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

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

By Helena Kerr & Amanda Juvik

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are opening the door to an estimated annual $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 that 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 European region and its following five subregions:

  1. Northern Europe
  2. Southern Europe
  3. Western Europe
  4. Central Europe
  5. Eastern Europe

You can read about what each of these fivesubregions are focusing on to achieve the SDGs, as well as and 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 following 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.


SDGs: Europe is losing momentum – time is running out

Europe dominated the charts in the 2017 Global SDG Dashboard & Index, with European countries filling all of the top spots. As the region that is most on-target to fulfill the SDGs by 2030 relative to the rest of the world, the efforts made by European governments is seemingly paying off. However, in reality, European countries still remain radically off-target for most SDGs. The countries are failing to increase their action, especially for SDG 12 (responsible production and consumption) and SDG 13 (climate action), which are arguably today’s most pressing issues for the stability of the planet.

Throughout the negotiation phase of the SDGs in 2015, the European Union played a very active role, especially in relation to Member State coordination, issuing several policy papers on key priorities. The European Commission also presented a plan in November 2016 entitled ’Next steps for a sustainable European future: European action for sustainability’ at the UN’s high-level policy summit in December 2016. The plan was accompanied by three other documents: a mapping of existing EU policies and strategies under each SDG, an initial Eurostat baseline study reporting on a few indicators per SDG 11, and a revised European Consensus on Development, establishing a set of principles designed to make development co-operation coherent with the 2030 Agenda. During this time, European countries looked as though they might be front-runners in adopting the SDGs and facilitating a global sustainable transition. Since then, however, they have lost momentum. Judging by our analysis, they are running out of time.

For a region that fills 11 of the top 20 spots on the 2018 Human Development Index, Europe should be setting an example to the rest of the world. Instead, European governments and the EU are not taking the SDGs seriously enough. As this article will outline, judging by the state of play for each European subregion, we believe it is ultimately down to business to take advantage of what the new market opportunities brings and fill the gaps where governments are failing. The 2017 Better Business, Better World report revealed that the SDGs offer a compelling growth strategy for individual businesses, creating at least US$ 12 trillion in opportunities. To capture these opportunities, businesses must pick up where governments left off and pursue economic, social and environmental sustainability for a better tomorrow.

Off target: Ranking of EU countries’ ambition and progress in fighting climate change, Climate Action
Network Europe (2018)
Sustainable Development Action – The Nordic Way, Nordic Council of Ministers (2017)
Business & Sustainable Development Commission, Better Business Better World Executive Summary, 2017.
UNDP Human Development Index, 2016
CSR Europe, The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The Value for Europe, 2017
Bertelmann Stiftung, SDG Index and Dashboards Report, 2017

1. Northern Europe

Countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia

Regional rating: 

Across all of the northern European countries, initial steps have been taken to implement the Agenda 2030. Despite differences across the eight country profiles when it comes to implementing of the Agenda 2030, broadly speaking there is an interest in taking action to fulfill the SDGs. Northern Europe comprises of the Nordics and the Baltics. In the Nordics: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland, the countries are engaged in serious work to implement Agenda 2030, coming in at the top of the leaderboard across global sustainability rankings. The Baltics, on the other hand, are comprised of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and are falling slightly behind.

All countries within the region have led or are signed up to conduct a Voluntary National Review. The Nordic countries specifically are supported by a strong commitment at the highest political level. For instance, all of the Nordics have developed or are in the process of developing and adopting national action plans for the SDGs. In Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, governmental ministries are in charge of implementing and reporting on their respective SDGs. To this end, Sweden is leading the way, with each minister responsible for implementating the SDGs within their area of responsibility.

Meanwhile in Norway, only specific ministries with sector responsibilities are in charge. In Denmark, the Ministry of Finance has been a key driver in developing a national action plan. In Iceland and Finland, SDG implementation is closely tied to national strategies for sustainable development, which are currently being updated to align directly with the SDGs. Conversely, the Baltic region, which comprises of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, is lagging behind the Nordics. This comes in spite of both Latvia and Lithuania carrying out analyses of their compatibility with the SDGs and aligning their national policy planning documents with the SDGs. Estonia ranks even lower due to their stiff opposition to acting on climate change, both nationally and at a regional (EU) level.

