its 2020 Chemicals Strategy, the European Commission has pledged to outlaw such exports by 2023 (European Commission, 2020). The EU must do more to combat chemical pollution: both by improving environmental protection within the bloc and by not exporting its chemical pollution to the Global South, where poor and marginalised communities too often suffer the physical and mental health consequences of living in pollution hotspots (United Nations, 2022).
If EU institutions can eventually agree on an absolute reduction target, it could be outlined in a circular economy law (similar to the EU climate law) that incorporates clear mandatory milestones. The target could be further broken down into specific material sub-group or sector targets that would support development of complementary indicators on land, water and carbon footprints as part of a circular economy monitoring framework. A ‘Halving our Footprint’ package, along the lines of the ‘Fit for 55’ package, could provide a comprehensive set of EU policy revisions and new laws. Metals should be the subject of a particularly important sub-target, as they represent a large share of Europe’s total material consumption: the EU comprises just 6% of the world’s population, yet it consumes 25% of the metals produced globally. Without drastic changes, EU metal consumption is predicted to grow at the fastest rate of all material groups, with a predicted 63% increase per capita by 2060 (Bolger et al., 2021; OECD, 2019). Both the green and digital transformations require the consumption of metals to be dramatically reduced.
Studies demonstrate, however, that Europe’s material footprint can be reduced if the right policies are in place. The German Environment Agency has published research that presents different sustainability scenarios, and demonstrates how a combination of measures to promote energy efficiency, sustainable lifestyles, recycling, material subsitution and the use of innovative materials could succeed in reducing the EU’s footprint (Purr et al., 2019).
Some countries and regions are already leading the way, taking real steps to reduce their consumption and set measurable targets. The Netherlands, for instance, has the lowest material footprint in the EU and the highest rate of circular material use (Langsdorf and Duins, 2021). In 2016, the Dutch government set 2050 as its target for establishing a circular economy (and 2030 as an important milestone). By then, the use of abiotic primary raw materials – minerals, fossil raw materials and metals – is to be reduced by 50% from 2014 levels. Langsdorf and Duins’ study identified five key actions that have contributed to the successful uptake of the Dutch circular economy programme so far:
1. Bring stakeholders together to address barriers and opportunities and to secure support
2. Develop a vision by defining long-term goal and milestones
3. Identify key commodity cycles and develop transformation agendas by sector (for example, biomass, plastics, construction)
4. Ensure frequent feedback and monitoring
5. Legislate (for example, through taxes and subsidies, regulations and standardisation) to create incentives for companies and social actors
The Dutch case also shows, however, that even in more ambitious member states, the substitution approach still prevails, and sufficiency concepts remain weak spots. For instance, the Dutch Transition Agenda on Construction focuses on switching to more sustainable and circular materials but gives little attention to alternative transportation or housing concepts that could reduce the need to build. To date, failure to meet the targets has not been penalised, further limiting the likelihood of success. Yet binding targets do exist in the waste sector, driven by European stipulations – which demonstrates how EU policies can give rise to stringent legislation in member states.
While much international attention has been given to reducing carbon emissions linked to energy use, less attention has been directed at reducing material consumption. Yet the harsh reality is that the global circularity gap has worsened in the recent years – including in the EU. In the six years between the Paris and Glasgow climate conferences, the global economy consumed 70% more than the Earth could safely replenish (Circle Economy, 2022). Action is urgently needed, especially by countries whose most citizens are living well beyond the planet’s means, such as in the EU. There is a lack of critical analysis of the EU’s overconsumption, and of actions to address it. While the European Commission has begun to consider ways to reduce the impacts of Europe’s resource use, it has so far avoided setting any clear targets on reducing this use itself.
The circular economy narrative in Europe needs a shift. Too often, the focus is still on recycling and eco-design, whereas policies should instead be calling for actions to reduce, re-use and repair. A change in consumption patterns is vital to reduce the EU’s absolute material footprint. Incorporating material footprints into the circular economy discussion should also put a spotlight on negative spillovers. Targets, too, are imperative: setting a measurable absolute reduction target for consumption would provide clear direction and drive action forward. This would help the EU to reach SDG 12 at home and become a more a credible actor internationally, building support for circular economy policies in third countries.
