Institut für Nachhaltigkeitsmanagement

UN Sustainable Development Goals in the EU: Rising security and affluence, higher inequality and environmental impact


The fourth monitoring report of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shows that living conditions in the EU are continuously rising. However, this does not apply to everyone equally: Women still have worse chances at the labour market and the inclusion of migrants is stagnating. Moreover, the quality of life is increasing at the cost of the environment. Biodiversity and ecosystems continue to suffer from the pressures of human consumption. The monitoring report was written by the WU-Institute for Managing Sustainability, and presented by EU-Commissioner for Economy, Paolo Gentiloni, on June 22nd.

The Institute for Managing Sustainability annually analyses the EU’s progress towards the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) on behalf of Eurostat. At the core lies the question of what progress the EU has made towards achieving the goals over the past 5-15 years.

“The 2020 report overall shows positive trends for almost all SDGs”, Markus Hametner, project manager at the Institute for Managing Sustainability and senior researcher responsible for drafting the report, summarizes the main results. “The greatest progress has been on the social and economic goals, while the ecological aspects of sustainability show mixed results. At the same time, however, gender inequalities regarding education and the labour market have increased, and migrants continue to have worse access to education and labour.”


Life in the EU has become even safer

The most notable progress has been in the area of peace, justice and strong institutions. Deaths due to homicide or assault have fallen from 1.4 to 0.7 deaths per 100,000 people since 2002, pointing to a considerably improved security situation in the EU. At the same time, government expenditure on law courts has increased. These positive developments are also reflected in the perception of EU citizens, as only 11.5 percent of people have reported crimes and violence in their neighbourhoods. Furthermore, citizens’ confidence in EU institutions has grown, accompanied by a higher perceived independence of the justice system.

Less poverty, better housing situation, higher life expectancy

Other social and economic indicators exhibit mainly positive trends as well. The fight against poverty, in particular, has made significant progress. More and more people have been able to meet their basic needs in the past five years. The number of people suffering from severe material deprivation has decreased in the EU by almost 18 million people since 2012 and fewer people are facing problems related to their housing situation. Regarding good health and well-being, before the Covid-19 crisis, trends were strongly positive, too. Reductions in external health determinants, such as noise and air pollution and less lifestyle-related risk factors, such as smoking, have led to a lower mortality for both preventable and treatable causes of death. Due to better access to healthcare, life expectancy in the EU has risen to 83.7 years for women and 78.2 years for men. Concerning the economic condition, steady improvements in the EU’s economic and labour market situation have led to a rise in the employment rate of EU citizens to 75 percent. Therefore, the EU in 2019 was close to meeting its Europe 2020 target of raising the employment rate to 75 percent – at least before the Covid-19 crisis. These positive developments also have an impact on life in cities and communities, resulting in an overall improved quality of life in the EU.

Gender and other inequalities persist

This progress, however, does not apply to everyone. The 2020 report shows that inequality based on gender and migrant background is still high. While the share of women in national parliaments and in senior management positions of the largest listed companies has grown, gender specific inequalities on the labour markets have increased as well in the past five years. Still many more women than men remain economically inactive due to caring responsibilities within their families (this applies to 32.2 percent of all inactive women, while merely 4.5 percent of men have stated caring responsibilities as a reason). Women’s hourly earnings are only slowly catching up with those of men, and continued to be 14.8 percent lower in 2018. In addition to gender inequalities, new indicators also show inequalities between EU- and non-EU citizens. Non-EU migrants face worse conditions than nationals when it comes to poverty, education and the labour market.

Increased dependency on energy imports, rising emissions, biodiversity losses

Negative or stagnating trends also continue for several environmental indicators. Environmental consequences are visible for example in agriculture, where ammonia emissions have increased and common farmland bird populations further declined. The EU’s climate and energy goals also show mixed results. While resource and energy productivity has increased, this is due to strong economic growth and not to higher sustainability in resource consumption. Both waste generation and the use of toxic chemicals have increased. Per capita energy consumption of households has gone down, but the overall energy consumption in the EU has grown. Moreover, dependence on energy imports from outside the EU has increased. On the other hand, the share of renewable energy in electricity, heating, cooling and transport has grown as well. Despite the progress made in renewable energies, greenhouse gas emissions increased between 2014 and 2017, which is in direct contrast to the 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40 percent.

Concerning ecosystems, the status of water bodies and forests has somewhat improved. However, the accelerated land take for settlements and the resulting soil sealing has led to diminishing biodiversity. The ensuing loss of habitat is particularly visible in long-term declines in common bird populations as well as butterflies. “Overall, negative impacts of European consumption on biodiversity still are considerable and the status of ecosystems and biodiversity in the EU is insufficient”, says WU researcher Markus Hametner.

The status quo in Austria

The 2020-report for the first time includes an overview of the individual EU Member States. Austria has made progress for almost every goal in the past years. Mirroring the situation in the EU as a whole, Austria, too, has made the most progress in the area of peace and strong institutions. Further improvements have been made for the fight against poverty, good health and well-being, economic growth, and life in cities and communities. In contrast, there has been very little progress regarding gender equality, the climate and energy goals as well as concerning biodiversity and terrestrial ecosystems.

“The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis and the related lockdowns are not considered in the report due to data availability”, WU researcher Hametner concludes. “It is, however, safe to assume that many of the positive developments, particularly those regarding health and the labour market, will experience a dramatic trend reversal, making the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole harder to reach.”

View the full report here.

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