SDG - Introduction - Statistics Explained

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SDG - Introduction

Data extracted in May 2020.

Planned article update: June 2021.


Important milestones on the road to the Agenda 2030

This article is a part of a set of statistical articles, which are based on the Eurostat publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2020 edition’. This report is the fourth edition of Eurostat’s series of monitoring reports on sustainable development, which provide a quantitative assessment of progress of the EU towards the SDGs in an EU context.

Full article

About this publication

Sustainable development objectives have been at the heart of European policy-making for a long time, firmly anchored in the European Treaties [1] and mainstreamed in key projects, sectoral policies and initiatives. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations (UN) in September 2015, have given a new impetus to global efforts towards achieving sustainable development. The EU and its Member States are committed to this historic global framework agreement and to playing an active role to maximise progress towards the SDGs.

The von der Leyen Commission has made sustainability an overriding political priority for its mandate. All SDGs feature in one or more of the six headline ambitions for Europe announced in the Political Guidelines, making all Commission work streams, policies and strategies conducive to achieving the SDGs. In December 2019, the Commission presented ‘The European Green Deal’, the new EU growth strategy. The European Green Deal aims to transform the Union into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where climate and environmental challenges are addressed and turned into opportunities, while making the transition just and inclusive for all. It includes a roadmap with actions to move to a circular economy, stop climate change, revert biodiversity loss and cut pollution. Moreover, it outlines investments needed and financing tools available.

In line with the Political Guidelines, the SDGs have also been integrated into the European Semester. The 2020 annual cycle started with the Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy, based on promoting competitive sustainability to build an economy that works for people and the planet. The SDGs were also reflected in the European Semester country reports and the Communication accompanying country specific recommendations, which cover the four dimensions of competitive sustainability –stability, fairness, environmental sustainability and competitiveness.

Eurostat supports this process through regular monitoring and reporting on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context. This publication, which is also closely linked to the European Semester, is the fourth edition of Eurostat’s series of monitoring reports, which provide a quantitative assessment of the EU’s progress towards reaching the SDGs. This publication is based on the EU SDG indicator set, which includes indicators relevant to the EU and enables the monitoring of progress towards the goals in the context of long-term EU policies. It is aligned as far as appropriate with the UN list of global indicators, but it is not completely identical. This allows the EU SDG indicators to focus on monitoring EU policies and on phenomena particularly relevant in a European context.

The Eurostat monitoring report is a key tool for facilitating the coordination of SDG policies at both the European Union and Member State levels. As part of this process, it will promote the on-going assessment and monitoring of progress in implementing the SDGs, and it will help to highlight their cross-cutting nature and the links among them.

This 2020 edition of the EU SDG monitoring report begins with a synopsis of the EU’s overall progress towards the SDGs, followed by a presentation of the policy background at global and EU level and the way the SDGs are monitored at EU level (see ‘policy background’ and ‘monitoring sustainable development in the EU’ sections below). It also contains a brief overview on interlinkages between the SDGs. The detailed monitoring results are presented in 17 articles, one for each of the 17 SDGs. The 2020 edition includes for the first time also an article on status and progress of EU Member States towards the SDGs. The Annexes contain a section on the spillover effects [2] resulting from EU actions for achieving the SDGs, as well as the complete set of indicators used in this publication, and notes on methods and sources (available in paper format and as a downloadable (PDF file).

Policy background

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

‘Development which meets the needs of the current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ [3]. This is the definition of sustainable development that was first introduced in the Brundtland report [4] by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987, and it is the most widely used nowadays. Following this report, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), the World Summit for Social Development (1995), the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) (1994), the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), the Millennium Declaration (from which the Millennium Development Goals were derived), the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002), the 2005 World Summit outcome [5] and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012 were amongst the most important milestones in the international pursuit of sustainable development, which paved the way for the 2030 Agenda [6].

Figure 1: Important milestones on the road to the Agenda 2030

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ document [7]. The 2030 Agenda is the new global sustainable development agenda. At the core of the 2030 Agenda is a list of 17 SDGs (see Figure 2) and 169 related targets to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity and peace. The Agenda also calls for a revitalised global partnership to ensure its implementation. The SDGs are unprecedented in terms of significance and scope and go far beyond the UN Millennium Development Goals by setting a wide range of economic, social and environmental objectives and calling for action by all countries, regardless of their level of economic development. The Agenda emphasises that strategies for ending poverty and promoting sustainable development for all must go hand-in-hand with actions that address a wider range of social needs and which foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies, protect the environment and help tackle climate change. Although the SDGs are not legally binding, governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 goals.