Image 3.12 | Antoine Oger, Head of Programme, Global Challenges and SDGs, Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP)
Digital technologies are increasingly present in today’s societies, and their impact on our environment is growing in tandem. Policymakers need to respond to digital transition, to guarantee environmental justice and ensure that the transition is not fuelling inequalities (Qureshi, 2021). In a context of sustainability, the challenges of digitisation concern both sustainable digitalisation – reducing the energy consumption footprint of these technologies, for example – and digitalisation for sustainability – such as using digital tools to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the fields of mobility, energy or production (Wagner and Lange, 2021).
Digitalisation and sustainability are presented in a favourable light in EU policy documents (for example, European Commission, 2022), with considerable faith put in digital tools to further the green transition. However, research shows that in fact digitalisation has a slight net negative effect on the environment (Lange and Santarius, 2020).
The internet is responsible for as much as 3.8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Bordage, 2021) – which is more than the 2.5% share of international air traffic (Lee et al., 2021) – and these emissions are increasing by about 9% per year (Shift Project, 2019). The situation poses a challenge for the SDGs, especially SDG 13 on climate action. Internet connectivity rates are strongly linked to income, which brings a strong degree of carbon inequality into these numbers (Poushter, 2016), adding a challenge to SDG 10 on reduced inequalities.
Consumption of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is expected to continue to grow in the EU and globally (Grand View Research, 2014)1. Consumption correlates with strong negative environmental and social consequences along the information and communication technologies (ICT) value chain (Benqassem et al., 2021). Upstream, the mining activities that satisfy European demand for EEE, and which mostly take place outside the EU (Eurometaux, 2022), generate negative effects on manufacturing workers, particularly women (Björnsson, 2020), as well as their communities. The effects include forced displacement, restricted access to clean land and water, and harassment by mine operators or even governments (OXFAM, 2022).
The increasing demand for EEE also translates into e-waste becoming the world’s fastest growing domestic waste stream (UNEP, 2021). Globally, the e-waste generated in 2019 was estimated to amount to 53.6 million tonnes, of which close to 80% had an uncertain destination. It ended up either in landfills, burned, illegally traded or disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions, leading to GHG emissions and soil or water contamination (PACE, 2019). Exposure to e-waste can have serious negative health consequences, as it contains highly carcinogenic substances such as mercury, lead and cadmium (PACE, 2019). Eurostat reports that in 2019, the EU exported 119,279 tonnes of e-waste containing hazardous substances and 14,557 tonnes of non-hazardous e-waste (Eurostat, 2022). However, it is also estimated that 1.3 million tonnes of discarded electronics departed the EU in undocumented mixed exports in 2015 – 30% in the form of e-waste and 70% in the form of functioning equipment (UNU, 2015). Around 4.7 million tonnes are mismanaged or illegally traded within Europe each year. These trends are expected to grow, with e-waste generation projected to increase by 2% per year (European Commission, 2020c), to reach 74 million tonnes by 2030 (Forti et al., 2020).
Due to a lack of transparency and legal enforcements, the impact of e-waste generation, trade, collection and processing often remain unaddressed (Basel Action Network, 2018). Under its Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU launched a flurry of regulations to increase circularity and mitigate the environmental and social impacts of the electronics sector2(European Commission, 2020). It also recently launched a proposal on waste shipment and trafficking to tackle the export of illegal waste, including e-waste (European Commission, 2021b). Under recent amendments to the Basel Convention, export and import of e-waste, hazardous or not, must now comply with notification and consent requirements between export and importer countries (UNEP, 2022). These are important policy tools, but recognition of these spillover effects and impacts in terms of environmental justice is still underdeveloped and under-prioritised within EU policymaking. For instance, these regulations create a risk of ‘material leakage’ – substitution of exports to non-EU markets with lower environmental standards for treating e-waste (Brink et al., 2021).
Digitalisation is considered to be a game-changer in agriculture (European Commission, 2019). By making production, processing and trade more efficient, digitalisation raises farmers’ incomes and enables more sustainable farming practices.
Numerous policy agendas, including the European Commission Global Gateway Strategy (European Commission, 2021a) and UNFCC National Adaption Plans, view digital agriculture as having the power to leapfrog development pathways in the Global South (Stephenson et al., 2021). Yet, one undesired social repercussion of digital agriculture is the digital divide (Mehrabi et al., 2021), which is a gap in access to digital tools because of either a lack of effective access or a lack of skills to use them.
