Michelle Ress - Flickr

The truth behind the EU’s sustainability illusion

Although the European Union is convinced that it is making progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, the truth is the EU is seriously falling behind but its statistics distort this reality, a hard-hitting new report reveals.

Patrizia Heidegger, the report’s lead author, explains how the EU’s failure to measure the right indicators is contributing to its failure to measure up to its sustainability objectives – and what can be done about it.

The European Union and its member states were a major driving force behind the negotiations at the United Nations that led to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda to achieve them. Five years later, the EU’s leadership is needed more than ever before to drive the transition towards a sustainable future and to lead by example.

The EU has the power to pass transformative laws and commands the resources needed to drive the transition. It has many positive achievements to its credit: cleaner rivers and better waste management, reduced chemical pollution, stronger social protection and consumer rights, quality education and free movement within the Schengen area, to name a few. The potential of what we can achieve in the EU has been propelled to a new level since Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared the just transition to a carbon-neutral wellbeing economy her top political priority.

But the EU’s ambition to be a frontrunner for the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs has yet to be realised. If everyone in the world lived like the average European, we would need 2.6 planets to satisfy our demands on nature. Our economic system, characterised by labour exploitation and resource depletion along its supply chains, as well as overconsumption and waste, is not sustainable. It has deepened inequalities and social exclusion, globally and nationally, and it will deprive future genera­tions of the ability to meet their needs.

Remedying (wilful) ignorance

You cannot change what you do not know. That is why the transformative policies that we need to become fully sustainable must be based on the right metrics.

The EU’s current system to monitor and report on its sustainability policies and the progress towards the SDGs is not fit for purpose. It lacks a meaningful, participatory and transparent system to continuously monitor if we are making progress or if we are falling behind. The only monitoring tool for now is the annual Eurostat SDG report for the EU, a report that provides an overly positive picture of our level of sustainability. It celebrates even the slowest progress and ignores pressing challenges, including our global ecological footprint and human rights violations in European supply chains. It helps to create a sustainability illusion.

Since the EU has failed so singularly to measure and report on this, we – the EEB, Solidar and SDG Watch Europe – did it ourselves in the first civil society-driven SDG monitoring report for the EU.

Meaningful SDG reporting needs to keep track of our biggest sustainability challenges rather than ignoring them. For example, SDG 8 calls for decent work. Eurostat monitors this goal by measuring unemployment, work accidents and in-work poverty in the EU. Given that many products sold on the European market are produced outside the EU, SDG monitoring should also look into decent work for those producing goods for European consumers.

Another sustainability challenge which is completely ignored is the EU’s voracious appetite for raw materials and resources beyond its own borders. Europe is the continent most dependent on raw material imports, yet this does not show up in the EU’s sustainability statistics. We have some of the biggest material footprints per person in the world, yet there is no single SDG indicator looking into material flows to the EU, giving a distorted view of our sustainability. Meaningful statistics must be able to measure if we are able to bring down our material use in absolute terms.

Policy butterfly effects

Policies and practices in the EU can have negative impacts on sustainable development in third countries, so-called spill-over effects or negative externalities (an issue SDG Watch Europe has analysed in great detail in a report titled ‘Who is paying the bill?’).

For instance, the consumption of agricultural commodities such as meat, palm oil or biofuels can accelerate deforestation in other parts of the world; increased demand for mined raw materials can drive displacement as well as environmental destruction and conflict; and cotton production for our textiles can be linked to desertification and forced labour. In addition, the facilitation of illicit financial flows or unfair tax regimes supported by governments in the EU have significant impacts on developing countries.

The SDG and Spillover indices show that impact on global commons and negative spillover effects can be measured. Unsurprisingly, many European countries receive a highly unfavourable score. As the Eurostat indicator set does not contain any indicators on global commons and spill-over effects, the EU’s negative impacts on third countries’ sustainable development are unaccounted for.

Counting what does not count

Obvious as it may sound, indicators must also measure what they actually set out to measure. A few examples show how seemingly reasonable indicators provide a distorted picture of the level of sustainability that has been reached.

Eurostat uses GDP per capita as an SDG indicator. However, an increase in GDP says very little about progress made towards long-term sustainability. To the contrary, growth in GDP may come with a drop in sustainability.

As we have seen in the EU, in-work poverty and wealth inequality has increased in some member states while GDP has grown. Moreover, recent research has shown that continuous GDP growth is incompatible with key sustainability objectives, such as significantly reducing raw material consumption, land and water use and pollution.

Eurostat also uses the indicator of average CO2 emissions of new passenger cars, instead of the more accurate and comprehensive measure of absolute CO2 emissions. While the emission levels of new car models have gone down due to better technology, the absolute number of passenger cars has increased over the same period of the time. CO2 emissions from cars now account for more than 60% of the total CO2 emissions from road transport in Europe.

The indicator also does not take into account a life-cycle approach which includes emissions during manufacture and disposal, and therefore ignores the growth in emissions resulting from high replacement rates.

SDG 11 focuses on sustainable cities and communities. One indicator used by Eurostat is recycling rates of municipal waste. While recycling is undoubtedly important, the more important question is how much waste we produce in the first place.

Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, the generation of municipal waste per capita in the EU-27 has increased, according to Eurostat’s own figures, but these are not used for SDG monitoring. The recycling indicator also does not account for waste that is exported from the EU for recycling (some of which ends up in landfills and is not recycled). According to the EEA figures, the EU exports 150,000 tonnes of plastic waste every month.

SDG 15 focuses on sustainable ecosystems. Eurostat gauges the share of forest cover as an indicator even though monocultural forests, which are prevalent in Europe, are dead from a biodiversity perspective. This indicator also does not take account of the adverse effect Europe’s trade and consumption patterns have on the disappearance of rainforests elsewhere in the world. 

Circular logic

Another shortcoming is that the EU lacks clear targets on many sustainability issues. One example: the EU has made the circular economy one of its main priorities and a new Circular Economy Action Plan has been published as part of the European Green Deal.

However, the Action Plan does not contain a clear and time-bound target for the circularity of the EU’s economy. Eurostat counts as progress in the circular material usage rate as progress towards the SDGs. But the increase over the last decade has been extremely slow – only a few percentage points – so that we will still be a long way from a circular economy by 2030. The missing target allows the EU to celebrate even the minutest increase as progress and to create the illusion that we are on track.

We need a review of the current SDG indicator set. The first step for an inclusive process would be to convene public debates for stakeholders to identify what topics within a given policy area should be prioritised in the monitoring system. The selection of concrete indicators should then be based on that broad consultation.

A different selection of indicators will then help us to keep track of our biggest sustainability issues and of the spillover effects on people around the world. Overcoming the sustainability illusion will in turn change the political discourse about the EU already being a sustainability leader and inform a more humble and truly transformative transition.