Global and European way to sustainability: recent achievements

Universal sustainability agenda has provided vital stimuli for transforming contemporary national governance by imposing fundamental changes in traditional political-economy’s patterns. Besides, some urgent challenges, e.g. digital and climate, coped with the post-covid recovery, are having additional pressures for decision-makers. The EU has elaborated cross-sectoral and multi-faceted approaches to deal with sustainability, particularly during last decades; the time will tell whether they are efficient enough… 

Note. This September, the International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) will take place providing a forum for academia, government, civil society, global agencies and businesses to discuss and share practical solutions to achieve sustainable development goals, the SDGs. Our Institute has been invited to the event and prepared for the ICSD a paper to be presented on the 3D plenary session “Connecting Science and Policy”, on 19 September 2022. Our readers can have the article’s abridged version.  
More in the ICSD program: https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/public/3085/program, and session’s speakers in: https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/public/3085/program?session=37819&s=1216 . The EII’s abstract in: https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/3085/submission/345

Sustainability, as a multi-sectoral reality in national growth, serves as a “uniting” factor in modern political-economy; e.g. in the developmental agenda it reflects novice sustainability’s dimension in main economy sectors: in agriculture and energy, in using existing resources (both natural and human), in foreign trade, investment and in circular economy, digitalisation and biodiversity, etc. Actually, the present world-wide challenges are inspiring fundamental changes in both politics and economics in serving progressive socio-economic development along societies’ basic needs in equality and social cohesion, environmental quality and wellbeing; these issues are not time-sensitive – they will last forever…
The road to the present sustainability’s dominance in politics and economics goes back to the time of “global environmentalists” who were generally worried about the perspectives of human survival affected by the previous (i.e. 3rd Industrial Revolution; presently we are in its 4th stage). The “Limits to Growth” (with a subtitle “a report on the predicament of mankind”), published 50 years ago, showed the patterns and dynamics of “human presence on earth”, pointing to environmental and economic collapse within a century if “business as usual” continued. At that time –in 1972 – the book’s findings sparked a worldwide controversy about the earth’s capacity to withstand growing anthropogenic expansion. Prepared in 1968, by the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in US, the “Limits to Growth” visualized a computer model (called World3) to track the perspectives of world’s economy and environment.
That was the first time that politics and economics entered the contemporary “clash” with the dominant ways of “uniting” economic, social and environmental issues in development.
Actually, the use of the term “sustainability” was coined into global political vocabulary by the 1983 UN Commission on Environment and Development, in the challenging report “Our Common Future”,1987. Since then, sustainable development (SD) has been commonly accepted as a definition of such kind of national development that was oriented towards the needs of the present population without compromising the ability of future generations in meeting their own needs. Uniting economic, social and ecological priorities, the SD gave birth to the first globally institutionalized movement (called “Rio Process”, named after 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro). However, during about sixty years – and up to the beginning of the 21st century – the concept did not acquire sufficient attention in global and national political economy; thus, during several decades, the global community has been desperately trying to bring SD into the regional and national politico-economic context. The Rubicon was reached only at the end of 2015, when the UN General Assembly adopted 17 SDGs; however, without specific explanations on the ways the goals shall be integrated into social, economic and environmental agendas at the global and national levels. The “Agenda 2030” conceived that 17 SDGs with their 169 targets should be just included into political and economic governance of a modern state.
Presently the SDGs include three main overlapping aspects of human development (economic, social and environmental), which form the main fabric in a “united concept” of modern political economy, with such additional dimensions as evolution in modern spheres of corporate, financial, cultural, personal, etc. developmental aspects. Some SDG-guidelines are already seen in contemporary political economy facets: among most vital are, e.g. corporate sustainability, which includes business’ “vision” in social agenda and environmental policy (with “green business”); social sustainability, which includes all aspects of peoples’ wellbeing and welfare, etc. (1)

