SDG - Synopsis
Data extracted in May 2019.
Planned article update: June 2020.
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 - 2019 edition’. This report is the third 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.
Sustainable development objectives have been at the heart of European policy for a long time, firmly anchored in the European Treaties  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 for achieving sustainable development. The EU has fully committed itself to delivering on the 2030 Agenda and its implementation through its internal and external polices, as outlined in the reflection paper ‘Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030’.
This publication, entitled ‘Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context (2019 edition)’, is the third in the series of annual monitoring exercises launched by Eurostat in 2017. It is based on the EU SDG indicator set that was developed to monitor progress towards the SDGs in an EU context. The set was adopted in May 2017 by the European Statistical System Committee and most recently reviewed in late 2018.
This synopsis provides a statistical overview of progress towards the SDGs in the EU over the most recent five-year period (‘short-term’) for around 100 selected indicators. Where data availability allows, the more detailed analyses in the thematic articles of this report also look at trends over the past 15 years (‘long-term’), to reflect the 15-year scope of the 2030 Agenda.
Indicator trends are assessed on the basis of their average annual growth rate during the past five years. For the 16 indicators with quantitative EU targets, progress towards those targets is assessed. These targets mainly exist in the areas of climate change, energy consumption, education, poverty and employment. All other indicators are assessed according to the direction and speed of change. Arrow symbols are used to visualise the results of these assessments. The meaning of these symbols is explained in the introduction and at the beginning of each thematic article; the overall approach to assessing indicator trends is explained in more detail in the introduction.
For each SDG, this synopsis summarises progress in the selected indicators towards the respective goal. This summary is based on an average score for each SDG, which is obtained by calculating the mean of the individual indicator assessments, including the multi-purpose indicators. The method for summarising progress at the goal level based on the selected indicators is explained in the introduction.
The findings presented in this publication are based on developments over a five-year timespan. Studies and reports that consider current status (in addition to or instead of trends), different indicators or different timespans may come to different conclusions.
How has the EU progressed towards the SDGs?
Figure 1 shows a statistical summary of EU progress towards the SDGs over the most recent five years of available data , based on the average scores of the indicators selected for monitoring these goals in an EU context. Over this five-year period, the EU made progress towards almost all goals. Progress in some goals has been faster than in others, and movement away from the sustainable development objectives occurred in specific areas of a number of goals. A more detailed description of individual indicator trends can be found in the 17 thematic articles of this report.
As Figure 1 shows, the EU has made good progress in improving the living conditions of its citizens over the past five years. This improvement refers to gains in both actual and perceived health (SDG 3), reductions in certain dimensions of poverty and social exclusion (SDG 1), and increases in the quality of life in cities and communities (SDG 11). For example, both life expectancy and self-perceived health continued to grow in the EU, and Europeans seem to move towards healthier lifestyles. At the same time, severe material deprivation and low work intensity rates kept falling, while more and more citizens were able to fulfil their basic needs. These basic needs also include people’s personal living situations, with fewer Europeans suffering from poor or inadequate housing conditions.
These favourable trends can be seen against the background of an improving economic situation in the EU over the past five years (mainly monitored by the indicators of SDG 8). Steady growth in the EU’s gross domestic product (GDP) was accompanied by continuous increases in investment and employment, as well as declining unemployment (in particular youth unemployment and long-term unemployment).
The growing economic activity in the EU, however, has not always been accompanied by favourable developments in the use of natural resources and its negative environmental impacts, as exemplified by the positions of SDG 7, SDG 12, SDG 13 and SDG 15 in Figure 1. While greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced, and the energy and resource intensity of GDP has steadily improved, consumption of materials and energy has increased in recent years, as has the generation of non-mineral wastes. The EU thus seems no longer on track to meet its respective 2020 targets for primary and final energy consumption. In addition, although the EU is on track to meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emission target, Europe continues to face intensifying climate impacts, such as increasing surface temperatures and ocean acidification. Furthermore, biodiversity – monitored by European indices for different groups of birds – continued to decline, while soil sealing through artificial and impervious surfaces kept growing.
Trends in the goal on education (SDG 4) appear largely favourable. The EU has already met its benchmarks for tertiary education and early childhood education and care, and is close to meeting the goals on early leavers from education and training, as well as on employment of recent graduates. Nevertheless, some areas of concern, such as underachievement in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test and adult learning, persist. The EU has also made some progress in supporting developing countries, e.g. through financial flows and trade (SDG 17). Trends were mixed in the area of sustainable agricultural production and its environmental impacts (SDG 2). Developments in the goals on gender equality (SDG 5) and other forms of inequalities (SDG 10) were also mixed, with both growing and declining inequalities in different topic areas.
A slight movement away from sustainable development objectives was visible in the EU’s innovation and transport performance, monitored by the indicators from SDG 9. Both R&D intensity and patent applications showed more or less stagnating trends over the past five years, and a shift towards more sustainable transport modes is not yet visible.