Overall, the countries in Northern Europe are generally performing well and rank highly on overall SDG performance leaderboards globally. Four of the countries represent the top four in the SDG Index and Dashboards ranking, and two more countries are in the top 15. The average overall SDG Index score across Northern Europe is 80.55. The highest-ranking countries in the region overall are the Nordic countries, yet performance across the SDGs varies greatly. In terms of overall country performance, many unsatisfactory levels of 2030 Agenda implementation are evident, with a high proportion of the countries’ performances on the SDGs categorised as either red or orange rather than yellow or green. According to the Nordic Council of Ministers new report, ’Baltic 2030 – Bumps on the road’, countries across the region are especially a long way from reaching SDG 12, 13 & 15, prior to 2030.

Lessons learned from the Nordic front-runners

The Nordic countries have a long-held tradition in advancing sustainable development. They have been assessed as among the top most “SDG-ready” countries in the world. Here especially, Sweden has been taking the lead in implementing the SDGs, both nationally and by contributing to the global goal implementation. Despite progress, several Nordic countries are way above the global average in terms of their Ecological Footprint. This suggests that implementing and complying with Agenda 2030 still pose a challenge for the subregion and require further work. Furthermore, according to Deloitte’s Nordic report 2018, only an average of 56% of Nordic political and administrative municipal leaders (Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden) state that they are very familiar or highly familiar with the SDGs. Most Nordic municipalities use the SDGs only as a point of reference in communication, tending to align their existing activities with them, rather than using the goals as an opportunity to take an outside-in look at existing ambitions.

From global goals to local action: Nordic report 2018, Deloitte
Baltic 2030: Bumps on the road, Nordic Council of Ministers (2018)
Off target: Ranking of EU countries’ ambition and progress in fighting climate change, Climate Action Network Europe (2018)
Sustainable Development Action – The Nordic Way, Nordic Council of Ministers (2017)
OECD (2016), Better Policies for Sustainable Development 2016: A New Framework for Policy Coherence, OECD Publishing, Paris.
Coordination of Sustainable Development Indicator in Lithuania, Statistics Lithuania (2017)
Main Message from Lithuania, VNR HLPF 2018, UN
Husk nu: Vi er ikke i mål med verdensmålene endnu, Esben Lanthén, Mandag Morgen (2018)
Statistics for SDGs, National Activities – Summary of Progress, UNECE (2018)

2. Southern Europe

Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Portugal, Andorra, San Marino, Croatia, Turkey.

Regional rating: 

Apart from San Marino, countries in Southern Europe are in the process of putting the Agenda 2030 into action, with many setting up a national framework for coordinating and promoting the implementation of the SDGs. Many have developed or are currently developing national assessments, setting up national reporting platforms and national indicators for monitoring progress toward the SDGs. Alongside these activities, almost all countries were either a part of the Voluntary National Review (2016: Turkey, 2017: Italy, Cyrus, Portugal) or will be delivering their first VNR during the UN’s High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development to be held in New York in July 2018 (Spain, Greece, Malta, Andorra). Furthermore, Croatia has signed up to be part of the 2019 VNR, leaving only San Marino with no commitment.

The Greek government is yet to finalize its approach to aligning the SDGs with national policies, but recently carried out an in-depth mapping exercise. This resulted in the endorsement of eight national priorities for adapting the 17 SDGs to national needs and circumstances. Their next step (2019) will include an elaborated version of their National Implementation Plan for the SDGs that is consistent with the Greek National Growth Strategy. In Turkey, the National Sustainable Development Council (Ministry of Development) has made a preliminary analysis of the consistency between SDGs and their tenth National Development Plan, which is effective for the whole decision making system in Turkey. Overall, the 2030 Agenda is expected to affect the developing strategies of their eleventh Development Plan.

Spain, Italy, Greece Malta, Croatia and Portugal are ranked within the top 40 on the global SDG Index, leaving Cyprus and Turkey further behind (top 70). Both Andorra and San Marino are missing indicators to be a part of the SDG ranking.

Lessons learned from Portugal

In Portugal, the Global Compact Portuguese Network is currently working on the operationalization of “SDG Alliance Portugal”. This multi-stakeholder platform gathers members from the business sector, civil society and government according to the goals and targets chosen. Following SDG 17, the project aims to increase communication between companies and stakeholders and to create a base for the rise of new projects within the framework of sustainable development. Furthermore, Portugal is on track to meet its 2020 climate and energy targets and is making good progress in reducing emissions and energy consumption per capita. The nation has also adopted a plan to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 and has called for the same target at EU level. Portugal has been playing a positive role in the negotiations of the EU 2030 climate and energy policies, particularly by calling for a higher renewable energy target.

