UK performing poorly on three quarters of SDGs, report finds

UK performing poorly on three quarters of SDGs, report findsA new report says that the UK is performing well on less than 25 per cent of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), a network of over 1000 organisations working to drive action on the SDGs, has produced a report titled ‘Measuring Up’, which examines in detail the UK’s progress towards the 17 goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

This is the first such assessment in the UK since the SDGs were adopted in September 2015; the UK Government has yet to produce its own Voluntary National Review. In fact, of the 193 countries in the United Nations that are signed up to the SDGs, only 47 produced a review in 2017 to be presented to the UN’s high-level political forum on sustainable development, the central platform for reviewing the goals.

The UKSSD report examines UK public policy and published data to assess the country’s current performance against the 17 SDGs and 196 associated targets – and the results are mixed at best. Of the 143 targets considered relevant to the domestic delivery of the SDGs, the UK is performing well on only 24 per cent, while 57 per cent are performing inadequately or have gaps in policy and 15 per cent have ‘little to no policy in place’ at all.

Mixed results

The most significant goal for the resources and waste sector is SDG12, which aims to ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’. The UKSSD report finds the UK falling behind on a number of sub-targets in this goal, stating that neither the UK Government, nor the devolved administrations of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, have engaged with the UN’s 10-year framework of programmes that aim to create sustainable patterns of consumption and production.

Some progress has been made in the form of natural resource extraction, with the total quantity of raw materials extracted globally to fulfill the UK’s consumption falling from 890 million tonnes in 2001 to 659 million tonnes in 2013, though the country still has ‘serious problems of pollution and ongoing biodiversity loss’.

Strategies have been put forward by the UK Government in the form of the 25-Year Environment Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy, which include the commitment to double the UK’s resource productivity by 2050, though it is not specified how this goal will be achieved nor how progress towards it will be measured.

UK performing poorly on three quarters of SDGs, report finds
UKSSD says the UK needs 'urgent action' on marine pollution

Progress towards waste targets is also mixed, with voluntary agreements to reduce food waste in the UK (20 per cent by 2025) falling short of the SDG target of 50 per cent reduction by 2030. Total UK food waste is estimated to have fallen by only 12 per cent between 2007 and 2012, while the country also looks set to miss the EU target of recycling 50 per cent of household waste by 2020 – in 2016/17 the rate was 45.2 per cent. Total tonnage of waste produced in the UK rose by 4.6 per cent between 2012 and 2014, driven largely by construction and demolition waste, although recycling rates for this stream stand at around 90 per cent.

The report also comments on the ‘pervasive’ issue of marine plastic pollution – covered in SDG14 – stating that it is ‘extremely unlikely’ that the UK will meet Target 14.1 (prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025) without urgent action. The standout recommendation here is the call for a full ban on ‘all forms of single-use plastic’ by 2025, along with deposit return schemes and other behavioural incentives to reduce plastic consumption.

In other categories, the report states that the UK is struggling to reduce inequality (SDG10) or to end poverty and hunger (SDGs 1 and 2), with food insecurity and income disparity predicted to rise. Good health and wellbeing, SDG3, is the category in which the UK is performing best, which the report ascribes in part to the NHS and the welfare state – though the country is in the red when it comes to pollution-related deaths and illnesses.

There are mixed results reported against SDGs 7 (affordable and clean energy) and 13 (climate action); the latter is a similarly mixed bag in light of projected increases in flooding and heat-related deaths, though it is acknowledged that the UK’s Climate Change Act provides a strong underpinning to efforts to reduce emissions.

UK performing poorly on three quarters of SDGs, report finds
The UK's current performance against the 17 SDGs and their targets, according to UKSSD
Collaboration key to success

Attention is drawn to the links between goals and targets in the 2030 Agenda, connecting, for instance, high levels of obesity and food insecurity with the UK’s growing income inequality. The report states: ‘It is clear the the SDGs cannot be achieved by individual organisations or government working alone or in siloes; the links between targets mean collaboration is critical.’

Commenting on the report was Michael Izza, Chief Executive of UKSSD partner ICAEW (the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales), who said: “Meeting the SDGs gives us the best chance to deliver on promises of fairness and equality in the UK after we leave the European Union. These commitments must not be seen as a burden, but as a way of addressing some of the most urgent issues we face. This is a positive vision of a UK with a future very few could argue with.

“The UK has already made good progress towards some of the SDGs – but we are in danger of slipping behind in other areas. By looking at UK performance across every aspect of our country, the need for cross sector action becomes clear. Today we are calling for a united, national effort to meet all our targets by 2030.”

While the SDGs are not legally binding, countries are expected to establish frameworks to work towards their realisation. UKSSD, which presented the report to MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday (3 July), is calling for strong political leadership from the government to address this, with the appointment of a Cabinet-level SDG minister who will take the lead on actions to achieve the goals and place their achievement at the heart of the government’s Brexit strategy.

UKSSD has also commented on the critical role to be played by businesses, claiming that while some have already responded in a positive way to the SDG agenda, many do not have adequate awareness or understanding of the goals.

UKSSD Network Director Emily Auckland said: “We believe this report provides a solid platform for the UK Voluntary National Review [...] in 2019. We hope it makes a valuable contribution and a starting point to the UK Government’s official approach to implementation of the SDGs. As ‘Measuring Up’ shows, the consequences of not taking action are damaging for both people and places across the country.”

In terms of resources and waste, the report recommends a number of actions to catalyse progress towards SDG12:

  • Stakeholders and government should work together to establish an accepted definition for sustainable consumption and production by the end of 2020;
  • This definition should include a clarification on what levels of consumption of natural resources are sustainable;
  • Stronger government support is required to move towards a circular economy, including stronger regulation on certain issues such as single-use plastics;
  • All large companies should be obliged to report on their sustainability impacts and progress towards the SDGs; and
  • Producers and retailers should take the lead in raising public awareness of the global impacts of consumption.

The report can be read in full on the UKSSD website.

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