Eurostat 2019 report shows mixed picture of EU’s progress on SDGs

Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, has released the 2019 edition of the Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context.

Eurostat report in a nutshell

The Eurostat report is an official monitoring tool which is key to facilitating the coordination of SDG policies. Most of the data used comes from Eurostat’s own statistics; the remaining data originates from official sources such as the EU Commission services, the European Environment Agency, or the OECD.

Background:

This is the third edition of the report, edited annually since the 2016 EU Commission’s communication on Next steps for a sustainable European future.

The report will feed into the EU’s contribution to the 2019 sessions of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the first of which is taking place July 9-18. The second is the SDG Summit, which will take place in September.

The Eurostat report was released on the same day as the Sustainable Development Report 2019. The two reports share a number of insights, however the latter paints a more concerning picture than the former...

The Eurostat report focuses on the EU only, and does not assess Member States’ individual progress. It uses the EU SDG indicator set, which differs slightly from the UN list of indicators in order to ensure specific relevance to the European context.

The 2019 version includes 99 indicators, of which 55 are aligned with the UN ones. Each SDG is covered by five to six indicators. The set is regularly reviewed in a process involving a large variety of stakeholders, including NGOs and Member States.

Out of the 99 indicators, 16 have been assigned an official, quantified EU target; most of these derive from the Europe 2020 strategy.

For these indicators, trend in progress is assessed by taking the relevant target as a reference. For the remaining – and majority – indicators, progress trend is assessed by determining whether the indicator is moving in the direction of the relevant sustainable development objective, or away from the objective.

Several positive trends...

The Eurostat report paints a rather positive picture of the EU progress.

According to the 2019 Eurostat report, the EU has made progress towards almost all goals within the last five years. In particular, progress is the most significant towards SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). Trends are also favourable towards SDG 4 (quality education) and SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and to a lesser extent for SDG 17 (partnership for the goals).

Progress is more mixed, but still deemed positive overall, for SDG 2 (no hunger), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) and SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy). Progress towards SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG 15 (Life on land) is only slightly more than moderate. Progress towards SDG 13 (climate action) is assessed as neutral (see below).

SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) is the only goal for which the EU is found to be moving away from its objective, due mainly to stagnating trends in R&D expenditure and sustainable transportation patterns.

As was the case in previous years, trends for SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) could not be assessed due to insufficient data over the past five years.

…but further progress is needed, notably on environmental SDGs

The EU is reported performing poorly on environmental SDGs, notably SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 15 (life on land)[1].

The improvements in data availability and changes in methodology have, for the first time, allowed assessing progress towards SDG 13 (climate action). The overall result is a neutral assessment, with positive advances assessed as being counterbalanced by negative developments.

Positive trends in greenhouse gas emissions are cancelled out by trends in energy efficiency and renewable energies. Progress on climate impacts, such as temperature deviation and ocean acidity, is negative, confirming the need for the EU to urgently reach a consensus on ambitious climate targets to effectively deliver the Paris Agreement and SDG 13. Worth noting is also the lack of data for several indicators, highlighting the need for a better monitoring of climate change at EU level.

On SDG 15, biodiversity-related indicators show a concerning decline, as well as pressures on land. These negative trends are counterbalanced by positive findings on EU’s water bodies and forest status.

The Eurostat report highlights, however, the limited scope of selected indicators, pointing out that other existing evaluations are much more negative in their assessment of the status of EU’s biodiversity and ecosystems. It appear evident, therefore, that the EU needs to urgently step up the ambition of its biodiversity agenda if it is to deliver these aspects of the 2030 Agenda.

Interlinkages and spillovers

EU’s poor performance on SDG 13 and 15 is clearly linked to the mixed trends in related SDGs, namely SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy).

As highlighted in a welcomed addition to the 2019 Eurostat report, interlinkages between SDGs are significant and need to be taken into account when setting strategies for an effective transition towards a more sustainable society.

An effective transformation of EU energy policies, as well as a policy push for advancing sustainable consumption in the EU, are therefore necessary steps towards not only SDG 7 and 12 but also 13, 14 and 15 – and, indirectly, towards many others.

This is even truer when considering EU’s spillover effects, which are not included in the Eurostat monitoring. Spillover effects occur when an EU policy or activity has unintended consequences beyond its borders; for instance, European consumption patterns can drive biodiversity losses in other regions. Although the 2019 edition mentions these effects – for the first time - the current EU SDG indicators do not take them into account.

For instance, indicators on SDG 13 do not include any assessment of imported emissions. This is a major gap of Eurostat monitoring, especially since the global Sustainable Development Report 2019 found that most EU Member States generate large negative spillover effects.

Issues in the methodology

Clearly, there are some underlying shortcomings in the Eurostat SDG reporting, highlighted in several recent studies and also rather openly acknowledged by Eurostat themselves.  

Focusing on trends rather than absolute achievement means that distance remaining to target cannot be assessed; significant progress towards a goal does not mean that the status of the goal is satisfactory. Understandably, this means that the Eurostat report cannot inform policies as effectively as ideally needed.

This above shortcomings can be attributed to the still ongoing wait for an overall and comprehensive EU strategy for delivering the SDGs, including the subsequent lack of EU specific quantitative targets. Moreover, the few targets that do exist are mostly for 2020, meaning they do not necessarily inform on progress towards 2030 objectives.

Conclusions

The Eurostat report shows that there is still significant progress to make for the EU to successfully deliver all SDGs by 2030.

This again highlights the urgent need for an overarching EU strategy and policy framework for achieving the SDGs. An EU strategy which would set EU-specific targets for 2030 would then further allow for an effective assessment of what needs to be done to deliver the 2030 Agenda.

To be seen as credibly spearheading the 2030 Agenda global delivery, the EU must come to the September SDG Summit with an effective strategy to accelerate progress towards the goals. 

For IEEP’s work on the EU and global 2030 Agenda, please contact Marianne Kettunen.

[1] SDG 14 could not be assessed.