‘Smart’ or ‘precision’ farming, for instance, has been proposed as a means of farming more efficiently. The approach involves using sensors, machines, drones, satellites and smartphone applications to monitor animals, soil, water and plants. However, studies raise concerns about its adverse consequences on the environment and on the autonomy of farmers and animals, as well as the power imbalances associated with data ownership (Klerkx et al., 2019).
Emerging technologies (for example, artificial intelligence and e-commerce) have important implications for the environment in terms of the energy they use for data servers, storage and processing. Through the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, the EU has tried to address the social consequences of digitalisation (for example, market tipping, lock-in-effects, rent extraction, tax avoidance, labour rights violations, data abuse, mass surveillance and dark patterns), but current legislations barely address environmental concerns (Piétron et al., 2022). In addition, while the sustainability of e-commerce, online platforms and the sharing economy has come under increased scrutiny (Zarra et al., 2019), related concerns around environmental justice are still largely unexplored.
Some commentators have argued that EU data governance is becoming fragmented (Lopez Solano et al., 2022) and that a new approach to ‘data justice’ is needed. According to Lopez Solano et al., (2022), ‘a data justice approach is one that centres on equity, the recognition and representation of plural interests, and the creation and preservation of public goods as its principal goals‘. The EU should define laws to limit the power of both public and private actors that perform public functions while using digital data tools, to make them more accountable to the population.
Data centres that house the hardware and software required to run cloud applications worldwide consume as much as 2% of the global energy demand (Hintemann, 2018). Energy is necessary to power the servers and to cool down the excess heat they produce, and energy is again required to let out the excess heat into the surrounding environment. Data centres are responsible for nearly 1% of global energy related GHG emissions (International Energy Agency, 2022) – a figure that will increase in the coming years as the number of internet users continues to rise (it grew by 60% worldwide between 2015 and 2021). Efforts should therefore be made to power data centres and networks through renewable sources of energy that will lower their GHG emissions.
Several experiments have already started to collect the waste heat generated by data centres and use it to warm nearby commercial and residential buildings. Amazon, for instance, uses the heat from their data centres to heat their own campus in Seattle (Roberts, 2017). Other big technology corporations and public administrations have used similar approaches to provide energy to public heating systems that then redistribute the heat to residents. Such schemes can be found with Meta in Denmark (Leprince-Ringuet, 2020), Microsoft in Finland (Golden, 2022) and Amazon in Dublin (O’Shea, 2018). Although the positive consequences of such initiatives are significant, further research must be done to adequately assess their cost-benefits and potential adverse spillover effects.
Beyond energy use, data centres and data transmission networks pose other environmental impacts, through water use (Mytton, 2021) and, again, generation of electronic waste (Forti et al., 2020). Dedicated policies and regulations should ensure that these aspects are also considered, for instance through flexible energy prices and zero taxation of waste heat that is used in urban zones to develop energy-efficient technology and thermal networks (International Energy Agency, 2022).
The practices mentioned above should inspire larger scale experiments to bring together digitalisation and environmental justice. Most importantly, digital market regulations at the EU level should better integrate environmental concerns. In preparing such regulations, the impact assessments led by the European Commission should acknowledge the differentiated impact of digital solutions across populations, as well as their rebound effects, costs and benefits in terms of systemic changes.
As digital technologies (for example, sharing technologies, online platforms, e-commerce models, artificial intelligence, crypto currencies, blockchain) are growing rapidly, further research is needed to understand their implications for environmental justice in the EU. The sustainability implications of these technologies are not fully understood, which makes it difficult to prepare a coherent policy response. Studies should examine the disaggregated impacts on different groups, distributive impacts and alternative models.
Sectoral initiatives with important implications for digitalisation and environmental justice in the EU should complement the overall strategy. The following initiatives are recommended:
1. Increase circularity in the ICT value chain to reduce resource inputs, environmental impacts and potential spillovers.
2. Tax electronic goods and waste. The polluter pays principle is underused in the EU, and despite political commitments, the share of environmental taxation reduced over the last decade (Milios, 2021).
3. Provide for more Trade and Sustainable Development chapters in future EU trade deals, particularly with countries that are important sources of ICT products or raw materials, or are destinations for EEE waste (Blot et al., 2022a; Blot et al., 2022b).
4. Investigate ways of reaching the 2030 material use targets within the ICT industry, aiming towards consumption footprints within planetary boundaries by 2050, as called for by the European Parliament (2021).
5. Shift focus towards developing digital tools for food systems, as opposed to solely for agricultural production.
This article is based on Koundouri, P. et al. (2022). Financing the joint implementation of Agenda 2030 and the European Green Deal.