Monitoring of the SDGs takes place at various levels — national, regional, global and thematic. The UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) is the UN’s central platform to follow up and review the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs at the global level. To this end, the 2030 Agenda encourages UN member states to conduct voluntary national reviews of progress towards the SDGs [8]. Regular reviews by the HLPF are voluntary, state-led, undertaken by both developed and developing countries, and provide a platform for partnerships, including through the participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders [9]. In view of this, many countries are updating their national sustainable development strategies based on the 2030 Agenda [10].

Figure 2: The UN Sustainable Development Goals

In order to follow up and review the goals and targets, a set of global indicators was designed by an Inter-Agency and Expert Group (IAEG-SDGs) under the supervision of the UN Statistical Commission [11].

In July 2017, the UNGA adopted a global SDG indicator list, including 232 different indicators [12]. However, only for about half of those indicators data are available and published in the context of global SDG monitoring (these are classified as tier 1 by the UN). For a further 41 % of indicators data are available only for less than 50 % of countries worldwide (tier 2), and for the remaining ones the data availability review is pending. There are data gaps not only in developing countries, but also in developed nations, and filling these gaps requires financial resources as well as knowledge sharing and investments in human capital. In order to continuously improve the global SDG monitoring, annual refinements of indicators are included in the indicator framework as they occur. In addition, the Statistical Commission conducted a comprehensive review of the indicator framework in early 2020. This resulted in the approval of 36 major changes to the global SDG indicator list in the form of replacements, revisions, additions and deletions by the 51st session of the Statistical Commission in March 2020. Therefore, the revised global indicator framework consists now of 231 different indicators. Another such review is planned for 2025.

Every year, the UN releases a Report of the Secretary-General on ‘Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals’, followed by an SDG report for the broader public. The latter provides an overview of progress on each of the 17 SDGs based on selected indicators from the global indicator framework [13].

Achieving the SDGs around the world critically depends on a global partnership to mobilise the means of implementation, including financial and non-financial resources. Therefore, in addition to the definition of goals and targets and the development of a global indicator list, the mobilisation of resources for sustainable development is another important element of 2030 Agenda. A milestone in the intergovernmental negotiations for financing sustainable development was the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, which took place in July 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The conference adopted an outcome document that presents concrete actions for mobilising means of implementation as an integral part of the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda [14].

The global indicator framework to monitor the implementation of the 2030 Agenda is complemented by indicators at the level of UN world regions and at national level. For example, indicator sets have been developed for the Asia-Pacific region [15], for Africa [16], and for Latin America and the Caribbean [17]. At the European level, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) selected 80 indicators from the global list based on relevance for the region and data availability for a newly developed UNECE SDG Dashboard [18]. The UNECE also published a Roadmap on Statistics for Sustainable Development Goals in July 2017 [19]. The roadmap includes six sections, focusing on (a) establishing national mechanisms for collaboration; (b) assessing the readiness of countries to provide data on global SDG indicators; (c) developing regional, national and sub-national indicators; (d) reporting mechanisms for data on SDG indicators; (e) capacity development for SDG statistics; and (f) communicating statistics for SDGs. It includes recommendations for national statistical offices and concrete actions to support the Conference of European Statisticians member countries in implementing a measurement system for the SDGs [20]. The EU SDG indicator set as described in section 3.1 is in line with the UNECE roadmap.

Sustainable development in the European Union


Sustainable development has long been a central policy objective for the European Union, enshrined in its treaties since 1997. The first EU Sustainable Development Strategy, adopted in 2001, set out a single, coherent plan on how to meet the challenges of sustainable development in the EU. In June 2010, the European Council adopted the Europe 2020 strategy, the EU’s agenda for growth and jobs for the current decade [21]. The Europe 2020 strategy put forward the three mutually reinforcing key priorities of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, steered by the European Semester process. For each of the three key priorities, the strategy defined one or more targets in five areas: (1) employment, (2) research and development (R&D) and innovation, (3) climate change and energy, (4) education, and (5) poverty and social exclusion [22].

The work leading up to the adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015 spurred new momentum for policy action on this area, both globally and in the EU and its Member States. In response to the 2030 Agenda, the European Commission adopted its Communication ‘Next steps for a sustainable European future: European action for sustainability’ in November 2016, announcing a two-step approach towards the implementation of the SDGs. The first work stream has been the full integration of the SDGs into the European policy framework and Commission priorities. The second work stream has been a reflection on further developing the EU’s longer-term vision after 2020. In this respect, the Commission presented in January 2019 a reflection paper ‘Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030’.

The Communication from 2016 also announced a detailed regular monitoring of the SDGs in an EU context from 2017 onwards, which led to the establishment of the EU SDG indicator set (see next section) and the launch of annual EU SDG monitoring reports in November 2017.