Economic aspects in the European SDGs
The EU’s main integration idea of “social market economy” is part of the European unity and sovereignty’s concept, making the EU competitive worldwide. However, the uncertainties of the first two decades in the 21st century are being multiplied by the 4th Industrial Revolution’s trends, e.g. in science, technology and innovation; transformations were moving fast making political economy trying quickly to adapt for risks and crises. Thus, along changing the problem-setting’s paradigm, regional and national governance has to elaborate optimal solutions; the modernized national political economy is supposed to provide clear answers.
The EU institutions have already made it easier for the national governance to modernise existing economy’s priorities. Thus, for example, the Commission strongly encourages governments to include in their recovery and resilience plans investment and reforms in the following priority areas: – future-proof clean technologies; – acceleration of the development and use of renewables; – improvements in energy efficiency of public and private buildings; – accelerating use of sustainable, accessible and smart public transport (with charging and re-fuelling stations); – fast rollout of rapid broadband services to all regions and households, including fiber networks; digitalisation of public administration and services, including judicial and healthcare systems; – increase in national industrial internet capacities (with the most powerful and cutting edge processors; and – adaption of education systems to support digital skills and educational and vocational training for all ages. (2)
Perspective EU future with strong economy and sufficient unity is not immune to problems: even some of the main pillars of European integration are being subject to severe stress, e.g. a) the liberal-market economy in services and production is being challenged; i.e. without state-run companies there would be great problems in energy sector and electricity, as private sector is not motivated enough); b) free movement of people, although clearly helping in trade and cooperation, is being tarnished by populism and growing nationalism (with a significant rise in migration, not least due to Russia-Ukraine conflict). Besides, about 250 million people in the world are migrants, 65 million displaced people seek a safety haven and 25 million refugees are fleeing their country.
Basically, age-old “traditional” political-economy concepts are being challenged as they are unable to guarantee stable high growth in mounting modern challenges, such as climate change actions, digital society, circular economy and environmental quality, to name a few. Hence, solidarity among the EU states has been weakened: the states are being divided subject to the pressure of protectionism and “national patriotism”. European security used to be taken for granted due to NATO and the US support; presently the concept is threatened: from inside by terrorism, and from outside by conflicts that are drawing closer to the Union’s boarders.
Presently, governing political and economic elites in EU-27 are seemingly unable to provide adequate answers to mounting risks and challenges without sufficient financial and executive support; the EU institutions are using massive EU instruments/programs in national recovery and resilience assistance (with unprecedented external borrowing). As soon as modern process of European integration is dwindling along the lines of adapting political-economy’s patterns to the new world realities, the process of reforming political economy is being a major task for national governance. Reformed national political economies by adapting to century’s challenges and sustainability shall introduce the “new realities” into national priorities; only in this way the EU states could bring about new and optimal solutions that are needed for SDGs to succeed. (3)

Political aspects in SDGs
Although political elites – often as a “separate community” in most states – still function almost independently in the national governance, political aspects play a decisive role providing general orientation on the most progressive and optimal pathways. New political-economy’s approaches to national and transnational governance have to overcome ineffective traditional methods and instruments. Thus, it should be regarded as obsolete such doctrines as balance of power and “separation of power”; present political guidance need instead a concentration of available political and economic facilities for the “common good”, which apparently includes also SDGs. Besides, national financial institutions have to re-balance the concepts of “profits versus ethical/moral obligations” to detect and deter financial crime and money laundering. The post-pandemic period already forced national governance to adapt to different models, which open up the opportunities to recovery and resilience on some long-term strategies.
However, the “economic bloc” in governing elites is only in favor of changes following their own interests, along the “economic component” in a developmental paradigm. For example, on the EU-wide level, the EU’s strategic political priorities (up to 2024), include the following main recommendations for the member states (often quite far from SDG concept): a) with the European goal to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, the member states have to adopt growth policies based on modern and resource-efficient economy (so-called “green deal”); b) the EU’s digital strategy will empower national governance with a new generation of technologies (according the so-called “Europe-fit-for-digital-age” program); c) the EU states must create a more attractive investment opportunities and the national growth shall create quality jobs, especially for young people and small businesses; d) the EU-27 will strengthen its “collective voice” in the world by championing multilateralism and a rules-based global order (so-called “stronger Europe in the world” policy); e) the EU states and the EU institutions must protect the rule of law, support justice’s concepts and the European basic values (along the so-called “promoting European way of life” strategy); and f) the EU states governance is obliged to provide citizens with a bigger participation in national politico-economic decisions, as well as in protecting democracy from external disinformation, online hate messages, etc. (along the so-called “new push for European democracy” approach). (4)
Thus, new political economy’s paradigm reveals a clear perspective for the states around the world and in the EU being oriented –firs of all – towards optimal directions in the European and global competitiveness. So far, socio-economic situation in the present global ratings shows that, for example, the Baltic States still need “additional impetuses: thus, Estonia occupies 30th rank, Lithuania 35th and Latvia is on the 49th place among 138 states in the world; political elites should treat such estimates as serious signal for urgent steps to increase competitiveness. However, some states, e.g. Latvia in its national-2020 plan included only a very modest task, to “reach 45th rank in the global competitiveness index. (5)