In the case of three goals — SDG 6 ‘clean water and sanitation’, SDG 14 ‘life below water’ and SDG 16 ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’ — overall EU trends cannot be calculated due to insufficient data for the past five years.
Summary at goal level
The goals are presented in order of average indicator trend assessments, from best to worst. Comparisons to ‘last year’s assessment’ refer to the summary of EU progress towards the SDGs presented in the 2018 edition of the EU SDG monitoring report.
SDG 3 ‘Good health and well-being’ continues to be the goal towards which the EU has seen strongest progress over the past five years, with clearly favourable trends in almost all indicators. EU citizens do not only seem to increasingly let go of lifestyle-related risk factors, as shown by the reductions in obesity and smoking prevalence. They also suffer less from external health determinants such as noise and air pollution. Over the past five years, premature deaths due to chronic diseases and to HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis fell continuously, and fewer people died in accidents at work or on the road. Together with significant improvements in access to healthcare, these trends have helped to further increase life expectancy in the EU, and they are also reflected in the improvements in self-perceived health of EU citizens. However, a recent slowdown in reducing road accidents has put the EU off track to reaching its target of halving road fatalities between 2010 and 2020.
The EU’s situation regarding SDG 1 ‘No poverty’ has seen a remarkable improvement compared with last year’s assessment. This is mainly due to strong favourable trends from 2016 to 2017 for most poverty-related aspects. While for some indicators this recent improvement is a continuation or intensification of past developments, for others it represents a turnaround of previously unfavourable trends. Fewer people face problems related to their homes, such as overcrowding, poor dwelling conditions, a lack of sanitary facilities, or the inability to keep the home adequately warm. Moreover, as already mentioned above for SDG 3, fewer people are reporting unmet needs for medical care. In the area of multidimensional poverty, the number of people suffering from severe material deprivation has continued to fall, and fewer people live in households with very low work intensity. However, due to the rise in the number of people at risk of poverty after social transfers until 2016, the improvement in the combined ‘at risk of poverty or social exclusion’ indicator has so far been too slow to put the EU on track to meet its target of lifting at least 20 million people out of this situation by 2020.
SDG 8 ‘Decent work and economic growth’ is characterised by steady improvements in the EU’s economic and labour market situation over the past few years. Steady growth in real GDP per capita since 2013 has been accompanied by continued increases in employment and corresponding declines in long-term unemployment and in the number of young people not in education, employment or training. Due to the steady gains over the past five years, the EU is well on track towards meeting its Europe 2020 target of raising the employment rate to 75 %. In addition, resource productivity and the EU’s investment share of GDP have increased as well. However, not all people have benefitted equally from the improvements in the EU’s labour market situation. Many more women than men still remain economically inactive due to caring responsibilities, and the prevalence of in-work poverty has grown.
As regards SDG 4 ‘Quality education’, the EU has already achieved two of its six 2020 benchmarks for education and training. The target of raising the share of the population aged 30 to 34 that has completed tertiary or equivalent education to at least 40 % was met in 2018, while the benchmark of at least 95 % of children aged between four and the starting age of compulsory education participating in early childhood education and care had already been achieved in 2016. Furthermore, the EU is on track towards meeting its benchmark for employed recent graduates. The EU is also close to reaching its target for reducing the share of early school leavers, but a renewed effort seems needed to meet it by 2020. The situation is less favourable as regards the remaining two benchmarks. Education outcomes, as measured by pupils’ performance in the PISA study for reading, maths and science, are still far from the respective EU target. Moreover, due to the stagnation in the proportion of adults participating in learning, the benchmark of raising this share to 15 % by 2020 will likely be missed.
The recent improvements in EU citizens’ living conditions described for the two goals on poverty (SDG 1) and health (SDG 3) above have also led to a slightly improved situation for SDG 11 ‘Sustainable cities and communities’ compared with last year’s assessment. This is especially the case in the area of quality of life in cities and communities, where indicators overlap with those used for monitoring SDG 1 and SDG 3. In addition to the already mentioned improvements as regards overcrowding and poor dwelling conditions, as well as people’s exposure to noise and air pollution, the share of EU citizens feeling affected by crime, violence and vandalism has decreased further. However, developments are less clear-cut for other aspects of SDG 11. Progress towards more sustainable transport modes has slowed down in recent years, and the stagnation in road transport deaths has put the EU off track towards meeting its respective target by 2020. Also, settlement areas have kept spreading, not only in absolute terms, but also per capita, meaning that land take has increased faster than the EU population. On a positive note, due to the continued increase in recycling of municipal waste, the EU is on track to meeting its respective target by 2030.
