What are governments and policy makers across the globe doing to implement and fulfill the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030? Who is moving forward and who is lagging behind?

This week, we will focus on the North American region and discuss what is being done politically to thrust the region toward a sustainable future. These insights will give businesses and business leaders a clear overview of new market opportunities.


By Alexa Zerkow, Analyst

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are opening the door to an estimated annual US$ 12 trillion new market opportunities for businesses across the globe by 2030. To open and accelerate these sustainable market opportunities, local and regional governments must play a key role. They must set the strategic direction, create the necessary institutional frameworks and ensure the right partnerships are in place to push the 2030 Agenda forward. But are regional and local governments truly living up to their responsibilities? Are they ensuring the right political frameworks for innovation, business and new markets?

The Sustainian has closely examined the state of the institutional climate across 21 subregions, spanning the 193 countries that signed up for the 2030 Agenda back in 2015. This week, we will deep-dive into the North American region – the US and Canada – to find out what they have and have not done to ensure political stability and leadership in the transition to becoming more sustainable.

Based on a meta-review of several reports and available Voluntary National Reviews of the SDGs, we mapped the progress on the SDGs in 21 regions since their adoption 1,000 days ago.

We ranked each region by the colors green, yellow and red.

   Subregion has taken full ownership of the SDGs and is on track to achieve Agenda 2030.

   Subregion has taken concrete steps towards ownership of the SDGs, but must do more.

   Subregion set to either backtrack or fall short of Agenda 2030.


Regional Rating: 

While there have been some efforts to get the 2030 Agenda ball rolling after Barack Obama signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, these have come more or less to a halt – at least in terms of federal efforts – since the Trump Administration moved into the White House. In October 2015, the Obama Administration released its Third Open National Action Plan as part of the Open Government Initiative for transparency, participation and collaboration. Within this edition, the US Government announced their commitment to harnessing progress toward the SDGs, to engage and partner with all stakeholders and to assess pre-existing data stocks, align them with the SDGs, and develop a system to track their progress.

A year later, in September 2016, a new addendum explicitly cited commitments to the SDGs. The addendum committed to: engage in public consultations to assess data availability and needs, develop an open source SDG National Reporting Platform, create an SDG Data Revolution Roadmap, foster inclusivity of all public and private sectors and civil society, continue to cooperate with other countries and support global initiatives, help ensure interoperability between national reporting platforms and SDG data, and organize a Roundtable to track progress and mobilize action towards the 2030 Agenda.

Since then, the US has successfully launched The US National Reporting Platform, an open source platform for SDG-related data which has also been adopted by the UK. During the Obama Administration, the US government convened an Expert Group on SDG Indicators, who determined that the US possessed data sources for about half the SDG indicators, had the capacity to develop proxy indicators for some and, for the remaining, would need to create completely new data sources. Unfortunately, the National Reporting Platform reportedly lacks resources, staff and institutional leadership to sustain it over time. These circumstances make it difficult to update the platform with new content and tools, develop new indicators and encourage nationwide participation to align data sets with the SDGs. These needs become even more challenging with no incentives or funding to back efforts – and, for that matter, a lack of acknowledgement by the current administration for the 2030 Agenda. As a result, comparing data sets is made more cumbersome and tracking SDGs is limited, ultimately infringing on progress. The Platform does not appear to have been updated with statistics past the year 2016.

In January 2017, at the time of the US SDG Data Revolution Roadmap Roundtable Report publication, the SDG framework had not yet been aligned with federal-level monitoring and decision-making. And because President Trump withdrew* from the Paris Agreement in the name of “putting America first” in June 2017, it is unlikely that federal leadership will assume the necessary role – at least, not with the current administration in power.

The measures taken in the 2018 fiscal year financial budget for the US, “America First, a Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, illustrate the switch of gears in the US government’s progress to mainstream the 2030 Agenda. Funding for international climate activities by the Department of State and USAID have been slashed by US$ 10.9 billion, a 28.7% cut. The financial support to all Global Climate Change Initiatives and research has been canceled, as well as the contribution to the Green Climate Fund. Moreover, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget has been cut by US$ 2.6 billion, equivalent to a massive 31.4% reduction. Snipping fiscal streams for climate action (SDG 13) is a major backtrack: it is well understood that climate change exacerbates the severity of all global challenges and compounds the workload involved in achieving the SDGs.