The reflection paper ‘Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030’ built its assessment of EU performance with regard to the SDGs [23] on the 2018 EU SDG monitoring report [24], and other relevant sources. It identifies competitive advantages of the EU that give the EU the opportunity to show leadership and highlight the path for others to follow. These advantages include strong welfare systems, considerable investment in research and innovation, and very high social, health and environment standards. The paper also highlights the complex and interlinked challenges the EU is facing, in particular related to climate change and ecological debt, technological and demographic change, inequality and social cohesion. Many elements of this reflection paper were taken up in the Political Guidelines of the von der Leyen Commission and the mission letters of individual Commissioners.

In spring 2019, the European Parliament [25] and the Council [26] welcomed the European Commission's reflection paper ‘as an urgently needed contribution to the debate on a more sustainable future of Europe and the strategic priority setting for the next European Commission’ [27].

The von der Leyen Commission has made sustainability an overriding political priority for its mandate. All SDGs feature in one or more of the ‘six headline ambitions for Europe’ announced in the Political Guidelines. Each Commissioner is responsible for ensuring that the policies under his or her oversight reflect the Sustainable Development Goals. The President set out a ‘whole-of-government approach’ towards the implementation of the Goals, while the college of Commissioners is jointly responsible for implementing the 2030 Agenda.

In December 2019 the European Commission presented the European Green Deal – a set of policy initiatives that aim to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The document is accompanied by an Annex that includes a roadmap with key actions to implement the Deal.

Figure 3: The European Green Deal

The European Green Deal is the new European growth strategy that intends to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. It also aims to protect, conserve and enhance the EU's natural capital, and protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts. At the same time, this transition aims to be just and inclusive. It is also seen as an integral part of the Commission’s strategy to implement the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.

The policy initiatives in the European Green Deal, among others, include cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a new circular economy action plan, a Just Transition Mechanism to leave no one behind, building renovations to achieve energy efficiency, a strategy for sustainable and smart mobility, a sustainable food strategy (‘Farm to Fork’ strategy), a new biodiversity strategy, a zero pollution action plan and a European Climate Pact that will allow Member States, stakeholders and citizens to better coordinate their actions. According to the roadmap, most policy initiatives will be implemented starting from early 2020.

In line with the Political Guidelines, the SDGs have also been integrated into the European Semester with the 2020 annual cycle. The refocusing of the European Semester already started through the broader economic narrative put forward in the Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy adopted in December 2019, focusing on the concept of competitive sustainability. The European Semester’s 2020 country reports reflect this new approach by integrating a dedicated analytical chapter on environmental sustainability and a new annex setting out the individual Member States’ performance on SDGs compared to the EU average. The data of the SDG annex in the country reports reflects the EU SDG indicator set selected for this monitoring report.

Monitoring sustainable development in the EU

The EU SDG indicator set

The European Commission is committed to monitoring progress towards the SDGs in an EU context. Eurostat has led the development of a reference indicator framework for this purpose in close cooperation with other Commission services and Member States organisations in the European Statistical System (ESS). Work on the selection of an EU SDG indicator list has been carried out in an open and inclusive way, involving Council Committees (Employment Committee, Social Protection Committee and Economic and Financial Committee), the European Statistical Advisory Committee (ESAC), EU agencies such as the European Environment Agency (EEA), non-governmental organisations, academia and other international organisations. Many proposals have been screened in the light of pre-established principles and criteria on policy relevance and quality requirements. The ESS Committee adopted the EU SDG indicator set in May 2017.

The indicators have been selected taking into account their policy relevance from an EU perspective, availability, country coverage, data freshness and quality. Many of the selected indicators were already used to monitor existing policies, such as the Europe 2020 headline indicators [28] and the main indicators of the Social Scoreboard for the European Pillar of Social Rights [29]. A list of the policies and initiatives that were considered can be found in the staff working document ‘Key European action supporting the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development’, accompanying the Communication COM (2016) 739 ‘Next steps for a sustainable European future: European action for sustainability’. Elements of the 2030 Agenda that are less relevant for the EU because they focus on other parts of the world (for instance where targets specifically refer to developing countries) are not considered.

The set is structured along the 17 SDGs and covers the social, economic, environmental and institutional dimensions of sustainability as represented by the Agenda 2030. Each SDG is covered by five or six main indicators. They have been selected to reflect the SDGs’ broad objectives and ambitions. 36 indicators are ‘multi-purpose’, meaning they are used to monitor more than one goal. This allows the link between different goals to be highlighted and enhances the narrative of this monitoring report. Sixty-five of the current EU SDG indicators are aligned with the UN SDG indicators.

The EU SDG indicator set is open to regular reviews to consider new policy developments and include new indicators as methodologies, technologies and data sources evolve over time. The reviews involve other Commission services, European agencies like the EEA, Member States organisations in the ESS and external stakeholders.

The reviews have also produced a list of indicators ‘on hold’ for possible future updates of the set. In this regard, Eurostat is working with other services of the European Commission and the EEA on the use of new data sources, such as the integration of earth observation data and information from Copernicus, the European Earth Observation and Monitoring Programme, whenever they contribute to the increased availability, quality, timeliness and disaggregation of data [30]. This information could, for example, improve the understanding of sustainable forest management or capturing sustainable cropland management.

