Europe and the 2030 Agenda: Regional Assessment

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 16. November 2015 - 0:07
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Europe and the 2030 Agenda: Regional Assessment

Arthur Lyon Dahl Ph.D.
International Environment Forum (IEF)
ebbf - Ethical Business Building the Future

Paper presented in abbreviated form at the
European Economic and Social Committee/UNEP/European Environmental Bureau Conference
Sustainable Development Goals: Implementation in Europe; United Nations Environment Assembly:
Opportunities for Engagement of Major Groups and Stakeholders
Brussels, Belgium, 12-13 November 2015


This paper is based on some of the thinking going into the UNEP Global Environment Outlook (GEO6) Regional Report on Europe, to be published in 2016. It is presented here at the request of the UNEP Regional Office for Europe to assist major groups and stakeholders to reflect on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted at the United Nations General Assembly Summit on 25 September 2015, and how they can be reflected in their engagement with UNEP and with the 2nd United Nations Environment Assembly in May 2016.

In his Synthesis Report on the post-2015 agenda, the UN Secretary-General said: "Sustainable development must be an integrated agenda for economic, environmental, and social solutions. Its strength lies in the interweaving of its dimensions...." "Responding to all goals as a cohesive and integrated whole will be critical to ensuring the transformations needed at scale." (UN 2014). This raises a fundamental question for Europe: How can it achieve the necessary integration, both regionally and nationally?

The outcome document of the UN Summit, "Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" states: "Targets are defined as aspirational and global, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances." (UN 2015, para.55). Europe's international responsibility includes calculating its equitable share of global consumption and use of resources, including from beyond the region, in relation to the limits of planetary sustainability. This means defining the region's global footprint.

Europe and the SDGs

Europe has many advantages as it takes on the Sustainable Development Goals:
- it is one of the world's most developed regions;
- it has the greatest experience in supra-national collaboration and governance;
- it has learned a lot about closing the policy and action gaps between countries; and
- it has strong capacity in science, technology and entrepreneurship.
However this is the first time that it has committed to measurable goals and targets for all of the countries of the region. Europe can take the lead in innovation, set an example for other countries, accept an ambitious share of the global goals, and show that it is possible to put the SDG aspirations into action.

The Sustainable Development Goals represent a set of challenges for everyone. They are as relevant to industrialized countries and service-based economies as to developing countries, and to the wealthy as well as the poor. There are different synergies and trade-offs between goals and targets, with progress on some necessary to achieve others, or advancing on some, like continuing economic growth, even incompatible is some cases with others like staying within planetary limits. This is why an integrated approach is so important. Different national circumstances will require differentiated responses, sometimes in opposite directions, to achieve the global goals. It is also important to recognize that the framework of targets and indicators underlying the SDGs is far from finished. Work is needed to refine the targets, to strengthen their scientific foundations, and to determine appropriate indicators. Many refinements will be needed in the years ahead.

For example, the United Nations Statistical Commission, in its Technical Report on the process of the development of an indicator framework for the goals and targets of the post-2015 development agenda, issued in March 2015, proposed 304 provisional indicators, of which 50 (16 per cent) were feasible, suitable and very relevant; another 39 (13 per cent) were only feasible with strong effort, but suitable and very relevant; 28 (9 per cent) were only feasible with strong effort and needed further discussion, but were very relevant; 86 (28 per cent) were only feasible with strong effort, needed further discussion and were somewhat relevant; and 95 (31 per cent) would be difficult even with strong effort, needed further discussion and were only somewhat relevant (UNSC 2015). The UNSC will meet to agree on an initial set of indicators for the SDGs in March 2016.

The International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council reviewed the targets for the Sustainable Development Goals from a science perspective. Of 169 targets beneath the 17 draft goals, 29% were well defined and based on the latest scientific evidence, 54% needed more work, and 17% were weak or non-essential. Many targets suffered from a lack of integration, from repetition, or had vague, qualitative language. They emphasized the need for hard, measurable, time-bound, quantitative targets. They pointed out that the goals were presented in ‘silos’ without interlinking, and that there was a danger of conflicts between different goals, such as in the trade-offs between overcoming poverty and moving towards sustainability (ICSU/ISSC 2015).