The hot-off-the-press 2018 SDG Index and Dashboard Report hammers home findings which show that the Trump administration refused  to make the 2030 Agenda part of the national agenda. They expose the administration’s responsibility for about a quarter of negative SDG spillovers. For the negative impact of inaction and corresponding effects on the world as a whole, the US ranked the highest of any country. The nation ranked in 35th place among 156 signatories of the Paris Agreement, with an overall index score of 73, and performs very well on SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, though especially poorly on SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. The United States has not released a Voluntary National Review and has yet to announce plans to release one.

Lessons from local leadership

While on a global scale we have seen that national commitments and frameworks are the linchpins to mainstream the SDGs successfully, in a country as massive as the United States, local governments have stepped in to take the lead in achieving the 2030 Agenda. With 85% of Americans living in urban spaces, the potential of city-driven action cannot be underestimated. The 10 largest metropolitan areas contribute to 34% of GDP. The New York metropolitan area alone tops the entire GDP of many countries, including Australia, Mexico, and Spain, boasting a GDP of US$ 1.43 trillion (2016). That said, American cities are also the most environmentally destructive, accounting for upwards of 80% of all US GHG emissions. This figure is massive considering that the US is the world’s second highest GHG emitter after China. Taking all of this into account, it is clear that the way cities manage climate change and drive sustainable development will determine whether the US can achieve the Global Goals or fall short.

Trump’s withdrawal triggered various campaigns, including We Are Still In (2,826 leaders and counting, representing nearly 170 million people across 50 States, with an economic power totaling US$ 6.45 trillion in GDP) and the Climate Mayors Initiative (composed of 406 mayors, representing 70 million Americans). This support underscores ongoing widespread commitment to tackling climate change. In parallel, the 2018 American Mayors Survey affirmed that four out of five US mayors consider climate change as an important issue to address in their cities.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) has developed an SDG Index for US Cities that ranks the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas by 44 indicators. The indicators assess environmental, social and economic progress towards the 2030 Agenda. In June 2018, the SDSN released its second report. While efforts and progress vary across the board, American cities are busy enacting measures in line with the SDGs to affect local change. In 2013, three cities – New York City (NY), Baltimore (MD) and San Jose (CA) – were recruited as pilot cities by the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative to localize strategies working to achieve the SDGs. So far, all three have made good progress. Still, the 2018 US Cities Sustainable Development Index – which draws heavily from the Bertelsmann Stiftung and SDSN Global SDG Index – revealed that 62 of the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas are less than halfway to acheiving the SDGs. On a brighter note, the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara (CA) metropolitan statistical area is the top frontrunner on a two-year streak and almost 70% of the way there, affirming that progress is possible.

Also noteworthy in the unique US response to the Global Goals is the establishment of the agenda “America 2030”. SDG USA, directed by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs – world-renowned professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor and director of SDSN – launched a US-tailored sustainable development goal agenda known as “America’s Goals for 2030”. The agenda is Sachs‘ attempt to redirect the US vision of the future; he is tired of the nation’s infatuation for the past, reminiscing about “what America once was”. What’s more, taking the Global Goals out of the global context could make them appear more relevant to Americans. In a nutshell, America 2030 is a spin-off of the Global Goals, adapted to address US-specific challenges.

According to the SDG USA website, “America’s Goals adapt the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to the US context and offer a non-partisan framework for progress”. They comprise just seven goals instead of the UN’s 17: (1) Good jobs, (2) Affordable quality healthcare, (3) Investing in children, (4) Empowering people over special interests, (5) Equal opportunity for all, (6) Sustainable infrastructure, resilience, and innovation, (7) Clean air, water, and energy.  Each goal has three targets and corresponding indicators. States can upload data and a Report Card illustrates the calculated ranking, which can assess overall state progress towards America 2030 or show indicator-specific rankings. In 2017, nine out of ten of the state legislature candidates that endorsed America 2030 were elected, though all were concentrated in Virginia. Four more endorsers, based in New Hampshire, are candidates for the 2018 election. While America 2030 is not explicitly SDG-aligned, nor is it nearly as comprehensive as the SDGs, there are parallels. Still, efforts to mobilize America 2030 within national, regional and municipal development plans are unclear.

Though the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has triggered local leadership and driven climate action and SDG stances both on a local scale and abroad, an epic effort is needed to bring US efforts up to speed. The extent of progress and success in attaining the 2030 Agenda will depend on the actions, policies and investment decisions that are made now. The US needs strong federal leadership to achieve the Global Goals. In the meantime, American cities must amp up their efforts and mirror cities like San Jose and New York if they are to catalyze the sustainability revolution.

The earliest date that the United States can completely withdraw from the agreement is November 4, 2020. See Article 28.