Sustainability perspectives in modern governance
The task for most states’ decision-makers is to be more active in moving quickly to create new mechanisms in SDGs implementation through extensive use of digital technologies. As experts in the World Economic Forum-2020 underlined: “time and expertise on one hand” coped with “enabling government policies and regulations on the other” could only trigger sufficient progress. As soon as the rapid pace of change in technological innovation is going to proceed, the “channels of technology” will play a greater role in supporting states’ efforts in SDGs implementation.
Thus, national government actions are likely to include the following spheres: -developing responsible “technology codes and standards” as well as data protocols in consultation with industry; -harnessing public procurement tools (including sustainability standards) for digital assets and suppliers of “responsible technology requirements”; -prioritizing investment in the 4IR-enabling infrastructures including broadband, open cloud connections, satellites and energy grids; -taking leading positions in basic/applied research and fintech at the “intersection of technology and societal/environmental impact”, including opportunities for more customers’ oriented research; -catalyzing innovation in new solutions, e.g. through incubators, accelerators and price support mechanisms; -elaborating perspective sectoral and environmental policy solutions through subsidy reforms; and -updating national structural policies to reflect the 4IR achievements, including reforms in labour market, taxation, social safety nets and education. (6)
Existing digital applications being deployed presently through the specialists’ exploration of the “fourth industrial revolution changes, 4IR would provide for drastic innovation in the next decade in all spheres of socio-economic development. Digital aspects in the research, development and innovation’s phase are already providing an active support for quicker SDGs implementation.
For example, quantum-computing is already determining optimal carbon capture materials and AI-enabled research assists in creating new antibiotics to address microbial resistance to current antibiotics; in short, there are apparent and breakthrough innovations –in technology and social/governments policies- to assist the SDGs’ implementation. Regardless of some problematic issues, modern societies are capable of turning available science, technology and digital achievements into breakthrough solutions that shall bring countries closer to optimal SDGs implementation.
Sustainability in the EU has been governed by legal means too, coped with the legal aspects in a new political economy. The EU’s €1.8 trillion multi-year budget for up to 2017, as well as the recovery/resilience financial package for the states, includes some “rule of law” mechanisms. However, Poland and Hungary disagreed and abstained from voting in the Council; hence, the EU authorities continue to search for a compromise. Some sort of agreement has “to work” even if only two states out of 27 do not agree (7).
As soon as about 70 percent of the member states’ laws originated in the EU institutions, the role of the national legislators –mainly the national parliaments – has been reduced recently; e.g. the EU political guidance in the recovery-resilience support already suggested some directions in the national priorities. Thus, two main elements shall be “installed” in national budgets, i.e. 37 percent for climate change and 20 percent for the digital economy and society issues.
In many ways the “old normal”, i.e. traditional political economy’s patterns, has proved to be ineffective; the states were forced to adopt the basic principles of “unified politics and economics”.

