Written by Alessia Salzano, edited by Manuel Torres Lajo
An introduction to the SDGs
The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are 17 goals to foster peace and prosperity for the whole planet (United Nations, 2022). They were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs, which ran between 2000 and 2015, were intended only for developing countries. However, the SDGs are universal, aiming to achieve economic growth, social inclusion and the protection of the environment. But since the SDGs are not legally binding, countries are responsible to design effective plans and policies to implement the necessary steps to attain the 2030 UN Agenda (United Nations, n.d.).
The European Union (EU) has had a Strategy for Sustainable Development (EU SDS) since 2001, long before the SDGs were established (BMK, n.d.). Its objective, as of 2023, is to achieve a quality of life in line with the SDGs both throughout the continent at an international level. In this line, this article shows why achieving the SDGs is important for the future of European people, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic. It will also highlight how the SDGs can be implemented throughout the EU and through its external cooperation activities.
The SDGs and the EU post-pandemic recovery
The Covid-19 pandemic had an important impact on the economic and social stability of the world. Economies worldwide were disrupted, supply chains were halted, millions of people fell into poverty, and many children in poorest countries were left out of education (Attinasi et al., 2021). With measures adopted to contrast the pandemic, the global economy went through a shock. According to the World Bank (2020), the world economy shrunk by 5.2% in 2020, representing the biggest recession since the Second World War. Europe experienced an even bigger economic contraction: its GDP fell by 6.1%. Moreover, migrant workers were heavily impacted as mobility across borders dropped considerably due to national lockdowns and travel bans. This caused a lack of skilled workers, as many factories had to shut down their production during the pandemic, affecting the economy (European Parliament, 2021). For these reasons, multilateral action is needed more than ever to face the challenges posed by the global recession caused by Covid-19.
As a result, the possibility of achieving some of the goals is threatened, particularly SDG 10, which aims to reduce inequalities. For example, European people now pay more for basic necessities such as food. Among others, this is due to labour shortage in the agricultural sector. Due to travel restrictions, the number of truck drivers declined significantly (Kurtaran, 2022) and seasonal workers who helped to harvest crops could not cross borders. For example, Germany lacked 300,000 people in its farms. Similarly, in Spain around 6,000 women from Morocco were unable to pick strawberries in Spanish fields due to the travel bans of the two countries (Wax, 2020). The situation was aggravated by the war in Ukraine, which caused wheat, oilseeds and fertilisers prices to surge rapidly (Alderman, 2021). Another consequence is the rising cost of energy. Normally, more than a half of Russia’s gas exports are destined to the European market through Ukraine (European Council, n.d.). With the beginning of the war, the EU banned investments in the Russian energy sector, including petroleum products. This led to a supply reduction and a consequent increase in prices for consumers throughout Europe.
Therefore, SDGs are vital to ensure a safe recovery. The European Union hopes to achieve them through the Next Generation EU (NGEU) Fund. On 21st July 2020, the EU leaders agreed on this €750 billion fund that will help European countries recover from COVID-19’s negative effects. The money will be distributed either as grants or loans to EU member states, which are required to present to the European Commission national plans showing how they are projecting to use the allocated funds for public investments. They have been divided among countries according to three parameters: the unemployment rate, the country’s population and the economic harms that occurred due to the pandemic. Overall, member states decided to spend around 40% to tackle climate change, and 20% for digitalization. For example, Italy’s plan is to spend € 34 billion in sustainable mobility which is in line with SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities). It will also invest € 11.2 billion in the development of renewable energies and water management, which is in compliance with SDG 7 (Affordable, reliable and modern energy for all) (European Commission, 2021).
Being the first time that EU countries agreed for common debt, the NGEU represents an outstanding example of how fiscal policy should respond in the face of a crisis. Through the fund, the EU expects to reach a higher economic growth (SDG 8), reduce inequality (SDG 10) as well as to invest for a sustainable future (SDG 13). It is thus intended that this will lead to a greener, stronger and more digital Europe. Moreover, a transition towards a more sustainable way of life aims at not leaving anyone behind, as it translates into the creation of new jobs for people, a higher level of inclusiveness and more resilient communities. Sustainability means to be careful not to waste, so that the resources of the planet can last longer. Examples of a sustainable way of life include recycling properly, taking public transportation instead of driving, buying products from brands that adopt sustainable practices for production and avoiding drinking water in plastic bottles.
The EU’s external action to achieve the SDGs
According to Kroll et al. (2019), there are generally strong interactions between SDGs. The progress in one could affect the others, either positively (synergies) or negatively (trade-offs). As a consequence, in order to implement the SDGs effectively, it is crucial to take this into account, since the achievement of the UN’s agenda will depend on whether synergies will be maximised and trade-offs resolved.