Data coverage and sources

Data in this report are mainly presented for the aggregated EU level. Due to Brexit, these data generally refer to the situation of the 27 EU Member States, not including the UK. In a few exceptional cases, the UK is still included in the aggregated EU-level data; these cases are marked with footnotes. This mainly applies to data provided by external sources for which a calculation or estimation of EU (without UK) aggregates is not possible for Eurostat, usually due to a lack of country-level data; examples include the ‘climate-related economic loses’ (SDG 13) or the ‘grassland butterfly index’ (SDG 15).

In addition to the EU Member States, data for the UK, the EU candidate countries and the countries of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) are included in the country-level comparisons throughout the report when available, complementing the EU-level analysis. When data availability allows, global comparisons of the EU with other large economies in the world (such as the United States, Japan and China) are also presented.

In order to reflect the 15-year scope of the 2030 Agenda, the analysis of trends is, as far as possible, based on data for the past 15 years. Brexit influenced the data availability for a number of indicators, in particular those based on the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC). As a result, long-term trends cannot be assessed for a number of indicators.

The data presented in this report were extracted in early May 2020. Most of the data used to compile the indicators stem from the standard Eurostat collection of statistics through the ESS, but a number of other data sources have also been used, including other European Commission services, the EEA, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the OECD and the World Bank.

Eurostat's website contains a section dedicated to the EU SDG indicator set. Eurostat online data codes, such as (sdg_01_10), allow easy access to the most recent data [31]. The website also includes a section called ‘Statistics Explained’, presenting the full range of statistical subjects covered by Eurostat in an easy-to-understand way. It works in a similar way to Wikipedia, offering an encyclopaedia of European statistics for everyone, complemented by a statistical glossary clarifying all terms used and numerous links to further information and the latest data and metadata.

Treatment of breaks in time series

Breaks in time series occur when the data collected in a specific year are not comparable with the data from previous years. This could be caused by a change in the classification used, the definition of the variable, the data coverage and/or other reasons. Breaks in time series could affect the continuity and consistency of data over time. However, it should be noted that such breaks do not undermine the reliability of the data.

In the course of preparing this monitoring report, a case-by-case assessment of breaks in times series has been conducted to determine the extent to which a break would affect the assessment of an indicator. In cases where a break was considered significant enough to affect the assessment of an indicator trend or the comparability between countries, the analysis of the indicator was adjusted accordingly.

Breaks in times series are indicated throughout the report in footnotes below the graphs.

Assessment of indicator trends

How are trends assessed?

This publication provides an assessment of indicator trends against SDG-related EU objectives and targets. The assessment method considers whether an indicator has moved towards or away from the sustainable development objective, as well as the speed of this movement. The method focuses on developments over time and not on the ‘sustainability’  [32] of the status.

Ideally, the trends observed for each indicator would be compared against theoretical trends necessary to reach either a quantitative target set within the political process or a scientifically established threshold. However, this approach is only possible for a limited number of indicators, where an explicit quantified and measurable target exists for the EU. In the remaining cases, a transparent and simple approach across the indicators is applied to avoid ad hoc value judgments. The two approaches are explained in more detail below.

The assessment is generally based on the ‘compound annual growth rate’ (CAGR) formula, which assesses the pace and direction of the evolution of an indicator. This formula uses the data from the first and the last years of the analysed time span and is used to calculate the average annual rate of change of the indicator (in %) between these two data points.

How are the assessment results presented?

The assessment of indicator trends is visualised in the form of arrows (see Table 1). The direction of the arrows shows whether the indicators are moving in a sustainable direction or not. This direction does not necessarily correspond to the direction in which an indicator is moving. For example, a reduction of the long-term unemployment rate, or of greenhouse gas emissions, would be represented with an upward arrow, as reductions in these areas mean progress towards the sustainable development objectives.

Depending on whether or not there is a quantitative EU policy target, two cases are distinguished, as shown in Table 1. For indicators with a quantitative target, the arrows show if, based on past progress, the EU is on track to reaching the target. For indicators without a quantitative target, the arrows show whether the indicator has moved towards or away from the sustainable development objective, and the speed of this movement. The assessment method therefore differs slightly for these two types of indicators, as explained further below.

Table 1: Assessment categories and associated symbols

As far as possible, indicator trends are assessed over two periods:

  • The long-term trend, which is based on the evolution of the indicator over the past 15-year period (usually 2003 to 2018 or 2004 to 2019). The long-term trend is also calculated for shorter time series if data are available for at least 10 consecutive years.
  • The short-term trend, which is based on the evolution of the indicator during the past five-year period (usually 2013 to 2018 or 2014 to 2019). In a few exceptional cases, the short-term trend is calculated for shorter time periods, as long as data are available for at least three consecutive years.

