New European Sustainable Development Report: resolute actions needed

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At the end of January 2024, the SDSN published the fifth edition of the European Sustainable Development Report, which tracks annually since 2019 the performance of the EU member states and partner countries on the UN 17 SDGs. Suggested ten priority actions provide for serious transformations in the EU-wide policies towards SDGs.  

The Europe Sustainable Development Report- 2023/24, EUSDR provides an independent quantitative assessment of the EU-wide progress and the partner countries towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). New edition – more on the publisher, the SDSN below*) – identifies 10 priority actions for the EU governance bodies to accelerate SDG implementation; in the context of a fragmented and multipolar world, the report calls for decisive action by all EU states to avoid dangerous environmental and social tipping points.

Some introductory remarks…
The EU strategy for a sustainable development reflects “ideally comprehensive approach” to a climate-neutral, intelligent, and resilient environment for all citizens. It is encompassing such elements as: circularity principles and lifecycle approaches, climate, energy and resource efficiency, optimal management of construction and demolition, clean transport and renewables.
At the heart of the UN 2030 Agenda and SDGs are five critical dimensions known as the 5Ps: people, prosperity, planet, partnership and peace.
Norway is regarded as the greenest country in Europe: it has the second-highest renewable energy score, lots of farmland area and is an active partner to the Paris Agreement dedicated to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2055.
Denmark is a European “pioneer” in promoting sustainability and among Nordic states; the share of energy from renewable sources in Sweden is the highest in EU: over 63 per cent of Sweden’s energy comes from renewables, making it the greenest EU country.
The three most polluted countries in Europe are: Turkey, Poland and Latvia. As an example of the level of pollution in European countries, the GreenMatch conducted a comprehensive study based on seven factors that affect pollution: = carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion; = concentrations of PM2.5 in urban areas; = deaths attributable to air pollution; = quality of designated drinking water sources; = amount of waste; = forest area; and = terrestrial and marine protected areas.

