The EU has made progress towards achieving most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the latest Eurostat report. In reality, progress inside Europe has been glacial and the EU does not take account of its significant impact on the outside world.

Khaled Diab investigates the politics behind the statistics and the urgent need for remedial action.

Eurostat diagram highlighting reported progress on each SDG.

Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, has released its 2020 review of the European Union’s performance towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, a holistic set of 17 ambitious targets, expressed in the 2030 Agenda, agreed by members of the United Nations in 2015. They seek, amongst other things to tackle global warming, protect nature, eradicate poverty, narrow inequalities, and ensure that humanity lives within the boundaries of the planet.

“Overall, based on the indicators selected to monitor the SDGs in an EU context, the EU made progress towards almost all of them over the past five years,” Eurostat said in a statement, though it admitted that “progress for some goals has been faster than for others.”

It is encouraging to see that, overall, the EU member states are making progress towards the SDGs,” said EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, who is also in charge of coordinating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The mirage of progress

At first glance, the Eurostat report seems to be cause for cautious celebration. Although the 100 SDG-related indicators which Eurostat measures appear generally to have improved, there is more to the story.

“Eurostat’s new report on the Sustainable Development Goals suggests that the EU has made progress towards almost all SDGs,” explains the EEB’s Director of Global Policies and Sustainability Patrizia Heidegger. “This is an illusion. It all depends on what is measured and how you define progress.”

What the statistical agency has not measured is, in many ways, more telling that what it has. “Although statistics project the impression of objectivity and impartiality, the choice of an indicator can be highly political: what you measure – or not – can entirely change the picture,” SDG Watch Europe, an alliance of NGOs monitoring and campaigning for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals of which the EEB is a member, said in a statement.

Local v global footprints

One way in which the Eurostat report makes the EU appear more sustainable than reality is by using measures that ignore Europe’s impact on the rest of the world. One example of this is how, even though the EU is highly depend on material imports, the report only measures domestic material consumption (DMC) when it gauges progress towards ‘Responsible consumption and production (SDG 12).

However, if we widen the scope to calculate the EU’s global footprint by including the so-called Raw Material Equivalent (RME) of imports to the European Union, we find this figure is 2.5 times higher, according to SDG Watch Europe.

This myopia towards the outside world helps maintain the illusion that the EU can continue to grow its economy indefinitely and become more sustainable at the same time – a conviction which research has repeatedly debunked, including in a landmark report by the EEB.

In fact, the EU consistently fails to take account of the environmental and social costs of its various policies in poorer countries. This was highlighted by an SDG Watch Europe report last year which gauged the impact that the EU fails to measure.

Who is paying the bill: (Negative) impacts of EU policies and practices in the world’, to which the EEB also contributed, highlights the detrimental consequences of European practices in more than a dozen policy areas, including agriculture, fisheries, trade, taxation and finance, chemical pollution, waste, resource extraction, land dispossession and the arms trade.

“The current way of accounting hides a massive transfer of environmental damage out of Europe, which falls off the radar,” the report noted. This damage includes the importing of primary resources into Europe and the exporting of polluting industries and European waste to countries ill-equipped to deal with it.

“We all know that our clothes, IT gadgets, imported foods, the fuel in our tanks or the stones plastering our town squares are too often produced in violation of human rights while destroying the environment,” Heidegger pointed out. “Why do we not measure instead how much we actually contribute to living wages and sustainable environmental management in poorer countries?”

Mind the chasm

For some SDGs where the EU has recorded progress, the improvements have been so slow and marginal that they would hardly count as progress. “Even when progress comes at a snail’s pace and we are falling short of becoming sustainable by 2030 the current methodology paints a positive picture,” notess Ingeborg Niestroy, senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and SDG Watch Europe member.

This applies, for example, to the reuse of materials, a vital component of the emerging circular economy and essential to future sustainability. Although the reuse of materials, which stubbornly hovers at about 11%, has inched slightly forward, this glacial movement is defined as “progress” in Eurostat’s analysis.

Although the Eurostat report acknowledges that inequalities have widened within Europe, its statistics do not capture the full extent of the crisis. The EU’s SDG statistics do not capture sure realities as homelessness or people forced to live in inadequate housing, child poverty, the number of refugees living in squalid camps or the millions in Europe lacking access to safe drinking water.

These stark and widening inequalities were the subject of ‘Falling through the cracks: Exposing inequalities in the European Union and beyond’, a major report released last year by SDG Watch Europe and Make Europe Sustainable for All (MESA).

These inequalities have been sharpened and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the socioeconomic crisis it has triggered, which fall outside the period covered by the Eurostat report.

Climate of delay

Although the European Union has a reputation as a trailblazer on environmental and climate action, the Eurostat report recognises that not enough is being done to arrest climate change and acknowledges that pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity loss are increasing. “The EU has reduced its GHG emissions by 20.6% compared with 1990 levels but based on past trends it is not on-track to meet its 2030 target,” the agency said.

Moreover, the report highlights the difficulty the EU has experienced in making its agricultural practices and food systems more sustainable. Challenges include soil erosion, widescale use of fertilisers and pesticides, agricultural emissions, monocultures and overproduction of livestock.

In addition, Eurostat does not measure the amount of emissions, deforestation and other environmental damage contained in the agricultural and food products the EU imports from elsewhere in the world.

What all this makes patently clear is that by selectively measuring the impact of its various policies and ignoring the world outside Europe, the EU is distorting and missing the bigger picture of the true extent of its global footprint. This encourages a dangerous complacency about our place in the world.

“We urgently need to speed up our efforts to get rid of policies and practices that undermine our sustainability,” concludes the EEB’s Patrizia Heidegger.

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