By Nick Meynen

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the world’s action plan to face up to large and shared challenges such as eradicating extreme poverty, fighting inequality, reversing biodiversity loss and tackling climate change.

However, a major flaw in this action plan hides in SDG 8 on economic growth which seeks to measure progress towards sustainability in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). More and more voices agree that for a true economic transition towards a sustainable and fair economy, GDP must be ‘dethroned’.

Governments’ progress on SDG8 will be reviewed at the UN High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York this summer. In March, at a regional European preparatory meeting in Geneva ahead of the HLPF, the European Environmental Bureau coordinated representatives from across civil society to call on governments to crown ‘wellbeing’ as the key indicator of progress.

Four of our key messages are:

1) Recognise that the problem is mass extinction and climate breakdown
20.000 scientists say that we face extinction if we don’t dramatically reduce resource use. However, both extraction and emissions are rising. You cannot achieve GDP growth for all and at the same time keep global warming under 1.5°C or 2°C, as agreed by governments in the Paris Agreement.

2) Stop the illusion that GDP growth can be decoupled from mass extinction and climate breakdown
In a forthcoming report commissioned by the EEB, a group of economists already conclude that “If one considers the last two decades as a trial period, one must confront the fact that decoupling has failed to deliver the ecological sustainability it promised”.

3) Adopt positive post-growth policies
Economic rules are not nature laws. Bhutan puts post-growth policies on well-being in harmony with nature into practice and became a champion in both poverty reduction and climate neutrality. New Zealand now also has a well-being budget. Real paradigm shifts are not impossible, business as usual is.

4) Dethrone King GDP, crown Queen Well-being
The GDP growth target in SDG 8.1 is undermining all other goals. To dethrone it, governments should make a powerful Ministry for Well-Being and Future Generations under the responsibility of the president or prime minister. The European Commission should establish a DG Well-Being under the leadership of a Vice-President who abolishes GDP growth as a policy aim and champions the growth of well-being for all within planetary limits.

People all over the world know that there’s more to life than GDP. European leaders facing elections at the end of May should remember one thing: a massive EU-wide poll just showed that a majority of Europeans think that the environment should be a priority even if it comes at the expense of growth – even in Europe’s poorer countries.

Well-being without economic growth is possible. The current economic system is pushing people and planet to the brink of burnout. We must stop sacrificing the environment and people at the altar of GDP growth.