European ten priority actions
The SDSN report’s priority list shows fundamental transformations in the EU-wide path to sustainability and SDGs full implementation.
1. Respond to the grave danger of negative “social tipping points”, i.e. significantly reduce the risk of poverty and social exclusion for the EU citizens. Thus, widespread public support is needed to carry out major transformations for sustainable development, including restructuring the economy towards sustainable and inclusive well-being and the transition to a more just society.
2. Accelerate efforts to achieve net-zero emissions in the EU by 2050, with major breakthroughs by 2030. The European Green Deal and the European climate legislation are establishing clear pathways for decarbonizing the energy system in the EU: cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In 2019, the EU became the first regional organization to adopt a bold commitment to achieving net zero emissions domestically by 2050.
3. Strengthen regional and local authorities in achieving the SDGs, and regularly monitor the SDG progress at all levels. The principle of ‘subsidiarity’ emphasizes the importance of tackling problems at the level closest to the intended outcomes. Sustainable development requires global cooperation and financing, for instance, to safeguard the Global Commons and deal with the costs of human-induced climate change in vulnerable countries. While nation-states still bear the greatest responsibilities for implementation of the SDGs, regional organizations can support a massive scale-up of investments in major infrastructure, including in transportation and renewable energy grids, and reduce costs through increased regional integration and collaboration. According to UN estimates, 65% of the SDG targets can be achieved only with the involvement of regional and local authorities, which manage public investments.
4. Curb negative international spillovers and support transformation towards sustainable trade system. The EU’s unsustainable consumption and supply chains continue to generate negative spillover effects on other countries. For example, around 40% of the greenhouse gases caused by the EU are emitted abroad; the EU’s consumption can be linked to 1.2 million people in forced labour and more than 4,000 fatal workplace accidents each year; biofuel mandates in Europe and other major economies have accelerated tropical deforestation and land displacement in other parts of the world; and the export of toxic pesticides and waste lead to negative health impacts abroad. Guided by the EU “better regulation” guidelines and toolbox, the EU states should also increase efforts to include the SDGs in policy design and evaluation.
5. Leverage “Team Europe” for the world-wide SDG diplomacy to strengthen diverse and universal formats, especially the UN. In a world of multi-polarity and multiple orders, the EU should turn its global role and broad networks into powerful tools of global transformation. Instead of pursuing narrow, short-sighted geopolitical and geo-economic narratives, the EU can bolster its long-term strategic autonomy by forging cooperative alliances with a diverse range of partners and aligning its external policies with the global common good, such as 17 SDGs. The EU’s external action should not operate in a strategic vacuum; hence, the EU Global Strategy adopted in 2016 have to be reviewed and reinvigorated. The ‘Team Europe’ approach must move beyond being an operational toolbox for the EU’s and member states’ engagement with partners, and be transformed into an instrument of global SDG diplomacy.
6. Step up Europe’s multilateral role and lead global efforts to reform the global financial architecture. The EU should significantly step up its institutional role in the world-wide financial system, as complex structure of public and private finances that channel the world’s savings to investments. These “steps” shall be activated presently and in the run-up to the fourth international conference on financing for sustainable development, i.e. the 2025 “Addis +10” conference. Although the EU and the member states provide about $100 billion, or more than 45%, of global Official Development Assistance, EU institutions channel just 5-6 percent of this to the multilateral system, and almost exclusively as earmarked funding.
7. Re-focus the EU’s international partnerships on SDGs with moves towards mutually transformative cooperation. After initially committing to align its development cooperation with the SDGs, various challenges have since led the EU to deliver more short-term driven, piecemeal responses, with a shift in focus to other policy areas, e.g. from the external dimensions of the European Green Deal and/or combating post-pandemic consequences to the Global Gateway Initiative as the hallmark of a “geopolitical Commission”. It is recommended to use budgets flexibly to respond to crisis situations and not undermining long-term strategic SDG plans. Given the changing global landscape, it is critical to establish a new Consensus on the EU’s international partnerships towards achieving the SDGs.
8. Mobilize financial means for transformations toward sustainable future. By financing the European Green Deal and responding to multiple crises and challenges the EU has redirected its current seven-year budget and complemented it with a total package of over two trillion euros in the NextGenerationEU financing instruments and the Recovery and Resilience Facility. This financial firepower should be reinforced and used to implement the “new European Deal for the future”, including enhancing its global dimension. The next Multiannual Financial Framework, for 2028–2035, must integrate, maintain, and even increase the total level of financing to sufficiently fund the required transformations for the next decade.
9. Institutionalize the integration of the SDGs into the EU-wide strategic planning, macro-economic coordination, budget processes, research and innovation missions and other policy instruments. The next Commission President should ask the newly appointed Commissioners to formally outline the ways they plan to implement the SDGs within their respective areas of responsibility (the current President already did at the beginning of her mandate). The adoption of a “European Deal for the Future”, with defined targets, timelines and roadmaps to address environmental and social challenges, would provide clarity on how the EU intends to accomplish the SDGs by 2030, possibly incorporating a longer-term vision and ambitious headline targets for mid-century.
10. Set up new permanent mechanisms for a structured engagement with civil society and youth in the European Parliament on SDG’s implementation. The multi-stakeholder platform on the SDGs established during 2017-19 was not renewed since, and constructive and meaningful dialogue on SDG implementation with civil society, including trade unions, businesses, youth organisations, NGOs and scientists disappeared. IT is necessary for the next Commission to establish a convening space for regular and structured civil society dialogue – encouraging the participation of companies, trade unions, youth, and grassroots civil society organizations.
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In summer 2024, the EU citizens will elect the new European Parliament and chart the way to the formation of the next European Commission; besides, the elections would lay the foundations for the future of the EU and its global role in the next decade. Decisive actions must be taken in the EU and globally before 2030 to avoid irreversible environmental tipping points and to keep a chance of achieving global goals, including the 2030 Agenda with its SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement.

*) Note about the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, SDSN.
The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, UNSDSN or just SDSN was set up in 2012 under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General. The SDSN mobilizes global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical solutions for sustainable development, including the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement. SDSN works closely with UN agencies, multilateral financing institutions, private sector and civil society.
One of the SDSN’s examples: long-term investment plans are essential for national success in meeting the SDGs. Hence, the SDSN recommended six inter-related long-term transformations: – universal quality education and innovation-based economy, – universal health coverage, – zero-carbon energy systems; – sustainable ecosystems, sustainable agriculture and climate resilience; – sustainable cities, and – transformation to universal digital access and services.
However, each of these challenges required a triple approach: a) large-scale public and private investments to mid-century; b) technological transformation, and c) financing strategy to underpin the investment plans.
The SDG Transformation Center provides science-based tools and analytics to support the implementation of these six transformations. It is also a platform for learning and exchange, which is built on SDSN’s global network of researchers and scientists with a decade-long expert work on SDG data, analytics and pathways.
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