Two arrows – for the assessment of the long-term and short-term trends – are therefore usually shown for each indicator, providing an indication of whether a trend has been persistent or has shown a turnaround at a certain point in time.

The growth rates (CAGR) upon which the arrow symbols are based are provided in tables for all main indicators of an article. Table 2 shows an example of this presentation for the indicator ‘early leavers from education and training’. It shows the average annual growth rates observed for the two assessment periods as well as the growth rates that would be required to meet the target in the target year. For indicators without quantitative targets, only the observed growth rates are shown.

Table 2: Growth rate tables showing observed and required rates of change

Indicators with quantitative targets

Whenever possible, the assessment of indicator trends takes into account concrete targets set in relevant EU policies and strategies. The main point of reference for identifying relevant policy targets is the Commission Staff Working Document (SWD) ‘Key European action supporting the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals’ accompanying the Commission Communication COM (2016) 739 ‘Next steps for a sustainable European future: European Union action for sustainability’ from 22 November 2016.

In the presence of a quantified political target (for example, the Europe 2020 targets), the actual rate of change of the indicator (based on the CAGR as described in Annex III) is compared with the theoretical rate of change that would be required to meet the target in the target year. If the actual rate is 95 % or more of the required rate, the indicator shows a significant progress towards the EU target. If that ratio is at least 60 %, but less than 95 %, the trend shows moderate progress towards the EU target, and if the ratio is at least 0 %, but less than 60 %, progress towards the EU target is insufficient. Negative ratios mean that the trend is moving away from the EU target. Figure 4 shows the thresholds for assessing an indicator trend against a quantitative target that would require the indicator values to increase (as, for example, in the case of the Europe 2020 target of raising the EU employment rate to 75 %). For targets that require indicators to decline (for example, the target of reducing the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 %), analogous decreasing target paths are used instead.

Figure 4: Thresholds for assessing indicators against a quantitative target (example of a target that requires the indicator to increase)

Indicators without quantitative targets

In the absence of a quantified target, it is only possible to compare the indicator trend with the desired direction. An indicator is making progress towards the SD objectives if it moves in the desired direction, and is moving away from the SD objectives if it develops in the wrong direction. The observed rate of change of the indicator, calculated based on the CAGR as described in Annex III, is then compared to the following thresholds: a change of 1 % per year or more is considered ‘significant’. If this change is in the desired direction, this means ‘significant progress towards SD objectives’. If the change is in the wrong direction, this means ‘significant movement away from SD objectives’. A change in the desired direction which is less than 1 % (including 0 %) per year is considered ‘moderate progress towards SD objectives’, and a change in the wrong direction which is less than 1 % per year is considered ‘moderate movement away from SD objectives’. See Table 1 for reference.

The 1 % threshold is easy to communicate, and Eurostat has used it in its monitoring reports for more than 10 years. It is discerning enough to ensure that there is a significant movement in the desired direction. Furthermore, it allows presenting a nuanced picture, with a sufficient number of indicators falling in all four categories [33]. The threshold should not be confused with the level of EU ambition on a given topic. It should also be noted that for some indicators, such as loss of biodiversity, any movement away from the SD objectives might be irreversible and lead to environmental, economic and social changes, thus affecting many SDGs simultaneously.

Figure 5 shows the thresholds for assessing an indicator for which the desired direction would be an increase (for example, life expectancy at birth). For indicators where the desired direction is a decrease (such as the long-term unemployment rate), the categories are reversed.

Figure 5: Thresholds for assessing indicators without quantitative targets (example of an indicator where the desired direction is an increase)

Summary of progress at goal level

In the synopsis article of this report, average scores of the indicators are used to rank the SDGs according to their level of progress towards the SDGs. To calculate these averages, a score is first calculated for each indicator, reflecting its short-term (past five years) assessment (see Annex III for details on the scoring method). For each goal, a simple average of the scores of the individual indicators (including the multi-purpose indicators) is then calculated. Indicators for which trends cannot be assessed (for example due to insufficient time series) are not taken into account for the average score on the goal level. The share of assessed indicators (those accompanied by an ‘arrow’ symbol) has to be at least 75 % to compute the summary result; below this threshold, the available indicators are considered insufficient to calculate a meaningful average score at goal level. This is currently the case for two goals (SDG 6 and SDG 14).

The interlinked nature of the SDGs

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development represents a complex holistic challenge. Understanding the scope of interlinkages among SDGs is key to unlocking their full potential as well as ensuring that progress in one area is not made at the expense of another one. Hence, investigating trade-offs, synergies and unintended consequences emerging from relationships between those goals is crucial for achieving long-lasting sustainable development outcomes. For the purpose of illustrating the interlinked nature of the SDGs, the EU SDG monitoring report makes use of the multi-purpose indicators of the EU SDG indicator set.