Looking at the SDGs as a whole, it is clear that the environment has been well integrated. All the SDGs have some environmental dimensions and targets, and half of the targets are relevant to the European region's environment. The SDGs and their targets can be clustered into four groups:
- the environmental resources, processes and boundaries defining planetary health on which human well-being and development depend (Goals and Targets 1.5, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 3.9, 6, 7, 9.4 10.7, 11.6, 11b, 12.4, 12.5, 12c, 13, 14, 15)
- those that place humans at the centre, where environmental challenges represent threats to human well-being and environmental solutions can reinforce human progress (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
- transitioning to a green economy that builds rather than undermines planetary sustainability (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 17.9), and
- institutional and governance issues and the means of implementation (16, 17).

Environment in the SDGs

Based on this clustering, the following sections bring out key issues for Europe as its countries work to implement the SDGs. For the environmental dimension, these follow the priority environmental issues for Europe. For the atmosphere and air pollution, these are addressed in Goal 13: climate change, and Target 11.6: air quality in cities. Western Europe has already made substantial progress in controlling transboundary air pollution, but urban air quality is still a major problem and a high priority.

Land and soil are covered in Goal 15: ecosystems, biodiversity and land degradation, including desertification. Europe has conflicts between agriculture, settlement patterns, infrastructure development and other land uses, as well as a continuing and unsustainable loss of the limited resource of productive land. Europe therefore needs to increase the environmental carrying capacity of the available land, and manage land use coherently, with eco-regional planning. Since in many parts of Europe, rural land is being abandoned and villages are shrinking, there is a need to encourage sustainable human activities in rural areas, and to draw people back to the land as environmental stewards and managers.

The SDGs focus on agriculture in Target 2.3 small-scale food producers, and Target 2.4 sustainable food production systems. Europe has issues of food security, and should question its present encouragement of large-scale intensive agricultural production with serious environmental consequences that make it unsustainable. It should reflect on the best uses for agricultural land in the region. Similarly, fishing is covered by Target 14.4 on overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It is necessary to reduce European fishing globally to a sustainable level, remove fisheries subsidies that lead to excess capacity, and support the scientific management of global fisheries where European boats are present.

Biodiversity not only has its own Goal 15 including to halt biodiversity loss, but also Target 6.6 on water-related ecosystems, Target 14.2 concerning marine and coastal ecosystems, Target 14.5 on conserving coastal and marine areas, and Target 2.5 maintaining genetic diversity. Europe needs to integrate biodiversity considerations into all aspects of planning at the regional, national and local levels.

Goal 6 is all about water. With climate change there is an increasing risk of water shortages in southern Europe and Central Asia, and of flooding in northern Europe. There are also links between poverty and access to safe drinking water and modern sanitation for marginalized populations. It will be important in Europe to acknowledge the importance of natural ecosystems for water management.

For Goal 14 on oceans, Europe still has some way to go to improve coastal zone management. It also needs to start now to prepare for climate change adaptation and the possibility of rapid sea level rise. Since European companies, are looking more at offshore minerals, Europe should be contributing to environmental impact assessment and sustainable regulation of offshore and deep sea mineral extraction. Another urgent challenge is to address plastic pollution and other sources of marine litter.

Climate change is one of the most critical sustainability issues of our generation, and is covered by Goal 13, acknowledging the central role of the UNFCCC in taking decisions on this issue. Goal 7 on energy is also relevant, as are Target 12.c on fossil-fuel subsidies; Target 1.5 vulnerability of poor to climate-related extreme events; Target 11.b on mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and disaster risk management in cities; and Target 10.7 on planning for responsible migration. Europe should set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, accelerate the transition to renewable energies, and invest heavily in technology innovation and planning for adaptation. It should acknowledge that its intensive livestock and agricultural systems work counter to its goals for greenhouse gas reductions. This will require a policy shift towards food security and local production, emphasizing agricultural diversity rather than food quantity, and a reduction in food waste. Europe can increase its resilience to climate change by improving ecosystem health and biodiversity. It also needs to prepare for large scale populations displacements and migration as the sea level rises and climate changes reduce the human carrying capacity in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere.

Chemicals and wastes are covered in a whole series of targets, including Target 3.9 hazardous chemicals and pollution; Target 6.3 water pollution by hazardous chemicals; Target 9.4 clean technologies; Target 12.4 life cycle chemical management; Target 12.5 waste prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse; and Target 14.1 to reduce marine pollution and nutrient pollution. Europe, with its strong chemical industry, should be a world leader in research on new and emerging chemical risks to human health and the environment, and on find alternatives to problematic chemicals and industrial processes. Part of this should include the growing problem of pollution by plastics.