EU developments regarding SDG 17 ‘Partnerships for the goals’ have been largely favourable, but need to be interpreted with some caution. Total EU financing to developing countries increased over the past five years, although strong annual fluctuations in private flows make a reliable assessment of the trend difficult. In contrast to private spending, official development assistance (ODA) has seen a more steady increase, even if the EU has still some way to go to meet its target of dedicating a share of 0.7 % of its gross national income to ODA by 2030. As regards trade, imports from developing countries continued to grow, in particular from China. Concerning financial governance within the EU, government debt to GDP ratios have improved across the EU since 2014, but many Member States remain above the 60 % reference level stipulated by the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. Shares of environmental taxes in total tax revenues have stagnated at a low level, and a shift of taxation from labour towards environmental taxes has so far not been visible in the EU.
As there are no major issues about food security within the EU, monitoring SDG 2 ‘Zero hunger’ in an EU context mainly focuses on malnutrition, as well as on the sustainability of agricultural production and its environmental impacts. EU trends regarding malnutrition are clearly favourable, with shares of both obese and overweight people showing declines between 2014 and 2017. Trends over the past five years were more diverse for agricultural production and its environmental impacts. The labour productivity of the EU’s agricultural sector improved and public investments in agricultural R&D increased. In addition, the area under organic farming grew steadily. However, some adverse impacts of agricultural production are still visible in the EU. Common farmland bird populations continued to decline, and ammonia emissions from agriculture increased. On a more positive note, nitrate concentrations in groundwater have fallen slightly across the EU since 2010.
SDG 5 ‘Gender equality’ is characterised by mixed developments in the selected indicators. On the plus side, both the gender employment gap for recent graduates (aged 20 to 34) and the gender pay gap have narrowed over the past few years. Furthermore, the shares of women in national parliaments and in senior management positions of the largest listed companies have grown considerably. On the other hand, progress in closing the gender gap in the total employment rate (20 to 64 age group) has stalled. Moreover, many more women than men still remain economically inactive due to caring responsibilities, and this gender gap has widened even further. In the area of education, the gender gap is reversed, meaning that women are ahead of men. While this gap has remained constant for early leavers from education and training, men continued to fall behind in attaining tertiary education.
The recent advances in EU citizens’ income and living conditions reported for SDG 1 and SDG 11 above have also resulted in a considerable improvement in the overall assessment of EU progress towards SDG 10 ‘Reduced inequalities’ compared with last year. As regards inequalities within Member States, monitored by indicators looking at income inequalities between different groups of society, the situation has slightly improved from 2016 to 2017. These recent improvements have however not been sufficient to fully offset the unfavourable developments observed between 2012 and 2016. As such, in 2017 the income gap between rich and poor was still larger than five years earlier. This was also the case for the average distance from the poverty threshold for those below this threshold, making it more difficult for these people to escape this situation. Past five-year trends were generally favourable regarding inequalities between countries. Both GDP per capita and gross disposable household income per capita of EU Member States continued to show convergence. Moreover, both imports from and financing to developing countries increased over the past few years.
The situation regarding SDG 7 ‘Affordable and clean energy’ has deteriorated compared with last year’s assessment. This is mainly due to the steady increases in the consumption of primary and final energy since 2014, which have put the EU off track towards meeting its respective energy efficiency targets for 2020. This has gone hand in hand with an increase in the dependence on energy imports from outside the EU, which reached a new record high in 2017. On the other hand, the share of renewable energy in electricity, heating, cooling and transport is still rising, having slowed only slightly. Furthermore, favourable developments are visible for people’s energy use at home: both per capita energy consumption of households and the proportion of people who are unable to keep their home adequately warm have declined. In addition, energy appears to be used more and more efficiently in the EU, as evidenced by the increase in energy productivity and the decline in the emissions of greenhouse gases per unit of energy consumed.
The unfavourable developments in energy consumption reported for SDG 7 above have also resulted in a deterioration of the overall assessment of SDG 12 ‘Responsible consumption and production’ compared with last year. For both energy and material use, only relative decoupling from economic growth is visible. This means that the recent increases in the EU’s resource and energy productivity are mainly a result of strong GDP growth and do not reflect more sustainable consumption patterns of natural resources. Despite the increases in circular material use and recycling, total waste generation (excluding mineral wastes) continued to grow in the EU. Furthermore, the decline in CO2 emissions from new passenger cars has slowed down recently. Favourable trends are visible in the consumption of toxic chemicals, with declining amounts of chemicals hazardous to health and to the environment over the past few years.
The indicators selected for SDG 15 ‘Life on land’ show a mixed picture. Biodiversity-related indicators on common birds and grassland butterflies still show long-term declines, and the areas protected under the Natura 2000 network have shrunk slightly. In addition, pressures from land take for human settlement purposes, including soil sealing by impervious materials, continued to intensify. More favourable developments are visible for the status of the EU’s water bodies and forests. Pollutant concentrations in rivers (phosphate and biochemical oxygen demand) and groundwater (nitrate) declined, and forest area increased in the EU. However, it needs to be noted that the selected indicators in this goal have a somewhat limited scope. Other stocktaking reports and evaluations conclude that the status of ecosystems and biodiversity in the EU is insufficient, and that the negative impacts of EU consumption patterns on global biodiversity are considerable .