Trade-offs are negative interactions between different SDGs and targets when improvements in one dimension can constrain progress in another dimension. If achieving economic growth requires higher resource and energy consumption, it can create a trade-off between SDG 8 and SDGs 12 and 7. In contrast, synergies are positive interactions between goals and targets, when achieving one target, such as 20 % share of renewable energy in the EU, can also help achieving another target, such as reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Several attempts have been made to capture interlinkages, synergies and trade-offs by international organisations and academics. A study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) applied an operational method to identify trade-offs and co-benefits in a systemic way by analysing literature on interlinkages, identifying the main approaches and indicating the ‘agreed’ interlinkages from the literature [34]. The study found five main approaches to identify interlinkages between the SDGs: linguistic, literature review, expert judgement, quantitative analysis, and modelling complex system interactions. The International Council for Science published ‘A Guide to SDG interactions’, which, based on expert judgement, explored the nature of interlinkages between the SDGs and found more synergies than trade-offs between the goals [35].

Furthermore, the Interlinkages Working Group of the IAEG-SDGs also conducted a study that identified positive interlinkages between goals and targets in order to help countries to focus on those targets with the greatest potential for positive externalities [36]. The Italian National Institute of Statistics based their analysis of interlinkages on the aforementioned work of the IAEG-SDGs and compared the identified interlinkages with the statistical information contained in the Istat-SDGs Information System [37]. The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies in France applied Principal Component Analysis (PCA) to the EU SDG indicators to identify correlations between the SDGs [38]. A study by E. Barbier and J. Burgess identifies trade-offs among the SDGs, using an economic model [39]. Some academic studies also use integrated assessment models in order to identify interaction, synergies and trade-offs between the SDGs [40].

Overall, all these studies agree that there are many more interlinkages between the SDGs than trade-offs, and that it is important to identify the interlinkages in order to design the most efficient policy actions. However, no common picture concerning the identified interlinkages can be drawn from the studies. The interlinkages strongly depend on the method and data used (expert judgement or quantitative analysis) and on the geographical scope of the report (meaning whether the interlinkages are analysed on country, region or world level).

It would go beyond the scope of a statistical report such as the EU SDG monitoring report to apply similar approaches for identifying interlinkages between the SDGs as used in the studies mentioned above. Instead, this report attempts to provide an overview on the interconnectedness of the SDGs and to shed light on overlapping areas by focusing on those indicators of the EU SDG set that are used to monitor more than one goal. In addition to that, several other indicators of the EU SDG indicator set are not marked as ‘multi-purpose’ but are nevertheless related to each other because they are based on the same dataset, such as protected marine (SDG 14) and terrestrial (SDG 15) areas under Natura 2000. Connecting the SDGs based on the multi-purpose indicators and the additional related indicators yields a picture as shown in Figure 6. Although these connections do not necessarily cover the full complexity of interlinkages between the 17 goals, they illustrate the interconnected nature of the SDGs.

Not surprisingly, the network of Figure 6 reveals that the way we live, produce and consume is strongly interconnected with many other areas, both acting as driving force for, as well as being impacted by, other developments. Cities and human settlements (SDG 11) are essential for Europeans’ wellbeing and quality of life as they are a source of economic, environmental, territorial and social development. Despite the potential to be incubators of innovation and sustainable development, urban areas are a focal point of environmental change at multiple scales, amongst others due to land take (soil sealing), transport, housing and mobility issues, food supply and waste generation. Safe collection, removal, treatment and disposal of solid waste are important services for limiting the environmental impacts of human activity. At the same time consumption and production patterns (SDG 12) have a large impact on resource [41] and energy efficiency [42] and thus directly impact on a number of energy-related aspects (SDG 7) as well as on biodiversity and ecosystem services (SDG 15) [43]. In turn, reliable and sustainable energy systems relate to the transition towards a more sustainable and resilient low-carbon society, thus having considerable influence on our climate (SDG 13) and hence the viability of social, environmental and economic systems. Clearly, climate action is linked to the delivery of affordable and clean energy. This interconnectedness is especially highlighted by the rate of greenhouse gas intensity of energy consumption as one of the key indicators for both climate action (SDG 13) and energy consumption (SDG 7). In addition, cities also act as hubs of economic growth (SDG 8), which is also strongly interconnected with other areas of sustainable development. Economic growth can boost employment, which, in turn, can help to alleviate poverty (SDG 1) and reduce gender inequality (SDG 5).

