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Industrialized nations risk missing new Sustainable Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals have led to tangible progress in many developing countries. Once adopted, the United Nations’ new global Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 will additionally require industrialized countries to implement these standards for the first time. But the world’s first comprehensive stocktaking shows that most industrialized nations are a long way from serving as role models for sustainable development.

Most industrialized countries in the OECD are not yet ready for the international community’s new sustainability pledge, as a Bertelsmann study demonstrates Many are nowhere near achieving the global policy objectives that are to be adopted by the heads of state or government at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit this month. Indeed, there is the danger that the targets for many indicators will be missed entirely. The greatest deficits of the industrialized nations lie in their less-than-sustainable production and consumption behavior. In addition, in many cases their economic systems also exacerbate the trend toward social inequality.

This is the result of a comparative study of all 34 OECD states conducted by Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung on the basis of 34 indicators for the 17 future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The study is the first one in the world to systematically investigate the present status of each of these countries, both individually and in comparison with one another. This snapshot additionally identifies countries that can serve as role models with regard to particular Sustainable Development Goals, while also pointing out where substantial deficits still exist. Thus the study provides a blueprint for the attainment of the SDGs in the next 15 years.
According to the study, the countries best positioned to achieve the new UN goals are the four Scandinavian nations Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, with Switzerland following in fifth place. The nations with the lowest ranking are the USA, Greece, Chile, Hungary, Turkey, and Mexico.
The United Kingdom is in the middle
For the United Kingdom, the interim results are mixed. Of the 34 countries studied, it is in 15th place, between Japan and New Zealand. For eleven of the indicators studied, it is in the upper third; for seven in the lower third; and for two of them, it is even among the last five countries. The strengths of Great Britain include the great financial contributions to developing countries, good air quality with low particulate matter air pollution, and the widescale ecological wastewater treatment. In addition, the authors praise the decrease and low level of material consumption in industrial production. The greatest weaknesses of Great Britain are seen in the area of sustainable energy production. With a 3.2 percent proportion of renewable energy in the energy mix, it reaches only the second to last place among all the industrial countries. Very high phosphate and nitrate application constitutes a burden to soil, water, and air indicate an agriculture that is hardly sustainable and put Great Britain in 27th place for this indicator. The United Kingdom also has great differences in income between high and low earners. Its 29th place among all industrial countries shows that Great Britain has obviously not been successful in combating inequality. And, finally, the study points out that one in four subjects in Great Britain is obese. In countries like Switzerland and Norway, the ratio is 1:10.
Aart De Geus, Chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, puts it in clear terms: “Our investigation is the first stress test for the industrialized countries with respect to the new targets. We in the rich nations, with our growing social inequality and wasteful use of resources, can no longer present ourselves as the world’s teachers. We’re hardly entitled to prescribe a course of development to the emerging countries. Rather, the analysis shows us where we, too, have to do our homework. And it shows us where the industrialized states are already at risk of missing the new Sustainable Development Goals.”
Leading countries indicate improvement potentials
The investigation further reveals major differences between the individual countries with respect to various goals. Social inequality, especially, has now reached record levels in industrialized nations and continues to rise. In 23 OECD states, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population now earns at least as much as the poorest 40 percent. The earnings of the richest 10 percent in the USA are even 1.7 times as great as those of the poorest 40 percent and in Chile they are 3.3 times as great. In countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Denmark, income is considerably less concentrated, proving that inequality is not an inevitable development.
Great differences are also apparent in, for example, environmental pollution. Countries like Australia, Canada, Poland, and Mexico discharge over six times as much carbon dioxide per unit of economic output as does Sweden or Norway. The share of renewable energy also varies considerably between countries. South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands use less than 4 percent of renewable energies. By contrast, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have already achieved a share of over 47 percent, which they are steadily expanding without hindering economic growth.
In his foreword to the study, Kofi Annan, the spiritual father of the Millennium Development Goals, calls for greater efforts on the part of the world’s wealthy countries: “I am thankful to the Bertelsmann Stiftung for highlighting this issue in such elaborate detail. This study will hopefully spark reform debates on sustainability and social justice in many high-income countries. We owe it to our planet and its people.”
According to Dr. Christian Kroll, who headed the Bertelsmann Stiftung study, these great disparities point out the respective nations’ potential for making substantial advances by 2030: “If you take the new UN Sustainable Development Goals as the standard, all countries are now developing countries. But our comparative study also shows the best examples for, and pioneers in, bringing economic, social, and ecological progress in line with each other.” Kroll continues: “Given that the developing nations were able to cut the infant mortality rate in half with the help of the Millennium Development Goals, we should be able to demand that the industrialized countries make their own economic models more socially just and sustainable with the help of the new UN targets.”
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