Off target: Ranking of EU countries’ ambition and progress in fighting climate change, Climate Action Network Europe (2018)
SDG Alliance Portugal, Partnerships for the SDGS, UN (2016)
OECD (2016), Better Policies for Sustainable Development 2016: A New Framework for Policy Coherence, OECD Publishing, Paris.
Statistics for SDGs, National Activities – Summary of Progress, UNECE (2018)
47 Countries to Present VNRs in 2018, with 8 Already Preparing for HLPF 2019, SDG Knowledge Hub, ISSD 2018
Spanish Parliament uses SDG Index and Dashboards as National Reference Point, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2018)
VNR report, Greece, HLPF 2018
VNR report, Malta, HLPF 2018
VNR report, Cyprus, HLPF 2017
European Sustainable Development Network, National Implementation of 2030 Agenda for SD (2017)

3. Western Europe

Countries: UK, Ireland, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Monaco

Regional rating: 

The subregion of Western Europe seems to have broadly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals into their national policy frameworks. In turn, all of the countries in this region signed up for the UN’s Voluntary National Review of the sustainable development goals at national policy level, with the UK to submit in 2019.

This region is underperforming in their fulfillment of the SDGs, however, especially relative to their wealth and the capabilities of their governments. Despite all countries completing a national assessment, national roadmap and developing national indicators for monitoring SDGs, all remain in the red zone for fulfilling at least 10% of their targets. Moreover, despite government rhetoric from the subregion expressing their intent to integrate the SDGs into governments’ frameworks throughout departments, none of the countries made it into the top 10 in the global SDG Index.

In turn, the region is falling behind in fulfilling what we know they are capable of achieving. This is especially true when it comes to SDG 12, Responsible Consumption & Production and 13, Climate Action. Every country but France has failed to go far enough in improving their overall policy performance for climate and energy frameworks. We can see that, while these rich countries are performing better in the social and economic parts of the SDGs, they are severely lagging behind in the environmental parts. Therefore, we have scored Western Europe a solid ‘yellow’: although they have demonstrated a strong commitment to the SDGs at government level, they still lag behind in the area which perhaps needs the most change – the environment.

Lessons learned from France

According to its Voluntary National Review, France is well underway in developing national indicators that monitor the implementation of the SDGs. In 2015, France developed national progress indicators that describe employment, investment, national debt, health, inequality, education, environmental protection and perceived well-being. The French government submits an annual report on trends across these new progress indicators to assess the impact of key reforms implemented on the previous year, the current year and what is planned for next year. France has subsequently been moving forward with their SDG-aligned indicators, having already developed around 100 indicators with either an exact or approximate link to the UN SDG indicators and a plan to develop more. The nation is also currently working on the publication of a governmental website dedicated to the SDGs.

France is a great example of how countries committed to sustainable development are taking the time and effort to align their already well-grounded policy with the SDGs, recognizing the importance and relevance of SDGs as reporting and monitoring mechanisms.

Statistics for SDGs, National Activities – Summary of Progress, UNECE (2018)
VNR Report, France, HLPF 2016
UK data for Sustainable Development Goal indicators, 2018
DFID, Agenda 2030 The UK Government’s approach to delivering the Global Goals Report. 2017
Government of Ireland, The Sustainable Development Goals National Implementation Plan 2018-2020.
SDG Watch Europe, Not fit for purpose: SDG monitoring report fails to illustrate how far the EU is from a sustainable future. 2017.
ESDN, SDG Indicators and Monitoring: Systems and Processes at the Global, European, and National Level, 2018.
VNR Report, Netherlands, HLPF 2017.

4. Central Europe

Countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia

Regional rating: 

The Central European region is significantly more disparate in its alignment to the SDGs than Western Europe. Germany, Slovenia and Switzerland have made it into the top 10 in the global SDG Index, all implementing comprehensive programmes to ensure adequate monitoring and reporting of their sustainable development benchmarks and frameworks. Meanwhile, Austria and Hungary sit comfortably at 14th and 18th, having both selected indicators aligned with the UN SDGs, although lacking nationally defined indicators and targets for Austria.

On the far side of the subregion, Poland and Slovakia rank in at 27th and 23rd respectively on the SDG Index. Both countries have promised that they are implementing the SDGs at a political level. Poland released a strategy in 2017 which featured around 80 indicators, but only 9% of these aligned with the UN SDGs. Slovakia’s national strategy is still under preparation by the Prime Minister’s Office and will reflect the 2030 agenda. However, the country is still in the process of defining its national priorities and is not set to fulfill this until 2019.

Not all countries in this subregion have prepared national reviews and only a couple have prepared national roadmaps. It is therefore evident that this region needs to go further in pushing the SDG agenda onto national policy frameworks. This is especially the case for countries like Hungary and Poland which lag behind in the human development and environmental aspects. However, all countries within this subregion made it into the top 30 countries in the SDG Index and have all developed clear national strategies for the SDGs, showing some level of commitment to the global agenda.

