development sustainability

How is Britain performing on the Sustainable Development Goals?

In 2015 the world signed off on the Sustainable Development Goals, a new set of global ambitions to replace the Millennium Development Goals. These ’17 goals to transform our world’ include eliminating poverty, delivering on healthcare, education and energy. Sustainability is woven throughout the goals, with climate, biodiversity and marine health goals.

The MDGs were largely considered a to-do list for developing countries, with support from the richer world. The SDGs that replaced them are a true global agenda. There are priorities for industrialised countries too, such as inequality, sustainable cities and renewable energy, and for the first time, Britain’s efforts have been assessed to see how we measure up to the goals.

The Measuring Up report is from a coalition of agencies called the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development, and they have found a somewhat mixed picture. Of the 143 targets in the set of goals, Britain is delivering well on just a quarter of them. Policy is inadequate or patchy on 57% of them, and policy is absent or failing on 15%.

If that sounds like a surprisingly poor performance, that’s probably because the goals are written to be truly universal. So rather than simply aiming to end hunger, as the SDGs did, the new goals aim higher. The goal is to “end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in
vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.” Britain, with its high rates of obesity, food banks, and poor nutrition, falls down on the second part of the goal.

Likewise, the goal to provide universal energy access is one that Britain covers easily. But we’re failing on energy efficiency – the last big push was the spectacularly inept Green Deal, which died in 2015 and was never replaced.

What are we doing well? The health goals are looking pretty good, thanks to universal healthcare, and so is education. Water quality and accessibility is good.

Inequality, on the other hand, is a serious problem in Britain and that gets far more talk than action from government. The Measuring Up report suggests the country is failing on three of the key goals on inequality, and only adequately delivers on one of them. We score badly on the environment as well, including biodiversity loss and soil erosion.

This performance review is primarily for the benefit of government, but it’s worth having a look at the Measuring Up report if you’re in any kind of campaigning. The SDGs are a way of holding governments to account, as we’ve all signed up to these things. Where the government is failing or has big policy gaps, it is failing to deliver on an internationally agree agenda and we might want to point that out.

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