Not only does pressure from urbanisation (SDG 11) impact resource and material consumption (SDG 7, SGD 12) as well as climate (SDG 13), there are also essential interlinkages to ecosystems and biodiversity (SDG 15). Healthy ecosystems in the sense of forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands are able to provide countless environmental goods and services, such as biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and clean air and water. Thus, pressures resulting from urbanization can exacerbate pollution from industry and agriculture and thus influence climate change as well as water quality and availability (SDG 6). This overlap is, for example, recognised by the indicator on the population connected to waste water treatment, connecting SDG 6 and SDG 11. Water quality (SDG 6) measured by pollutants in rivers is also closely linked to overall ecosystem status (SDG 15). Furthermore, sustainable agriculture (SDG 2) contributes to protecting biodiversity and managing soil sustainably (SDG 15).

As indicated above, the way we live is a driving force for other (potentially negative) developments, however, these developments can also in turn impact on the ability of society to maintain a good quality of life for citizens in the future. This is evidenced by the strong overlaps between SDG 11 and SDG 3 on ‘Good health and well-being’. Stressors such as noise or air pollution are important health determinants that directly impact people’s quality of life. However, health not only affects a person’s well-being and social participation, it is also a prerequisite for development, thus linking it with SGD 8 on ‘Decent work and economic growth’. Decent employment opportunities in turn allow people to afford certain living standards and achieve life goals, thus amongst others preventing them from falling into the risk of poverty or social exclusion (SDG 1). Poorer people, on the other hand, face problems in accessing essential services such as health care and in their ability to participate fully in society, which shows that trends in SDG 1, SDG 3, SDG 8 and SDG 11 are strongly intertwined.

The goals on education (SDG 4) and innovation (SDG 9) are only sparsely linked to other goals when looking at the multi-purpose indicators of the EU SDG set only. However, there is a wide agreement that both goals are cross-cutting topics that are crucial for meeting the 2030 Agenda as a whole. With regards to SDG 4, receiving quality education enables people to break the cycle of poverty, which in turn helps to reduce inequalities and reach gender equality. Education also empowers people to live healthier lives and helps them to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. As regards SDG 9, enhancing science, technology and innovation leads to productivity increases, while development of infrastructure contributes to ensuring access to economic, health-related and educational resources and services [44].

Although this concise outline does not cover all the SDGs, it is able to demonstrate the immense and complex effects of the interlinked nature of the SDGs. In addition, it has to be noted that interlinkages are always context dependent and can differ greatly among countries, in particular having in mind differences in the socio-economic situation across EU Member States. Nevertheless, the interlinkages show that for a transition towards more sustainable and resilient societies, citizens and all stakeholders in the different policy areas, sectors and levels of decision-making have important roles and share the same responsibility.

Figure 6: Multi-purpose indicators within the EU SDG indicator set
Note: The shown connections are based on the multi-purpose indicators, i.e. indicators allocated to two or more SDGs, as well as on other related indicators (that are not marked as ‘multi-purpose’ but e.g. stem from the same dataset). The more links between two goals exist, the thicker is the line that connects them.
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More detailed information on EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as indicator relevance, definitions, methodological notes, background and potential linkages, can be found in the introduction of the publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2020 edition’.