Image 3.13 | Prof. Phoebe Koundouri, Head of Programme, Professor School of Economics and Director of ReSEES Research Laboratory, Athens University of Economics and Business; Chair SDSN Global Climate Hub; Co-chair SDSN Europe & Greece; Professor, Department of Technology Management and Economics, Denmark Technical University.
Ecosystem services provided by natural resources such as food, water, shelter or climate regulation, bring a flow of benefits to both people and the economy. However, natural capital, human capital and produced capital all interact with and rely on each other – and as natural capital faces increasing pressure from climate change and biodiversity loss, humans and businesses are exposed to greater risks (see Figure 3.4).
Economic value that is derived from natural resources and the environment is too often overlooked by markets. The non-market values of resources such as outdoor recreation and landscape amenity, as well as non-use values (for example, the importance people give to specific habitats or species), are too often ignored by policy makers. This is due to ‘market failures’, by which, despite the obvious importance of these values, many ecosystem services are not traded in markets and therefore do not have a price. Total Economic Value (TEV), however, represents the total benefit in well-being resulting from a policy, which is a sum of the people’s willingness to pay (WTP) and their willingness to accept the policy (WTA).
Debating and determining the value of European ecosystem services is indispensable for informed decision-making.
Valuing ecosystem services ensures that policy decisions take stock of the costs and benefits related to the natural environment and their implications for human well-being. Indeed, the term ‘ecosystem services’ indicates the link between natural capital and the economy, which corresponds to the utility people derive from exploiting such ecosystems. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment there are four categories of ecosystem services: provisioning services (such as water, food or fibre); regulating services (climate regulation, water regulation, pollination); cultural services (recreation, aesthetic, spiritual and religious heritage); and supporting services (nutrient cycling, soil formation, primary production) (Reid et al., 2005).1
To date, metrics like gross domestic product and even the UN Human Development Index have been limited to measuring economic progress and human well-being, failing to sufficiently factor in the contribution of ecosystem service benefits such as pollination, regulation, or nature’s ability to mitigate disasters. This inability to account for the total economic value of ecosystems, added to the vicious cycle of overproduction and overexploitation, has led to the degradation of ecosystem services, jeopardising growth and prosperity. To invert this trajectory and prevent further degradation, it is pivotal to incorporate the economic value of ecosystem services into public and private decision-making.
The valuation method was chosen considering the type of ecosystem service and the amount and quality of data available. A two-stage approach was used to estimate the value of ecosystem services in Europe (Figure 3.5), with the ultimate objective of integrating the unit value of ecosystems into the SDG index, to enabling us to measure the socioeconomic value of moving from the current ecosystems status to full achievement of the SDGs.
For the economic valuation, a meta-regression analysis was conducted using the publicly accessible EVRI database (environmental valuation reference inventory). A typology of ecosystems (terrestrial, marine and freshwater) was determined based on the MAES mapping and assessment of ecosystems and their services typology (EEA, 2015). Ecosystem services are distinguished into provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services. The geographical area of the study was defined according to the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC).
Empirical results depicting marginal willingness to pay by ecosystem and country show that in most EU countries (17 out of 27), willingness to pay for the improvement of marine and freshwater ecosystems exceeds willingness to pay for improvement of the terrestrial ecosystem. One probable explanation is that inhabitants of these countries recognise that marine and aquatic ecosystems are at a higher risk of collapse than terrestrial ecosystems, and thus are eager to spend part of their income on their restoration. Another argument could be that people who live in these countries feel they depend more on the marine or aquatic environment than on that of the land, because of fishing, tourism, etc., and thus are more willing to help protect it.
Finding a balance between socioeconomic development and ecosystem services is a crucial challenge for sustainable development (McCartney et al., 2014). The next step was therefore to examine the correlation between willingness to pay and the EU’s level of SDG achievement as a whole. For this exercise, SDG country scores from the SDSN Europe Sustainable Development Report 20212 were correlated with country’s marginal willingness to pay (MWTP) scores. In this analysis, a positive correlation means that a high level of MWTP is associated with a high level of achievement of a specific SDG. The closer the correlation is to 1, the stronger the convergence. Conversely, a negative correlation means that a high (or low) level of MWTP is associated with a low (or high) level of achievement of a specific SDG. Again, the closer the correlation is to -1, the stronger the (negative) convergence. The analysis showed a strong overall convergence between MWTP and SDG scores. Figure 3.6 provides cross-sectional correlation coefficients between overall EU-27 MWTP estimates and SDG Index scores for all ecosystems as well as for two categories of ecosystem services.
