The Sustainable Development Goals tell an inaccurate story of global progress

Global development metrics are overwhelmingly biased towards rich, developed nations.

One of the UN’s most successful and universally recognised projects to date has been the formation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Recognising the need for agreement among member states about what constitutes ‘success’ in international projects – how to achieve the greatest quality of life for the most people – 191 national delegates sat down in 2000, and then again in 2015, to ratify a list of international goals that include, broadly, the eradication of poverty and hunger, and the sustainable metamorphosis of industry.

Five years on from the signing of the SDGs, and a monitoring system called the ‘SDG Index’ designed by Jeffrey Sachs has become the primary metric by which delegates and policymakers assess whether individual nations are meeting SDG targets, and thus their development mobility overall.

Whist the SDG project at large is something of a Magna Carta in terms of international relations, the Index has some very fundamental, and not often discussed, flaws that unfairly implicate developing nations in the climate vandalism of richer shores. Unlike other markers of progress, like federal corruption, climate change has no sovereignty and is hard to calculate via territorial metrics. Wealthy, heavily consuming western nations are thus able to outsource much of their environmental footprint, bolstering their position on the SDG Index and obfuscating how we should be thinking existentially about development. The narrative of progress we’re being taught by the intergovernmental community is far from accurate.

What’s the problem?

Since its formation, the results of the SDG Index have been grossly misleading when it comes to its apparently most crucial aspect: sustainability.

They show a clear division between the developed and the developing world to the surprise of nobody – the journey of the global south to democratise and industrialise in the wake of imperialism is a long one. Because of this, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, France, and Germany tend to rise to the top of the pile, along with other countries predominantly western, wealthy, and white. This gives the casual pundit the impression that these countries are the ‘true’ leaders in achieving sustainable development. But, when it comes to crucial environmental goals that arguably have the largest global impact, the opposite is true.

Take Sweden, typically the frontrunner of the Index, as a case study. The nation scored an impressive 84.7 out of a possible 100 in the 2020 Sustainable Development Report, where the median score belonging to Egypt was 68.8, and the lowest belonging to the Central African Republic was 38.5. However, according to multiple reports, Sweden’s ‘material footprint’ – the rate of consumption per capita in the country – is one of the highest in the world, at 32 metric tonnes of material use per person per year, nearly as high as the USA.

For reference, this global average is about 12 tonnes per person, whilst ecologists estimate that a global sustainable rate is about 7 tonnes per person.

There is nothing sustainable about this kind of consumption. According to economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, ‘if everyone on the planet were to consume as Sweden does, global resource use would exceed 230 billion tons of stuff per year.’ To put that into perspective, that’s the amalgamation of all the resources we currently extract from the earth and consume tripled, or the equivalent to the current global output of three planet earths.

The top 25 nations in the SDG Index all have a similar story to tell – optically high development statistics hiding a culture of rampant consumption. Denmark, the UK, Switzerland, and the US are all above 75 SDG points whilst producing well beyond their allocated share of carbon dioxide per person per year and contributing majorly to the current climate crisis. Moreover, they’re also significantly overshooting their fair share of the planet when it comes to land-use, and chemical pollution through materials like phosphorous and nitrogen.

In comparison, India, which places 117th of 166 on the SDG Index, has a carbon contribution of less than 2 metric tonnes per person. If the whole world were to consume as much carbon as the typical person in India, or even China, whose carbon footprint is 7 tonnes per person, we would return to pre-industrial levels of warming in a matter of decades.

That’s not to say that a truer representation of global evolvement would be to adopt the lifestyles of people in developing nations – far from it. There are a number of very good reasons why India would likely fail to broach the halfway mark on any global ranking of development: low GDP and upward social mobility, sectarian stratification, and a poor record of women’s rights to name a few.

However, when it comes to arguably the single most unifying global issue we currently face, climate change, the metrics that place India at the bottom and Sweden at the top are incoherent. Worse, they become a potential source of justification for heavily polluting nations to maintain business as usual.