Lessons from New York City

While there are numerous urban SDG trailblazers, New York City’s full embrace of the SDGs is especially inspiring. Not only is New York the first American city to integrate SDG targets into their sustainability strategy, they are also the world’s first city to publish its progress toward the SDGs in a “Voluntary Local Review” (VLR). Mayor Bill de Blasio did not skip a beat. A day after Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, de Blasio signed the Climate Action Executive Order, committing New York to the principles of the Paris Agreement. This was an easy step up, however. At the end of 2015, the “Global Vision | Urban Action” program – housed in the New York Mayor’s Office of International Affairs – had already embraced the SDGs, integrating them into a one-of-a-kind comprehensive development plan: One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City (OneNYC).

This hallmark, remarkably thorough sustainable development plan interlaces the Global Goals and Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to equity, illustrating how cities can localize the SDGs and plan their attack. New York sorted the Global Goals into four overarching local visions for New York: Growth, Equity, Sustainability and Resilience, and matched them with corresponding indicators and targets. According to this year’s Progress Report, all OneNYC initiatives have launched and are underway. Moreover, of the 564 milestones set for the end of 2017, 86% were either fully or partially completed. The much anticipated NYC VLR reports on measures taken thus far to address poverty, inequality and climate change and highlight achievements in sustainability since 2015.


Leaving No U.S. City Behind: The U.S. Cities Sustainable Development Goals Index, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2018)
OneNYC Progress Report 2018, The City of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor de Blasio and International Affairs Commissioner Abeywardena Announce New York City to Become First City in the World to Publish Local Progress Toward Global Sustainable Development Goals, NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs (2018)
Global Vision | Urban Action, NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs (2018)
Executive Order NO.26, The City of New York: Office of the Mayor (2017)
The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement and its impact on global climate change governance, Hai-Bin Zhang et al. (2017)
Localizing the SDGs, UNDP (2017)
We Are Still In (2018)
“We Are Still In” Declaration (2017)
U.S. National Statistics for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, The United States Government
America’s Goals, Future Now and SDGUSA (2018)
U.S. SDG Data Revolution Roadmap: Roundtable Report (2017)
Official US Federal Statistics for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, The United States Government
New U.S. National Action Plan Initiatives, The United States Government (2016)
Open Government Initiative, The White House, President Barack Obama (2015)
The Open Government Partnership: Third Open Government National Action Plan for The United States of America, The United States Government (2015)
New York City Announces Voluntary Local Review of SDG Progress, SDG Knowledge Hub, IISD (2018)
SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2018: Global Responsibilities Implementing the Goals,Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network
Bloomberg American Cities Initiative | 2018 American Mayors Survey, Bloomberg Philanthropies
One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, The City of New York (2015)


Regional Rating: 

Like most UN Member States, Canada’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda is a work in progress. On the national website, the 2030 Agenda is referred to as “Canada’s Agenda.” But the country has progressed beyond rhetoric, demonstrating commitment by taking essential steps to align and mainstream SDGs into the national agenda.

So far, Canada has made the soundest commitment to SDG 5: Gender Equality, adopting it as its Global Goal centerpiece. Canada champions the idea that a commitment to gender equality and the systematic empowerment of women and girls will help unlock progress for all SDGs, especially overseas. In June 2017, Canada established its Feminist International Assistance Policy to help construct a more prosperous, peaceful and inclusive world. Among many targets and initiatives, the policy ensures that 95% of Canada’s bilateral international development assistance will function to advance gender equality by 2021-2022 (with at least 50% committed to Sub-Saharan African countries).

The Business & Sustainable Development Commission’s recent report, “Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals”, reiterates that the systematic empowerment of girls and women and endeavor for gender equality generate a ‘multiplier effect’ for the SDGs. From an economic standpoint, if men and women were to participate in the global economy equally, this would unlock another US$ 28 trillion by 2025 in addition to the minimum US$ 12 trillion economic prize realizable in the pursuit of the Global Goals. In Canada alone, McKinsey & Company found that shutting down significant labor force gaps could boost Canada’s GDP by CAN$ 150 billion in 2026. That said, at the current global pace of social and economic change, it would take 217 years to achieve gender equality worldwide, according to a recent report by World Economic Forum.