Figure 3-6.1 | Cross-sectional correlation coefficients between EU-27 MWTP estimates and SDG Index Scores and the Scores for all the 17 underlying goals for all ecosystems and the three ecosystem services categories, respectively
Natural capital should not only be addressed in policy decisions but should also be a crucial factor in financial decisions and the appraisal of private-sector investments. With an increasing number of companies engaging in environmental, social and governance strategies, it is crucial to combine standard measures of corporate financial performance with measures of their social and environmental impact. After monetizing environmental impacts via ecosystem services valuation (which should be extended to social capital monetization), hybrid metrics should be used to directly link social and environmental performance with financial performance. Environmental, social and governance criteria are used to establish the most relevant ‘do no significant harm’ domains for sustainable financing (Migliorelli, 2021). Several studies (for example, Yilan et al., 2022) have shown the importance of having accurate measurements and guidelines available to back up corporate claims of sustainability by assessing environmental problems and actions related to sustainable finance.
Furthermore, although national development priorities around the globe are aligned with the vision of the SDGs, these remain insufficient to make sustainable development a reality. To achieve the goals by 2050, governments and policymakers must build them effectively into national and subnational development plans and strategies. Cost-benefit analysis and more precisely social cost benefit analysis are essential tools when evaluating investment decisions from a society perspective, rather than purely from the perspective of maximizing economic benefits. But choosing an appropriate discount rate is crucial.
Cost and social cost benefit analysis of projects with long-term benefits, such as environmental projects and those related to climate change, have to take the increased uncertainty of economic growth rates into consideration. The formula for the discount rate must be adjusted so that it decreases over time. The choice of an appropriate social discount rate has important consequences for the current values that determine the outcome of the social cost benefit analysis. If a high social discount rate is chosen, less money will be spent on social services and the public sector will be smaller. A low social discount rate implies that more money will be spent on social services and on a bigger public sector.
The use of declining discount rates instead of fixed interest rates has serious economic consequences: it means that policymakers should work harder to boost social benefits in the long term than in the short term. In other words, using a discount rate that decreases over time increases the importance attached to the welfare of future generations, making it more suited for evaluating long-term environmental projects (Gollier et al., 2008, Hepburn et al., 2009).
In conclusion, the value of natural capital to people and to the environment is undeniable. However, the benefits offered by nature and collectively known as ecosystem services – including food, water, shelter and climate regulation – are often underestimated in the market. This inability to account for the whole economic worth of ecosystems, combined with the vicious cycle of overproduction and overexploitation, has resulted in the degradation of ecosystem services, threatening current and future growth and prosperity.
When it comes to the total economic value of ecosystem services within the EU-27, empirical findings indicate that willingness to pay for ecosystem services varies according to ecosystem type (terrestrial, marine, freshwater), and that citizen engagement and willingness to pay for environmental protection could impact a country’s SDG scores. The inclusion of natural capital in investment decisions, for instance through the employment of social discount rates, is critical.
Image 3.14 | Brighton Kaoma, Global Director, SDSN Youth
Image 3.15 | Ellen R. Dixon, Project Lead for the SDG Students Program at SDSN Youth
Sustainable development as a concept inherently supports interregional cooperation and collaboration. It proposes a ‘conscious and responsible life’ within the social, ecological and environmental dimensions of existence, and their connection with management systems, whether natural, economic and institutional, cultural or moral (Dacko, Mickiewicz and Plonka, 2021).
Cooperation for sustainable development also requires intergenerational engagement between today’s leaders and the leaders of the next generation. Today’s youth are facing complex challenges: the climate crisis, threats to international peace, poor healthcare and education infrastructure, and difficulties in accessing decent work (United Nations, 2022). These challenges are universal, but they continue to disproportionately impact young people. The 2022 High-Level Political Forum has highlighted ‘the critical role of young people as agents for sustainable development, climate action and peace’ and as ‘torchbearers for the 2030 Agenda’ (High-Level Political Forum, 2022). But although the Forum acknowledged Youth2030and committed to including young people ‘in the development, monitoring and implementation of intergenerational strategies and programmes’, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres also noted that too few countries give young people ‘a voice in decisions that affect them’.