Spotlight on Germany

First adopted in 2002, Germany’s Sustainable Development Strategy was given an overhaul in January 2017. The Strategy outlines the importance of sustainable development for the government’s policies and defines concrete targets and measures over its entire range of political issues. Germany publishes two reports a year with respect to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs: firstly, a report on the implementation of the German Sustainable Development Strategy, which reports on the monitoring of targets and indicators. The second is a report to the UN regarding the UN’s SDG indicators. When elaborating the objectives and indicators for the German SDGs, every ministry analyzed the areas in which action will need to be taken with respect to the SDGs. The integrated nature of the SDGs means that responsibility for each individual SDG cannot be vested in any one ministry. All ministries affected by an SDG must work together and produce joint proposals aimed at achieving the goal.

In addition to the indicator report, Germany regularly supplies data on the set of global indicators as part of the UN’s international data survey. For Germany, an initial compilation of the data available for all 17 SDGs has been provided by the Federal Statistical Office since July 2016.

Bertelmann Stiftung, SDG Index and Dashboards Report, 2017
VNR Report, Germany, HPLF 2016
CanEurope, Off-Target: Ranking of EU countries’ ambition and progress in fighting climate change. 2018.
VNR Report, Poland, HPLF 2018.
Statistics for SDGs, National Activities – Summary of Progress, UNECE (2018)

5. Eastern Europe

Countries: Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova

Regional Rating:   

As a subregion, Eastern Europe is the least developed in Europe and therefore generally ranks lower on the global SDG index. Only Belarus makes it into the top 30 at 21st place, with the lowest ranked country being Bosnia & Herzegovina, ranking 84th. This subregion has historically experienced unstable governmental and political situations, especially with the Yugoslav war of the 1990s and Soviet rule until the late 1980s. Many of these countries are democracies in transition, with relatively weaker state infrastructures compared with Northern and Western Europe.

Despite this context, all governments have made some effort towards integrating the SDGs into their national framework, although somewhat unevenly. In this area, Belarus has really excelled, conducting a national assessment, roadmap, Voluntary Review and developing national indicators for the SDGs. These activities were all conducted through their national coordination mechanism and were institutionalized by establishing the National Coordinator for the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, Belarusian democracy was also ranked the lowest in Europe and the nation was labelled ‘not free’ by Freedom House. It follows that the commitment made by Belarus to a strongly institutionalized SDG national policy framework may not mean that all citizens reap the benefits.

At other end of the scale, Bosnia & Herzegovina ranked the lowest in the region but has committed to conducting a Voluntary National Review for the UN in 2019. Bosnia & Herzegovina has asserted that, as an economy still in transition, its path to sustainable development must be closely linked to the emergence of private entrepreneurship, access to markets, education and health.

Overall, Eastern Europe is a much more homogeneous region in its adherence to the SDGs, with a common history of being mired in political instability and governmental restrictions. This means that the region has a long way to go if it wants to strike the balance between the three elements of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. Easter Europe requires more support and attention from the wider European region.

Lessons learned from Ukraine

The Ministry of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine initiated and in 2016 coordinated the participatory process of discussing SDGs in the following groups: equitable social development; sustainable economic growth and employment; effective, accountable and inclusive management and justice for all; and environmental equilibrium and sustainable development. More than 800 leading experts in the SDGs’ thematic areas submitted proposals concerning the SDGs for Ukraine, and were involved in the open process of establishing national tasks to ensure the objectivity of the assessments. This group includes representatives from ministries and departments, government agencies, UN agencies in Ukraine, international organizations, the business community, the expert community, public organizations (primarily those representing the interests of the most vulnerable groups) and civil society.

The social vision of Ukraine’s development up to 2030 covers such targets as public welfare and health, supported by innovative economic development built on the sustainable use of natural resources.

Economic growth will be based on a ‘green’ economic model. Energy efficiency measures and energy efficient practices will help significantly reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP. The share of clean energy generated will grow steadily, displacing primarily traditional technologies which will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Social Watch, The Sustainable Development Goals in Bulgaria, 2017.
MIA, Macedonia committed to fulfilling UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2016.
Republic of Serbia, The Sustainable Development Goals and their Adaptation at Country Level in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 2016.
Government of Ukraine, Sustainable Development Goals in the Ukraine,  Baseline Report, 2017.
UNDP, Adapting the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development to the context of the Republic of Moldova, 2017
Press Freedom Index, 2014