Two decades earlier, in 1995, the Canadian government made preliminary steps to eliminate gender inequality by creating a Federal Plan for Gender Equality and committing to conduct Gender-Based Analyses (GBA) of all legislation, policies and programming. Over the years, though, Canada has been criticized for failing to embrace the Plan fully on a systemic level. The 2030 Agenda presented an opportunity to bolster gender equality efforts, and Canada stepped up to re-commit itself to this pursuit. The government created a comprehensive Action Plan on Gender-Based Analysis (2016-2020) to revamp efforts and better implement a new revamped version, the Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+). The “+” refers to intersectionality, including factors such as race, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, sex, and gender. These efforts have culminated in a more robust gender equality policy and more action.

Canada’s 2017 Budget was monumental to efforts: it included the country’s first-ever Gender Statement, with over 60 measures and investments for action such as CAN$ 100 million toward establishing a national framework to address gender-based violence, CAN$ 7 billion over the course of 11 years to support early learning and childhood development, and more flexible parental leave. It has been proven that advancing women’s participation in the economy drives GDP growth and allows for economic independence, leading to greater financial security. Some highlights in the past year of concrete action to end gender-based violence include 7,000 new or repaired shelter beds for survivors of family violence, the launch of the first ongoing national survey on gender-based violence in Canada, and delivery of CAN$ 20 million toward projects that address gaps in support for gender-based violence survivors and their families. The 2018 Budget builds upon the previous year’s investments in gender equality. In addition to gender equality-responsive budgets, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed a gender-balanced cabinet in 2015, symbolizing Canada’s enshrined commitment to SDG 5.

While SDG 5 has been successfully in implemented into the national agenda and action taken, a comprehensive approach to achieving all 17 of the Global Goals has not materialized. Realizing that there was no clear, fully developed federal leadership and governance structure to manage and assess progress across all 17 SDGs, starting in 2018-2019 Canada allocated nearly CAN$ 49.4 million over the course of 13 years to create a Sustainable Development Goals Unit and fund Statistics Canada to monitor progress in the 2018 Budget. A further CAN$ 59.8 million over the same period has been allocated to implement programming in line with the SDGs.

Moreover, there are already some national agendas in place, like the 2016-2019 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy which mesh with a multitude of SDG targets, including 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, and 15. And, according to the national website, nearly all SDGs are aligned with governmental priorities, actions and mandates. But in order to drive transformational change and attain Agenda 2030 in full, an all-encompassing commitment, strategy, SDG alignment, match funding and coordinated governance are required. At the end of April 2018, an independent audit concluded that Canada was not yet prepared to implement the SDGs. While commitment to the 2030 Agenda was made and the government has taken some action, overall government structure and engagement in accordance with all SDGs are limited. Moreover, policies and programs already in place must be analyzed to understand whether they are set to achieve corresponding SDGs. The Sustainable Development Goals Unit could ideally help streamline action amongst all stakeholders toward realizing the 17 SDGs.

This spring, Statistics Canada developed the Sustainable Development Goals Data Hub to collect, analyze and present Canada’s progress towards Agenda 2030. At the 2018 High Level Political Forum, Canada released its first-ever VNR, reporting on actions taken and progress made to meet Agenda 2030 over the past three years.

While Canada is not yet fully on track to reach all SDG targets by 2030, it has made very promising advancements: concrete action and fund allocation with initiatives corresponding with SDG5, recent fund allocation to develop a Sustainable Development Goals Unit, financing of SDG programming, and undertaking a comprehensive audit assessing Canada’s current implementation and capacity to implement the 2030 Agenda. The SDG Index ranks Canada in 20th place among 156 signatories of the Paris Agreement, with an overall index score of 76.8.


2030 Agenda: Canada’s Voluntary National Review Call for Input, Government of Canada (2018)
Canada’s Statement to the 2017 UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, The Government of Canada (2017)
Budget 2018’s Gender Results Framework, The Government of Canada (2018)
Time for Canada to Act on the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG Knowledge Hub, IISD (2018)
Budget 2017’s Gender Statement, The Government of Canada (2017)
Achieving A Sustainable Future: A Federal Sustainable Development Strategy for Canada 2016-2019, The Government of Canada (2016)
Sustainable Development Goals Data Hub, The Government of Canada (2018)
Canada’s Preparedness to Implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2018)
SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2017: Global Responsibilities International Spillovers in Achieving the Goals, Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network
SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2018: Global Responsibilities Implementing the Goals,Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network
Setting the Stage for the Next Century: The Federal Plan for Gender Equality, The Government of Canada (1995)
Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals, The Business & Sustainable Development Commission (2018)
Canada’s Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Voluntary National Review, The Government of Canada (2018)
Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, The Government of Canada (2017)
The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Canada, McKinsey & Company (2017)
The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, World Economic Forum