Improvements in data availability and changes in methodology make an assessment of overall progress towards SDG 13 ‘Climate action’ possible in this 2019 edition of the EU SDG monitoring report. The overall assessment, however, is neutral, meaning that over the past few years, progress has been made in some areas, while negative developments occurred in others. While the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions are still within the threshold to reach the 2020 target, the EU is no longer on-track to meet its 2020 energy efficiency target, and the increase in the share of renewable energies has slowed down (see the assessments for SDG 7 and SDG 12 above). EU countries are also increasingly facing the impacts of global climate change. European surface temperature in the most recent decade (2009-2018) was already 1.6 °C above pre-industrial times, an increase of 0.2 °C when compared with the preceding decade. Due to the absorption of CO2 into the world’s oceans, the mean ocean pH value continues to decline, and in 2016 reached an unprecedented low over pre-industrial levels.
SDG 9 ‘Industry, innovation and infrastructure’ is characterised by largely stagnating trends, which explain the overall neutral assessment of this goal. As regards R&D and innovation, patent applications to the European Patent Office have declined since 2012, while the EU’s R&D intensity has increased only marginally, making the achievement of the respective 2020 target of raising R&D expenditure to 3 % of GDP rather unlikely. Overall stagnation is also visible in the efforts of making EU transport patterns more sustainable. While a modest shift towards more sustainable modes took place for passenger transport, an opposite trend was visible for freight transport. CO2 emissions from new passenger cars are still decreasing, however, this positive trend has recently slowed down. Favourable developments are also visible for employment-related indicators, with continued increases in the share of R&D personnel and the proportion of people working in high- and medium-high technology and knowledge-intensive service sectors.
For the following three SDGs, average scores at goal level cannot be calculated due to insufficient data over the past five years.
For SDG 6 ‘Clean water and sanitation’, EU aggregate data are not available for several indicators. This makes it impossible to calculate an average score at goal level. Nevertheless, available data paint a rather favourable picture for the EU concerning this goal. Since 2010, pollutant concentrations in rivers (phosphate and biochemical oxygen demand) and groundwater (nitrate) have declined. However, it needs to be noted that although average nitrate concentrations in European groundwater bodies are within EU drinking-water standards (50 mg/l), serious problems at the regional or local level still exist. Clearly favourable developments are visible for access to sanitation and bathing water quality. The share of people without improved sanitation facilities in their households has been steadily decreasing in the EU, with the vast majority of Member States already having universal access to sanitation. Europeans are also enjoying improved bathing water quality in inland waters.
Available data for SDG 14 ‘Life below water’ still have a somewhat limited scope, which makes it impossible to calculate an average score at the goal level. While an ever-larger marine territory is protected under the Natura 2000 network, the available data neither provide an indication on the effectiveness of the protection of species and habitats at the sites nor on their conservation status. Similarly, model-based indicators on sustainable fishery provide an (improving) picture only for the North-East Atlantic, while data for other EU waters such as the Mediterranean or the Black Sea (where the situation may be less favourable) are not yet robust enough to be considered for monitoring. The increase in the share of coastal bathing sites with excellent water quality has slowed in recent years, but overall the trend is still moderately positive. Unfavourable trends are however visible for ocean acidification, as already mentioned for SDG 13 above. Due to the absorption of CO2 into the world’s oceans, the mean ocean pH value continues to decline, and in 2016 reached an unprecedented low compared with pre-industrial levels.
The indicators for SDG 16 ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions’ show that life in the EU has become safer over the past few years: deaths due to homicide or assault and the perceived occurrence of crime, violence and vandalism in European neighbourhoods have both fallen considerably. Furthermore, government expenditure on law courts has increased. In addition, the decline in citizens’ confidence in EU institutions observable since 2000 has come to a halt, with considerable gains in trust levels for the main EU bodies since 2013. Trends cannot be calculated for other aspects of SDG 16, including the perceived independence of the justice system, perceived corruption and violence against women, making an overall goal-level assessment for SDG 16 impossible.
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 - 2019 edition’.
- Articles 3 (5) and 21 (2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU).
- The presentation is based on the assessment of the trends over the past 5 years ('short term') only. For future monitoring it is envisaged to expand it to 'long-term' development (i.e. 15 years) depending on the availability of longer time series.
- See European Environmental Agency (2015), State of nature in the EU: biodiversity still being eroded, but some local improvements observed, the Mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (COM/2015/0478 final) and Díaz et al. (2019), Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.