  1. Articles 3 (5) and 21 (2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU).
  2. Spill-over effects are knock-on consequences of the actions and developments in one country (or the EU) over other countries (or outside the EU).
  3. World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), Our Common Future.
  4. Named after the former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who acted as chair of the WCED.
  5. The 2005 World Summit was a follow-up to the Millennium Summit; see ‘Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 16 September 2015: 2005 World Summit Outcome’.
  6. United Nations General Assembly (2015), Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. A/RES/70/1, paragraphs 10 and 11.
  7. United Nations General Assembly (2015), 'Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.' A/RES/70/1.
  8. ‘Conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven’ (paragraph 79) of ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) has established an online platform to compile inputs from countries participating in the national voluntary reviews of the annual session of the HLPF. See:
  9. United Nations General Assembly (2015), ‘Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.’ A/RES/70/1, paragraph 84.
  10. Information about the national sustainable development strategies of European countries can be found on the European Sustainable Development Network (ESDN) website: profiles
  11. The United Nations Statistical Commission, established in 1947, is the highest body of the global statistical system. It brings together the Chief Statisticians from member states from around the world. It is the highest decision making body for international statistical activities especially the setting of statistical standards, the development of concepts and methods and their implementation at the national and international level.
  12. United Nations General Assembly (2017), ‘Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 6 July 2017: Work of the Statistical Commission pertaining to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’ A/RES/71/313.
  13. United Nations Economic and Social Council (2020), Report of the Secretary-General on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals; United Nations (2019), The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019.
  14. See: United Nations (2015), Outcome document of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development: Addis Ababa Action Agenda. A/CONF.227//L.1.
  15. United Nations, Asian Development Bank, and United Nations Development Programme (2017), Asia-Pacific Sustainable Development Goals Outlook, United Nations, Bangkok.
  16. African Union Economic Commission for Africa, African Development Bank, and United Nations Development Programme (2017), 2017 Africa Sustainable Development Report: Tracking Progress on Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals, Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa.
  17. Nicolai, S., Bhatkal, T., Hoy, C., and Aedy, T. (2016), Projecting progress: the SDGs in Latin America and the Caribbean, Overseas Development Institute, London.
  18. UNECE (2020), UNECE launches Dashboard to track regional progress on SDGs.
  19. The Road map was developed by a Conference of European Statisticians Steering Group on Statistics for SDGs, coordinated by the UN ECE and to which Eurostat participates. See United Nations Economic and Social Council (2017), Conference of European Statisticians’ Road Map on Statistics for Sustainable Development Goals, First Edition.
  20. Ibid.
  21. European Commission (2010), Europe 2020 — A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, COM (2010)2020 final, Brussels.
  22. For more information on the Europe 2020 targets please see
  23. Annex II of the Reflection Paper (see reference in footnote 22 above).
  24. Eurostat (2018), Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context — 2018 edition, Luxembourg.
  25. European Parliament (2019), Annual strategic report on the implementation and delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (2018/2279(INI)).
  26. Council of the European Union (2019), Towards an ever more sustainable Union by 2030 - Council conclusions (9 April 2019).
  27. Council of the European Union (2019), Towards an ever more sustainable Union by 2030 - Council conclusions (9 April 2019), Article 6.
  28. Eurostat, Europe 2020 headline indicators.
  29. European Commission, Social Scoreboard, A Social Scoreboard for the European Pillar of Social Rights.
  30. For example, the handbook ‘Satellite Earth Observations in support of the Sustainable Development Goals’ by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and the European Space Agency (ESA) was officially released at the 49th session of the UN Statistical Commission. This handbook promotes and highlights the contribution of Earth observations to the realisation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, its goals and targets, and to the SDG Global Indicator Framework.
  31. In this report, online data codes are given as part of the source below each table and figure. When clicking on the online data code, the reader is directly led to the indicator table showing the most recent data. Alternatively, the data can be accessed by entering the data code in the search field on the Eurostat website. The indicator table also contains a link to the source dataset, which generally presents more dimensions and longer time series than the indicator table. The complete set of indicators is presented in Annex II of this publication.
  32. The concept of sustainable development should be distinguished from that of sustainability. ‘Sustainability’ is a property of a system, whereby it is maintained in a particular state through time. The concept of sustainable development refers to a process involving change or development. The strategy aims to ‘achieve continuous improvement of quality of life’, and the focus is therefore on sustaining the process of improving human well-being. Rather than seeking a stable equilibrium, sustainable development is a dynamic concept, recognising that changes are inherent to human societies.
  33. Higher thresholds (e.g. 2%) have been tested and finally rejected, since they make the overall picture less interesting, as a vast majority of indicators would fall in the two ‘moderate’ categories.
  34. Miola A, Borchardt S, Neher F, Buscaglia D (2019), Interlinkages and policy coherence for the Sustainable Development Goals implementation: An operational method to identify trade-offs and co-benefits in a systemic way, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
  35. International Council for Science (2017), A Guide to SDG Interactions: from Science to Implementation [D.J. Griggs, M. Nilsson, A. Stevance, D. McCollum (eds)]. International Council for Science, Paris.
  36. IAEG-SDGs (2019), Interlinkages of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Background document.
  37. Istat (2019), 2019 SDGs report: Statistical Information for 2030 Agenda in Italy.
  38. INSEE (2019), The Differences between EU Countries for Sustainable Development Indicators: It is (mainly) the Economy!
  39. Barbier, Edward B. and Burgess, Joanne C. (2017), The Sustainable Development Goals and the systems approach to sustainability. Economics: The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal, 11 (2017-28): 1–22.
  40. Moyer, Jonathan D. and Bohl, David K. (2019), Alternative pathways to human development: Assessing trade-offs and synergies in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Futures (105), 199-210. Van Soest, Heleen L; van Vuuren, Detlef P.; Hilaire, Jérôme; Minx, Jan C.; Harmsen, Mathijs J.H.M.; Krey, Volker; Popp, Alexander; Riahi, Keywan; Luderer, Gunnar (2019), Analysing interactions among Sustainable Development Goals with Integrated Assessment Models. Global Transitions (1), 210-225.
  41. O’Neill, Daniel W., et al. (2018), A good life for all within planetary boundaries, Nature Sustainability 1.2: 88.
  42. von Stechow, Christoph, et al. (2016), 2° C and SDGs: united they stand, divided they fall?. Environmental Research Letters 11.3: 034022.
  43. Weitz, N., Carlsen, H., Skånberg, K., Dzebo, A. and Viaud, V. (2019), SDGs and the Environment in the EU: A Systems View to Improve Coherence. Project Report. Stockholm Environment Institute.
  44. Nilsson, M. (2017), Important interactions among the Sustainable Development Goals under review at the High-Level Political Forum 2017. SEI Working Paper 2017-06. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.