Implementing SDGs: still bumpy road ahead
Recent UN-OECD findings in countries’ achievements in SDGs and their efforts in meeting specific global sustainable growth patterns by 2030 have shown that quite a few states are moving towards while others are quite away from the goals and targets. The pretentious ORCD report-2022 “Short and Winding Road to 2030: Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets”, represents the latest account of the global community’s efforts in reaching SDGs through last seven years, which is about half the way to a “final destination”. Based on a “global indicator-framework” for SDGs and leveraging UN and OECD data, this report provides a trustful high-level assessment of most world states’ performance in SDGs up to 2030. The data aims to force national governance to put the SDGs implementation at the top of national political economy in both the national growth in post-pandemic and recovery-resilience’s phases. (8)
Using a comparative methodology, the report evaluates the optimal outcomes for the states in reaching the SDG targets. By providing a high-level overview of countries’ strengths and weaknesses in SDG-performance, the report has grouped all 17 SDGs into five interactive clusters: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships. These clusters are cross-sectoral: e.g. in eliminating hunger and activating equality (SDG 1 and 2), the efforts are towards ensuring that all human beings can fulfill their potential, which is particularly vital in terms of other two SDGs 3and 4 (on health and education); both needed active governance’s actions.
According to the OECD recent assessment among 37 states, only a quarter of states have met or are close to meeting 25% of the SDGs targets: progress towards 21 targets is “way off track”, only ten targets have been met so far (out of 169) and another 18 are closer to being fulfilled.
The report makes particular attention to the so-called SDGs of “basic needs”, covering such areas as: – access to sanitation, – fresh water and energy, – reducing maternal and infant mortality, – access to early childhood education, – providing modern education facilities, and – affording legal identity to all citizens, etc.
The report depicts some apparent achievements:
– On environment-focused targets, the report finds progress in many areas, such as energy intensity, water use, and municipal waste management. But some of this progress has come from shifting production abroad in resource-intensive and pollution-intensive sectors. In addition, “the use of material resources to support economic growth remains high, and many valuable materials continue to be disposed of as waste”.
– On climate action (SDG 13), greenhouse gas emissions have been somewhat decoupled from GDP growth, but total emissions are not decreasing at the necessary pace.
– On biodiversity (SDGs 14 and 15), the rising threats signify that not only none of the biodiversity targets were fulfilled by 2020, there is a risk that they would have been met by OECD countries.
– Generally, the report finds that 136 of the 169 SDG targets have been covered by available national data, but even they are having some gaps and do not provide sufficient vision on current outcomes and performance over time. To evaluate national efforts, governments need to accurately track their progress on the SDGs; but in many cases data are still inadequate. As the report states: “if the SDG reporting framework is incomplete or not up to date, or fails to represent all segments of the population, any inference about the efficiency of policies risks being flawed. The same is true if diagnostic tools cannot provide a comprehensive assessment of the most recent trends, especially in times of uncertainty.” (9)
At the same time, the OECD report includes some suggestions on global framework actions to succeed in SDGs: e.g. the need to consider how a new framework could capture the interlinkages between different goals, targets and indicators and their overall coherence; use of global monitoring and assessment instruments, e.g. the “System of Environmental Economic Accounting” should be promoted as crucial “public goods”; the causal chain from inputs to processes shall be better identified including closer liaison between outputs and outcomes in evaluations and assessments of the SDG-framework. However, the report argued, policy instruments and measures of ultimate socio-economic outcomes should be separated; and the OECD suggests, that “the SDG implementation needs shall be sensitive to national needs and priorities, as well as limited resources” with national dialogues undertaking the task of selecting targets and indicators. (10)
Examples of SDG-9 (for industrial growth) and SDG-11 (on clean and safe cities) have shown that it is difficult and often even impossible to fully implement some of the SDGs, which are providing enormous complexities for national governance. (11)

