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UK fails to progress on SDGs

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A newly released report has revealed that, since 2018, the UK has only made good progress on 17% of its targets under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

  • The UK has only made progress towards 23 of its SDG targets, while stalling on 65 and regressing on 18. 
  • Its findings come as the government is introducing a range of policy measures that risk taking the country even further off track. 
  • The achievement of the SDGs, by the UK and other nations around the world, will demand a far more holistic perspective that considers specific contexts, stakeholder influence and the various interconnections between the goals and their associated targets. 

The UN Global Compact Network UK has released its Measuring Up report, which comes as the first complete update to its SDG progress series since 2018. The report assesses the country’s performance against each of the 17 goals and their collective 169 targets. 

It concludes that, overall, the UK’s progress towards the SDGs has been fairly stagnant over the four-year period. Although the country has improved on 23 targets including the increase of renewable energy, tightening of financial legislation and reduction of food waste, it has failed to make notable progress towards 65 targets which were rated as ‘red’ or ‘amber’ under the traffic light system of 2018s report. 

No change was found in the integration of climate considerations under national policy, nor on raising awareness around climate-related issues. Progress has also stagnated on marine pollution and marine ecosystem protection, the promotion of sustainable forest and land management and the overarching sustainable management of natural resources. 

Furthermore, previous progress towards 18 of the targets has now regressed. Specifically, the report notes that the number of people living in poverty is on the rise. 

It’s bad, but will it get worse? 

These findings are alarming enough at first glance, but they become all the more significant when considering the UK’s current political context. Far from introducing measures that could accelerate progress towards the SDGs, the government’s recent policy decisions have sparked major concerns.  

In a bid to address soaring energy prices, Liz Truss’s conservative government plans to accelerate North Sea oil and gas exploration, allow fossil fuels companies to continue making record breaking profits rather than be subjected to a windfall tax, resume the country’s fracking activity and amend or remove hundreds of environmental protection laws inherited from the EU. 

The government’s decisions directly contradict the demands of environmental organisations and the private sector, with Greenpeace preparing for legal action while the Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) has called for economic resilience to be built through an integrated approach that prioritises decarbonisation and the restoration of nature. 

Its members recognise the positive impact that such an approach could have not only for the environment, but also for the UK’s social and economic resilience. 

The UK in comparison to other countries 

To put the UK’s lack of progress towards the SDGs into context, it helps to consider the framework’s success in other countries. The SDGs were designed to be globally inclusive, enabling them to be integrated with the national development strategies of the 193 nations that pledged to adopt them. 

This has proved problematic, however, as different countries face different challenges and, in most, the 15-year timeframe spans a number of changes in government. The universal nature of the SDGs means that national governments must attempt to define their development plans using a single set of metrics, which may not account for their specific needs.  

When considering the agricultural sector, for example, the SDGs offer broad measures for productivity and resource access but do not provide metrics on individual crops or technological developments that might be relevant to particular areas. 

Furthermore, unforeseen crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and various outbreaks of crisis have impacted countries around the world, with interlinked consequences on food and nutrition, health, education, climate action and global peace. 

These crises, compounded by the cascading risks of climate change, have interrupted progress towards the SDGs throughout the world. The UN’s international 2022 report details how years of improvements in poverty levels, hunger, health, education and basic services have been reversed, and calls for urgent action to rescue both the SDGs and the 1.5C° limit set by the Paris Agreement. 

With countries seemingly failing to deliver the SDGs, the private sector has made various attempts to align the framework with corporate targets. Asset management firm Robeco has said that measuring companies’ contributions towards the SDGs will allow investors to assess the long-term, positive impacts of their decisions, while data analytics start-up Util has attempted to quantify the positive and negative SDG contributions of different investment funds

Although the actions of the private sector do affect global progress towards the SDGs, it is important to remember that the framework was designed for application by national governments. There is rarely a simple answer as to whether companies contribute positively or negatively, as each industry has a range of operational impacts and wider outcomes. 

Where next for the SDGs? 

While the report’s findings raise questions as to whether national targets could ever truly deliver sustainable development, the SDG framework remains useful as a means of tracking and improving on progress. Robust, consistent and measurable targets are undoubtedly necessary in determining where countries want to go, and how they will get there. 

The main challenge is the development of strategies that acknowledge the interconnections between each goal. The transformational vision of the SDGs relies on such a holistic perspective, which identifies possible synergies while addressing potential trade-offs between targets. 

Social, economic and environmental systems are deeply interconnected, with the UN itself acknowledging that, “ the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that the Sustainable Development Gaols (SDGs) are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, and environmental).

The interlinkages and integrated nature of the SDGs are of crucial importance in ensuring that the purpose of the new Agenda is realised”.  The UK report supports this, concluding with 120 individual recommendations on how the UK can advance its progress towards the SDGs. It identifies holistic planning, strong cross-departmental leadership and stakeholder engagement as three core priorities. 

“The SDGs have tremendous potential to mobilise action across the whole of society but both government and business are missing an opportunity to use the holistic framing of the SDGs to address systemic challenges”, it says, “we see clear evidence that the strong interconnections between the Goals (and their Targets) mean that tackling these issues will require systemic change. The Goals cannot be achieved in isolation.”   

Such recommendations raise hope that the UK, and other nations around the world, could improve their progress towards the delivery of the SDGs. 

Doing so, however, will demand a holistic overview of the specific contexts of different locations, the contributions and limitations of stakeholders such as the private sector, and the implementation of national strategies that recognise how each goal interlinks with the others. 


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