Many argue that these initiatives involve age-based tokenism or marginalisation. One result has been the rise in ‘youth-led protest movements [...] frequently driven by a deep distrust of today’s political classes and a desire for proper engagement in decision-making’ (Guterres, 2021). Young people are turning their dissatisfaction over economic and political reforms into opportunities for innovation, global collaboration and active citizenship.
European youth have been at the forefront of the global call for regional and interregional cooperation in sustainable development. They have been a driving force behind key social movements, from the Madrid Indignados to anti-racism protests, calls for climate justice, and social unrest in response to the cost-of-living crisis. This conscience for social change has resulted in various youth networking initiatives, including the European Commission’sYouth4Cooperation and the European Union’sYouth Action Plan 2022–2027, which have contributed to macro-regional sustainable development strategies in governance in areas around the Baltic Sea and the Danube. Such initiatives have extended beyond Europe, with the likes of the AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub demonstrating how interregional, multistakeholder platforms in the youth sector contribute to building peaceful societies.
This form of youth network cooperation is manifested in young people piloting projects for sustainable development, forming professional connections and engaging in key decision-making. Young people are being empowered by exercising their global citizenship.
A focus on youth empowerment and youth citizenship for sustainable development is also at the heart of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth (SDSN Youth). Launched in 2015 by Professor Jeffrey Sachs as the youth wing of the SDSN, which itself was launched under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon in 2012, SDSN Youth now boasts 4,100 volunteers from 127 countries, supporting youth-led initiatives to further the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda.
The SDSN Youth, 2021 Mediterranean Youth Solutions Report exemplifies these efforts. Developed in response to the 2021 SDSN report on sustainable development in the Mediterranean, in which the region scored an average SDG index of 75.1 (against Northern Europe’s 79.8), the Youth Solutions Report proposed 23 solutions from youth organisations in Mediterranean countries and 6 from organisations across the world. These solutions focussed on education and training, nature conservation, sustainable businesses, youth action and health. Examples included Euro-Mediterranean training courses in environment development and youth-led efforts to fight plastic waste on the beaches of Morocco. In the words of the Chair of SDSN Mediterranean and Co-Chair of SDSN Europe, Angelo Riccaboni, such initiatives serve to reinforce ‘the establishment of collaborative partnerships in the same geographic area’ through cross-border relationship-building and exchange of best practices (Bibbiani et al., 2022).
SDSN’s networks of young people across Europe have evidenced a wealth of localised, youth-led sustainable development initiatives. The Nordic Chapter of SDSN Youth, for example, collaborates with the Nordic States to run the Solutions Initiative Sustainability Coach programme, with the support of Schneider Electric and East-West Greece. The programme addresses micro-climate conditions and mobility to help provide solutions for urban developers.
The SDSN Youth Global Team also demonstrates the value of youth networks supporting sustainable development. The Global Schools Program includes over 1,300 schools in more than 89 countries, training 22,800 educators and 102,600 students in sustainable development. The SDG Students Program is another initiative that engages students in over 75 hubs globally to support the SDGs at their local universities. Asterios Filis, SDG Coordinator from the Harokopio University of Athens, recognizes that his focus on sustainability has been greatly encouraged by student cooperation at the SDG Students Program:
My interaction with the team members, and also with the members of other nodes, is one of the most beautiful experiences I have had so far, because I came in closer contact with people who share common concerns and goals, so this inspired me to support new actions and efforts!
Young people across Europe and abroad are acting as agents for social change. Where Europe has reported challenges to achieving the SDGs in relation to sustainable diets, agriculture, climate, biodiversity, and regional living standards, young people are seeking solutions (Lafortune, et al., 2021). They are also proving ‘how important it is to share joint efforts towards the realisation of inclusive, green, and prosperous societies [through] collaborative partnerships’ (Bibbiani et al., 2022). With the 2023 High-Level Political Forum signalling the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda, it is essential that youth networking initiatives are supported.
Grim statements from Guterres arguing that ‘humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish’ affirm that truly significant change will be needed to achieve sustainable development, in Europe and throughout the world. One of these changes, as SDSN Youth shows, is not novel. It is as simple as cooperating with young people – in Europe or abroad – and encouraging them to stand up for their rights, so as to ‘create the conditions allowing them to progress and play an active role’ in achieving ‘peace, security, justice, climate resilience and sustainable development for all’ (United Nations, 2018).
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.