COVID-19 halting EU’s progress towards achieving the SDGs

The COVID-19 pandemic is negatively impacting the European Union’s (EU) progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a 2021 Eurostat report has found.

The pandemic is halting progress towards achieving Goals concerning the economy and the labour market (SDG 8), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), inequalities (SDG 10) and global partnerships (SDG 17).

The EU has made the greatest progress towards fostering ‘just, peaceful and inclusive societies’ (SDG 16), but there were less positive developments in areas such as ‘affordable and clean energy’ (SDG 7).

The Covid-19 pandemic, a notable impact on the SDGs

Whilst data is not yet available to provide a complete picture, the pandemic is impacting every aspect of life, from public health, economic and social stability to the environment.

With more than 30 million COVID-19 cases in the EU and almost 600,000 additional deaths in 2020, public health concerns (SDG 3) are significant. Lockdown measures have resulted in a shrinking of the economy and labour market (SDG 8), with figures suggesting the EU’s economy contracted by 6.2% in 2020 compared with 2019.

Progress in tackling inequalities (SDG 10) has also been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has made achieving the SDGs even more challenging. But I am convinced that the unprecedented policy measures we are taking (…) will put us back on track”, said European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni in the opening statement of Eurostat’s report.

Gender equality and education: divergent developments

Indicators show that Europe continues to move towards becoming a safer space, with deaths due to homicide or assault and perceived occurrence of crime, violence and vandalism falling considerably (SDG 16).

For the fight against gender inequality (SDG 5), indicators are polarised. Women’s hourly earnings are slowly catching up with those of men, and the gender employment gap has shrunk since 2015. But the gender pay gap remains considerable as men earned 14.1 % more than women in the EU in 2019, the report says.

Figures remain worrying for indicators of violence against women, with one in three women in Europe experiencing physical and/or sexual violence from the age of 15.

On promoting quality education through all stages of life (SDG 4), inequalities persist, with 22.5% of 15-year-old pupils in the EU showed insufficient reading skills in 2018. However, the share of people with at least basic digital skills is growing slowly, the report says.

Climate action: an opportunity for economic recovery

Climate impacts facing Europe are intensifying, with rising surface temperatures and ocean acidification. However, support for climate action is increasing, and the EU has committed to several climate initiatives including the European Green Deal and the Climate Law.

“The fact that in the middle of the pandemic the EU has agreed on the much more ambitious greenhouse gas emission target of 55 % reduction by 2030 shows the EU’s determination to use climate action as an opportunity for economic recovery”, said Commissioner Gentiloni, although he added that further progress would be required to meet this target.

Increases in the EU’s energy consumption and pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity has impacted progress for Goals on ‘affordable and clean energy’ (SDG 7) and ‘life on land’ (SDG 15). Grassland butterfly populations in Europe, for example, shrank by 19.9% between 2003 and 2018.

EU as bridge-builder

During a recent solemn speech to the European Parliament in Brussels, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on the EU to lead on climate and act as a “powerful bridge-builder” in the run-up to COP26, the UN climate change conference.

“The pandemic has revealed our shared fragility, our inter-connectedness, and the overwhelming need for collective action.  Our biggest challenge — and greatest opportunity — is to use this crisis as a chance to pivot to a greener, fairer and more sustainable world”, Mr Guterres said.

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