European efforts in SDG implementation
The EU-2022 monitoring report on progress towards SDGs provides a statistical overview of the states’ progress towards achieving SDGs. The report shows that the EU has made progress in most goals over the last five years, in line with Commission’s priorities in key policy areas such as the European Green Deal, the Digital Strategy and the Social Rights Action Plan; besides, at the end of November 2018, the European Commission also adopted a long-term climate strategy.
While progress towards reaching some goals was faster than for others, movement away from the sustainable development objectives also took place in a number of areas. (12)
The EU has been fully committed to delivering on the SDG-implementation, including new European “green deal” and measures reflected in the Commission’s document “Delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: comprehensive approach”, adopted in 2020. (13)
Generally, the SDG-progress in the EU states is assessed over two periods: a) past five years (“short-term” analysis) and over the past 15 years (the “long-term” analysis) according to elaborated indicators. The set of EU-SDGs indicators comprises around 100 items structured along 17 SDGs; for each SDG the implementation measures focus on aspects relevant to the prospective EU development.
Specifically, progress is assessed for those SDGs, which mainly concentrate on areas of climate change, energy consumption and education. Thus, among the EU SDG-2022 findings over the last five years, significant progress occurred only in five SDGs and quite moderate progress in most others. In particular:
= Continued progress was made in SDG 16 (on fostering peace and personal security and improving access to justice as well as trust in public institutions). The share of the EU population reporting crime, violence and vandalism has fallen from 13.2% in 2015 to 10.9% in 2020; the share of the EU population considering the justice system in their country to be sufficiently independent, increased by 4 percentage points between 2016 and 2021 (from 50% to 54%).
= Significant progress was made towards the goals of reducing poverty and social exclusion (SDG 1), on the economy and the labour market (SDG 8), clean and affordable energy (SDG 7), as well as in innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9).
= Positive assessment of SDG 7 was strongly influenced by a remarkable reduction in energy consumption in 2020 (minus 8 % compared to 2019) as a result of pandemic-related restrictions on public life and lower economic activity. Thus the EU was able to reach its 2020 energy efficiency target and was on track towards its 2030 target. Moreover, the use of renewable energy has grown continuously, with its share doubling since 2005: in 2020, renewable energy accounted for over 22 percent of gross final energy consumption; however, imports of fossil fuels still cover more than half of the EU’s energy demand; it seems that the lower fuel energy consumption recorded in 2020 is likely to continue. .
= Progress toward SDG 8 on the economy and labour market (with the latest available data for 2021) was positively influenced by strong economic growth and labour market performance; e.g. employment rate went up to 73.1 % in 2021, even exceeding its pre-pandemic level.
= However, progress has been quite moderate in the EU states towards following goals: health and well-being (SDG 3), life below water (SDG 14), gender equality (SDG 5), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), reduced inequalities (SDG 10), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), quality education (SDG 4), climate action (SDG 13) and zero hunger (SDG 2).
= In a couple of goals: SDG 17 on partnerships; clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) the progress was neutral: i.e. in implementing these SDGs there were almost equal number of sustainable and unsustainable developments.
= Finally, a slight movement away from respective SDGs’ objectives over the past five years (short term) has been found for life on land (SDG 15), indicating that ecosystems and biodiversity remained under pressure from human activities. While both the EU’s forest area and the terrestrial protected areas have slightly increased, pressure on biodiversity continued to intensify. As an example, the occurrence of common birds was an indicator of biodiversity because many of them require specific habitats to breed and find food, which are often also home to many threatened plant and animal species. Since 2000, the number of common birds declined by 10 percent; however, after many years of decline, it seems that the numbers of common birds have started to stabilise.
The task of achieving the SDGs has been included in the newly adopted NextGenerationEU program aimed at progressive reforms and re-oriented investments in the member states in their recovery and resilience plans.