For instance, the interlinkages between climate change adaptation and mitigation response are well documented, as well as those between poverty alleviation and the balancing of economic development. In that sense, Kroll et al. (2019) highlight the strong synergy between SDG 2 (“Zero hunger”) and SDG 6 (“Clear water and sanitation”). An increase in agricultural productivity and the use of a sustainable food production system can help in achieving the target associated with water-use efficiency and address water scarcity. Introducing new techniques that help saving water would allow the efficiency of crop watering in line with SDG’s 2 target 2.4 on sustainable agriculture production that helps to maintain the ecosystem. Consequently, protecting resources allows farmers to count on a reliable income.
In this line, the EU has also engaged to achieve the SDGs in its external action policy. Overall, more than 45% of the EU budget was used to support least developed countries in 2020 (European Commission, 2020). In particular, these funds are allocated for helping less developed nations to achieve SDG 1(No Poverty) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). The results were positive, as the rate of poor people receiving EU funds in developing countries has almost reduced, from more than 26% of the population in 2022 to less than 14% in 2017 (European Commission, n.d.).
A striking example of the EU’s commitment towards the SDGs is their support for Bangladesh. Here, the EU worked on social protection programmes to give funding for poor households, ensuring a higher coverage of social protection and more benefits for vulnerable groups, such as women with children, people with disabilities and the elderly. For instance, the EU launched the Child Benefit Programme, helping the most vulnerable children both in terms of health and nutrition. Thanks to it, the amount received by each mother increased by 60% in 2018/2019 (European Commission, n.d.). Also, the entitlement period for the aid was extended from 24 months to 36 months. The total number of beneficiaries amounted to 1254 million in 2022-23 (The Business Standard, 2023).
In October 2022, a financing agreement for helping the implementation of modern agriculture in the country was signed between the government of Rwanda and the EU. With an amount of €69 million, the project aims to build inclusive food systems and ensure climate sustainability. Rwanda’s national strategy towards agricultural conversion will be also achieved through a Team Europe Initiative on ‘Sustainable and inclusive agricultural transformation’, whose purpose is the transformation of the Kigali Wholesale market and other markets in various cities, aiming at building more inclusive value chains. (European External Action Service, 2022). Budget supports’ measures like this allow the EU to monitor their partners during the reform process. It also supports countries in mobilising domestic revenue. This creates favourable conditions for private investments in Europes’ partner countries, thus strengthening mutual developing cooperation, while achieving some of the SDGs, like the number 2 and its target 2.4 on sustainable food production systems and resilient agriculture practices.
The negative interlinkages
Kroll et al. (2019) also argue that the associations among indicators have been diluted across time, making it more challenging to monitor SDGs effectively. As a consequence, the synergies provided in the article could no longer be true. For instance, in regard to SDG 6, policy measures that may be designed to achieve climate action as well as clear water and sanitation could potentially have unintended consequences that undermine the achievement of other targets. More specifically, expanding sustainable food production (thus contributing to SDG 2 through targets 2.3 and 2.4) inevitably requires more land dedicated to agriculture, but this can result in the ecosystem’s destruction and could even endanger the survival of some species.
In Europe, the pandemic had a negative effect toward achieving the SDGs. In order to try to contain the spreading of the virus, European borders were closed and mobility of citizens decreased. This negatively affected the overall EU economy, as citizens could not travel as frequently as before and could not move to another country looking for new jobs. In addition, industries worldwide shut down. As a consequence, European chains that relied on international exports stopped their production, making the exchanging of goods challenging. In general, the Covid-19 outbreak affected crucial areas deemed important for attaining the SDGs, such as life expectancy, poverty and unemployment. Among all the EU countries, Northern Europe showed the best results in terms of SDGs progress, with an average Index score of 81. Finland ranks first on the SDG Index for European countries, followed by Sweden and Denmark. Regardless of these positive results, EU countries still struggle to achieve SDGs targets in sustainable diets, biodiversity and agriculture. This can be attributed to international spillovers such as deforestation that are part of trade.
Building an effective post-crisis response remains the EU’s top priority. For this reason, achieving the SDGs is a core component of Europe’s internal and external action, so EU policies should be directed towards this objective. The Recovery Fund will be used to shape societies in a new way. In particular, spending will be allocated for the economic and social transformation of communities throughout the continent. This means promoting equal access to health and education services, as well as restructuring consumption systems to attain economic and social sustainability in line with the 17 SDGs.
Overall, Europe made significant progress towards achieving the SDGs. In general, the most positive results can be seen in SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions). But in some targets progress is slower than in others. For instance, advancement has still to be made for managing environmental aspects of sustainability, as expected by SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG 13 (Climate Action). Looking at single countries, some of them struggle to meet the SDG targets. For instance, Bulgaria is facing obstacles towards the SDGs due to poverty and inequality across its regions, which threaten SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). A similar situation can be found in Cyprus, where SDG implementation is challenging due to its poor performance in quality education (SDG 4) and working towards sustainable agriculture, clean water and sanitation (UN, 2021). That is why multilateral cooperation is essential for the EU to provide the population clean energy, access to quality education and building communities that respect human rights, care about the environment and are resilient in the face of future crises.
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