On 19 July, the European Union (EU) will present its Voluntary Review to the United Nations in New York, alongside the reviews of 38 other countries. This document provides an update on the EU’s “moderate” progress, despite several strong points.
The EU reiterates that “all of its actions and policies contribute to the implementation of the SDGs.” The “European Green Deal“, adopted in 2020 with the aim of making the continent climate-neutral by 2050, is linked to 12 of the 17 SDGs.
What the EU presents as its “added value” is also tied into its efforts to finance sustainable development elsewhere in the world, as well as its external actions in favor of multilateralism, human rights, and sustainable development, in partnership with the UN and other stakeholders. The EU distinguishes itself as the world’s leading source of public climate finance, with a contribution of EUR 23 billion in 2021, out of the EUR 84 billion per year promised in 2015 by developed countries to developing countries under the Paris Climate Agreement.
Within European borders, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rising inequalities, climate change, and increased levels of environmental degradation act as brakes on progress toward the SDGs. “While the EU has made progress on a broad majority of the SDGs, this progress has not always been equal,” the review notes. “Progress is needed, particularly on the SDGs related to the protection and sustainable use of natural resources.”
The report indicates “moderate progress on SDG 2 on sustainable agriculture, SDG 6 on water, SDG 7 on energy, SDG 11 on sustainable cities, SDG 12 on consumption and production, and SDG 14 on the oceans. Additional advances are expected in the coming years on SDG 13, which relates to climate action, and SDG 15 on terrestrial biodiversity.”
Positive trends: poverty, renewable energy, employment
Several positive trends are highlighted in the review. SDG 1 on eradicating poverty is on track to be achieved by the EU in 2030, if the declines recorded in recent years continue. The proportion of the European population at risk of poverty or social exclusion has decreased from 24% to 21.7% between 2015 and 2021 – that is, 95.4 million people in 2021, compared to 105 million in 2015.
The share of renewable energies in energy consumption (SDG 7), which increased from 17.5% to 21.8% between 2015 and 2021, is expected to exceed the target of 32% set for 2030. European legislators have raised it, setting new targets at 42.5% by the same deadline.
The target of SDG 8 on employment, 78% of the working-age population (20-64 years) is expected to be achieved. This rate has increased from 68.5% to 74.6% between 2015 and 2022. Other EU strengths, well known, are confirmed by the review. Access to drinking water is nearly universal, the region is ranked by Transparency International among the least corrupt in the world, while high-speed Internet covers more than two-thirds of households, compared to a quarter in 2016.
Mixed results on household waste and biodiversity
There are more ambivalent outcomes with SDG 11 on sustainable cities: instead of a reduction, the EU has seen household waste treated by municipalities increase by 25 kg per year per inhabitant since 2015 (for an average of 505 kg of waste per year per inhabitant in 2020). Despite this increase, significant progress is being made in recycling waste, which has increased from 27.3% in 2000 to 49.6% in 2021, with a target of 60% by 2030.
Progress and setbacks also mark environmental defense. Protected areas have increased from 19.7% to 26.4% of the EU’s land area between 2015 and 2021 – an increase that reflects above all better statistical data, the review specifies. The target of 30% of the land surface devoted to protected areas, set by SDG 15 on “life on land”, should be achieved in 2030. Losses in biodiversity nevertheless persist, particularly among pollinating insects. One in three species of bees and butterflies is in decline, and one in ten is threatened with extinction.
Among the weak points, organic farming and mental health
Among the points for improvement, the review paints a clear picture. The EU has seen the areas devoted to organic farming increase by 55.6% between 2012 and 2020. They now correspond to 9.1% of arable land – compared to a target of 25% set by SDG 2 on eradicating hunger, food security, and sustainable agriculture.
In terms of health and well-being (SDG 3), the EU remains confronted with serious challenges, as one in six Europeans is affected by mental health problems, with a supply of care lower than the demand. Episodes of depression among young people more than doubled in 2022, and nearly half of young people have problems accessing mental health care.
Too few women in ICT and too little freight in trains
The share of women in the labor market continues to increase (69.4% of women aged 20-64, compared to 80% of men), in line with SDG 5 on gender equality. A greater effort will nevertheless be necessary to reach the target of an equal employment rate of 78% for both men and women in 2030. The participation of women in the digital transformation remains low: they represent only 19% of the workforce in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), against a target of 50% in 2030 which seems out of reach, as only one in three graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a woman. “This can affect the way computer solutions are designed and deployed,” says the EU’s review.
The targets set for rail transport by SDG 9 (industry, innovation, infrastructure) are on track to be achieved for passenger traffic on the high-speed network, but not for freight traffic. The amount of freight moved by train has only increased by 2.4% between 2015 and 2019, while the EU would like to see it double by 2050.