Conclusion
As soon as the global expert community and national governance acquired the UN-OECD sustainability’s assessment, questions appeared on the reasons of bad SDGs performance: i.e. almost half-way to completion, only three SDGs (1, 5 and 6) reached 50 percent; the rest are of “now progress” or of “no data available”.
Most OECD states have not made any progress during last decade in poverty reduction; developed economies still support the production and consumption of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. Available OECD data are very pessimistic: “no country is expected to meet all targets” by 2030”, which sounds as recognition of a failure, and providing no solid explanations for such a bad performance in many nations’ efforts. Thus, only three goals in the “people’s theme” have been half-accomplished: SDG 1(now poverty), SDGs 5 (gender equality) and SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation); it seems that these goals were are either most important for state priorities or they have been so easy for the governance to accomplish…
It is true, the world-wide covid pandemic was the main disadvantage factor in implementing SDGs; but on the other hand, the pandemic was, actually, a “blessing”: as soon as development and production stopped, it reduced negative effects on environment; followed by long-term lockdowns, people were not traveling, and isolation served positive for a number of SDGs.
More active and stronger actions are, of course needed by all states; however, although covid-pandemic significantly deteriorated public finances, still monitoring and reporting can be improved. However, looking at the most active and progressive countries in reaching SDGs one can see that these are states with solid socially oriented political economies, like e.g. the Nordic European states. Is it not better in most cases just emulate the best examples? (14)

Notes and references
1. Note. For example, on social sustainability in business, see: Jennifer McGuinn et al. “Social sustainability: concepts and benchmarks”. Study Requested by the EMPL committee; Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies, Directorate-General for Internal Policies. April 2020. General source: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/648782/IPOL_STU%282020%29648782_EN.pdf
2. More on economic aspects in growth: “Political economy in the European integration. Part II”, EII Team. 23 January 2021, in: https://www.integrin.dk/2021/01/23/political-economy-in-european-integration-new-growth-patterns-part-ii/.
3. Reference to: Giuliani J-D. No, we do not have to “build Europe anew”! In: http://www.jd-giuliani.eu/en/article/cat-2/515_No-we-do-not-have-to-build-Europe-anew%E2%80%9D.html Reviewed in 11 May, 2022.
4. More in: European Commission’s priorities for 2019-24, in: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024_en.
5. Eteris E. Political economy in the European integration. Part II, in: https://www.integrin.dk/2021/01/23/political-economy-in-european-integration-new-growth-patterns-part-ii/.
6. Reference to World Economic Forum web-site: “World Economic Forum. Sustainability Strategy-2021”, at: https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Sustainability_Strategy_2021.pdf. Reviewed 1 June 2022.
7. Official Journal of the European Union. Consolidated version of the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. 30.3.2010. C 83/1-47. In: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:C:2008:115:0013:0045:en:PDF
Reviewed in 4 May 2022.
8. General reference and source: OECD report measures distance to the SDG targets on the short road to 2030. 28 April 2022. In: https://sdg.iisd.org/news/oecd-report-measures-distance-to-sdg-targets-on-the-short-road-to-2030/. Reviewed 1 June 2022.
9. Citations and references to the online report’s version in: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/af4b630d-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/af4b630d-en
10. See: OECD Home. “OECD countries advancing slowly on sustainable development targets by 2030”, 27 April 2022, in: https://www.oecd.org/newsroom/oecd-countries-advancing-slowly-on-sustainable-development-targets-by-2030.htm. Reviewed 27 May 2022.
11. Source: “The Short and Winding Road to 2030: Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets”, in: https://www.oecd.org/wise/the-short-and-winding-road-to-2030-af4b630d-en.htm
12. More in: Commission press release. Commission (Eurostat) publishes report on Sustainable Development Goals in the European Union, 23 May 2022. In: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_22_3212 . Reviewed in 1 June 2022.
13. More in: European Commission. Commission staff working document. Brussels, 18.11.2020
SWD (2020) 400 final. – Delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: A comprehensive approach. In: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/delivering_on_uns_sustainable_development_goals_staff_working_document_en.pdf
14. More information on the issue under discussion in the following Commission’s weblinks: = Sustainable development in the European Union — 2022 monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context; = Sustainable development in the European Union. Overview of progress towards the SDGs in an EU context; = Digital publication “SDGs & me”; = Visualisation tool “SDG country scores”; = Statistics Explained articles on Sustainable development in the EU; = Dedicated section on the EU Sustainable development indicators; = Database on the EU Sustainable development indicators.
There are two other vital documents: = Communication from the Commission: “Next steps for a sustainable European future – European action for sustainability” and Commission staff working document ‘Delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – A comprehensive approach’.

 

 

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