The Social SDGs

Poverty is the first priority, reflected in Goal 1: eliminating poverty. Europe does have its poor, even if only relative poverty, and there has been a recent significant increase in poverty linked to economic crises and austerity programmes. Poverty is both a result of and a contributor to bad environmental conditions and biodiversity loss, so its elimination will support environmental goals. Europe also has a responsibility for addressing poverty elsewhere, since its high consumption and resource demand can increase poverty elsewhere by removing resources that might otherwise be available to the poor. Demand increases prices, putting necessities out of reach of the poor, and investments may go to production for export rather than facilities benefitting the poor. Extreme differences in wealth between countries are socially destabilizing.

Everyone needs food, and this is addressed in Goal 2: hunger, food security, nutrition, sustainable agriculture. Europe has both an increasing dependence on food imports, and in some countries on food exports to support economy, both of which increase Europe's vulnerability to a global food crisis. There is the challenge to maintain a productive domestic agricultural base in a global market with lower costs elsewhere. Western European environmental and food standards have an impact on agriculture in other regions. As a leader in multinational agribusiness, the European food industry has consolidated agriculture and retail food systems, with the loss of national food sovereignty, a loss of dietary diversity, a reduction in staple diet constituents, and a consequent decline in food grain and livestock diversity. The emphasis on processed food products has high health impacts, with dietary-related diseases reaching epidemic proportions across Europe as elsewhere. There is a need to encourage healthier diets and eating less.

This leads to the challenges of human health, and Goal 3 about healthy lives and well-being. Europe has many environmental health challenges. It produces many novel substances and creations including untested chemicals, nanoparticles, genetically modified organisms and other industrial products for which the risks have not been adequately researched. Europe does have a strong capacity for research and regulation, and has generally accepted the precautionary principle.

Education is a fundamental social function essential to the sustainability of any society. Goal 4 on education includes Target 4.7 on education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles. Many of the SDGs would be supported by more extensive education for environmental health, sustainable consumption and responsible lifestyles. To make the SDGs relevant to individual citizens, they need education to link their own interests and welfare to the integrated set of SDGs. The transformation of the economy will require education and training for green jobs, and retraining workers displaced from unsustainable economic activities.

Women are the focus of Goal 5 on gender equality, including Target 5.a on equal rights for women to economic resources, natural resources and land ownership. Social action must acknowledge the roles of women in environmental decision-making, as shoppers and consumers, farmers and workers, researchers and policy-makers, and the early role of mothers in the environmental education of their children.

SDGs for a green economy

The economy is the source of may aspects of present unsustainability, included in Goal 8 sustainable economic growth and employment. There is also the important issue captured in Target 17.19 calling for measurements of progress on sustainable development beyond gross domestic product (GDP). The present European economy suffers from excessive resource consumption, and growing economic inequality, and its continuing growth is not sustainable. Europe has many powerful lobbies and vested interests that resist the transition to sustainability. Europe should contribute to the redesign of world economy, aiming for an economic system that maximizes human well-being rather than growth as such. This should include transitioning to a green economy with an emphasis on natural resource efficiency for resource security and equitable access, the creation of a circular economy with the minimization of food. hazardous, electronic, plastics and other wastes. Europe should encourage sub-regional and national green economy strategies, that aim to create green and decent jobs for everyone, especially youth, with more flexible careers. There should be an emphasis on green investment, the removal of harmful subsidies, and better debt management.

At the heart of a transformed economy will be Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production. Europe is an over-consuming region relative to planetary carrying capacity. It needs to redefine human well-being within an appropriate per-person share of global consumption. This will require education for responsible lifestyles, so the European public sees the advantages of meeting its needs without excess. It should work for an absolute decoupling from energy and material flows in production, closing the cycles of scarce materials, and achieving optimal sizes for communities, companies and economies rather than endless growth, with decentralization and subsidiarity.

Energy is fundamental to development, so under Goal 7 on energy, Europe should emphasize giving the poor access to energy for development, as well as energy efficiency, decarbonizing the economy, leading the energy transition, and ensuring energy security.

Goal 9 concerns industrialization and supporting infrastructure, under which Europe should encourage sustainable forms of transport, the creation of an industrial ecology, and greater environmental responsibility in business. In assessing its performance, Europe needs to calculate the environmental footprint of the products it imports to compensate for the delocalization of polluting activities. It should take steps to correct the destructive exploitation natural resources, and replace it with biocapacity renewal for agriculture and natural resource sustainability. It need to act now to start adapting coastal infrastructure, ports and coastal areas to sea level rise. it should contribute to designing an international legal and regulatory framework for industry combining wealth creation with social and environmental responsibility.

As a largely urban society, Europe has great interest in Goal 11 to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This means encouraging green urbanization for smart, efficient, low-carbon cities and towns, aiming for urban communities at optimal scales. There is the challenge to transition existing cities, with new sustainable construction, retrofitting old buildings and transforming food, land use, energy and transportation systems. The environmental dimension should include creating green corridors and belts for urban biodiversity, integrating cities into the larger ecological landscape, and encouraging urban agriculture. There also needs to be a focus on new economic activities for rural areas and villages, with the networking of communities with transport and communications to ensure their integration in the larger social fabric.

One of the most fundamental and ethically important aspects of the SDGs is Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries. Environmental damage is caused by poverty through resource destruction in the struggle to survive, and by the wealthy through their excessive consumption. It is important to address the inequitable sharing of limited environmental resources. Europe should consider the many dimensions of reducing inequality: between Europe and other regions, between countries of Pan-Europe, between different regions within countries, and between rural and urban areas.

The last two SDGs concern institutions and means of implementation. With respect to governance, Goal 16 calls for peaceful and inclusive societies, justice, and accountable institutions. Europe needs to address the risks to peace across the region, and the underlying environmental drivers of tension, which can include access to water and other resources including energy, and environmentally-driven migration. There will be a continuing need to strengthen environmental governance, and to eliminate the corruption that undermines effective environmental management.

For Goal 17: means of implementation and partnership, Europe should, among other things, build a region-wide SDG monitoring and assessment network, for which it will be necessary to identify data gaps and harmonization challenges. It can pioneer innovative technologies to simplify and standardize data collection, assessment and monitoring, and based on its long experience, increase support to other regions to meet the SDGs. For the SDGs to be effective, there is a need to develop mechanisms for accountability to hold governments to account for their engagements and their responsibilities to their citizens and to future generations. These can include: peer review; reports to multilateral environmental agreements; the balance of legislation, executive action, enforcement and judicial review; the independent role of civil society organizations; and the role of the media and public opinion. Europe should also decide on the appropriate scales and mechanisms for regular regional assessments. Europe can help to build a global data collection, monitoring and accountability framework. Also, with its heavy involvement in international trade, Europe can help to adapt global trade and finance to support the SDGs.


European countries have a diversity of stages of development, economies, cultures and value systems, resource endowments and governance institutions. Their pathways to sound environmental management and sustainability will inevitably be different, although they need to converge towards the same goals. Despite this diversity, their regional proximity means that they have many things in common, such as environmental resources and impacts, trade, and population movements. This requires that Europe innovate in multi-level environmental governance, for example for shared river basins, energy markets, sustainable consumption and production, pools of capital and labour, transport and communications, ecosystem services and migratory species, research and knowledge management.

For the major groups and stakeholders, it is important to remember what their governments agreed to at the UN General Assembly Summit: "It is “We the Peoples” who are embarking today on the road to 2030. Our journey will involve Governments as well as Parliaments, the UN system and other international institutions, local authorities, indigenous peoples, civil society, business and the private sector, the scientific and academic community – and all people.... It is an Agenda of the people, by the people, and for the people – and this, we believe, will ensure its success." (UN 2015)

Finally, the SDGs could supply a new vision and narrative around which to strengthen unity across Europe. The region can continue to be a pioneer in institutional innovation, balancing supra-national coordination and subsidiarity as appropriate, while building regional solidarity and cohesion in implementing the SDGs.


ICSU and ISSC. 2015 “Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development Goals: The Science Perspective”…

United Nations. 2014. "The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet", Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda. Document A/69/700, 4 December 2014. New York: United Nations.

UN. 2015. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Outcome document of the Summit for the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York, 25-27 September 2015. A/70/L.1. New York: United Nations.

UNSC 2015. Technical report by the Bureau of the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) on the process of the development of an indicator framework for the goals and targets of the post-2015 development agenda. New York: United Nations Statistical Commission.…

Last updated 15 November 2015