A weighty issue

The biggest problem ecologists cite with the SDG Index is its connection to the Sustainable Development Goals, which stratify and categorise global stressors in a manner helpful for notation but incompatible with a nuanced metric of comparison.

2015’s agreement laid out 17 goals, which each include a number of specific targets. The SDG Index takes indicators from sovereign nations regarding these targets and averages them to arrive at a score for each overall goal. The aggregation of these scores then determines a nation’s sustainability index score.

The trouble is, the index relies on quantifying the unquantifiable by attaching numeric weight to various ‘types’ of global challenges. There are three different kinds of development indicators used by the system: social development indicators like education and child mortality, community and infrastructure development indicators like public transport and waste management, and ecological impact indicators like CO2 output and biodiversity loss. The trouble is, how do you determine which indicators are more ‘important’, or worthy of more development clout?

Most SDGs do contain a mix of indicators: goal 6, clean water and sanitation, features a target relating to urban sanitation projects while another stipulates the protection and restoration of water-related ecosystems. However, ecological markers tend to get overwhelmed by community development indicators.

For example, goal 3 which relates to ‘good health and wellbeing’ has nine individual targets of which eight are development indicators, leaving only one ecological indicator of human health at large. Indeed, of all the 17 SDGs, only four deal mostly or wholly with ecological sustainability (goals 12 through 15), whilst the rest are focused on development.

This imbalance is drastically at odds with both the challenges we face in the coming years as a global community, and their solutions. The one environmentally focused target under goal 3, ‘sustainably reduce… hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution’, would, if properly implemented, vastly impact the other eight objectives. As I outlined in a recent article, air pollution affects nine out of every ten people on earth and is responsible for 7 million deaths a year: its reduction is an essential cog in preventing non-communicable diseases, the impact of epidemics, infant mortality and almost every other factor related to health.

Addressing pollution would also have majorly positive implications for agriculture, regenerating crop yields and reducing world hunger, allow for greater economic growth in urban centres, reduce glacier melt and thus climate migration – the list goes on.

The issue here is to do with weighting – if a country performs well on development indicators, as developed nations clearly will, its score for that goal will look commendable even if its sustainability metrics are harmful. However, arguably more weight should be given to ecological metrics as they’re boundaryless. Whilst the efficiency of healthcare is a sovereign issue affecting only the members of a single nation, that nation’s contribution to overall warming affects not only the global community, but every one of our descendants.

A rigged system

It should be, and likely is, abundantly clear that the current SDG Index is unsustainable. So why does the UN keep it around?

A simple answer would implicate the wealthy nations that ostensibly have the most ‘power’ within the UN itself as the Security Council – the US, the UK, China, Russia, and France.

But nothing is ever simple. It’s likely that the real reason the Sustainable Development Index hasn’t been adapted or expanded upon in light of its gaping flaws is because collating it was a Herculean task in the first place, and one that the international climate is not ripe to repeat. The stagnation that the constantly gridlocked UN bureaucracy engenders means that any unanimous agreement passed is a triumph in itself, and it’s why the SDGs are considered such a resounding success of the organisation.

Since 2015, bipolar relations between the US and China have noticeably soured, as well as relations between the US and Iran, the US and Latin America and… well basically the US and the rest of the world (three guesses as to why). Add the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic to this fraught international community, and the notion of world powers sitting down once more to overhaul the world’s current blueprint for development statistics is simply not realistic.

But it’s hard to get around the fact that the greatest beneficiaries of the Index’s misrepresentation remain the UN’s most powerful components. The fact that ecology plays an unfairly insignificant role in the goals, and that most of the ecological indicators that do exist are territorial metrics, means that wealthy developed nations can cover their carbon tracks by offshoring much of their footprint. Countries like Sweden and France hold a squeaky-clean score from goal 3, air pollution, because they’ve housed a significant chunk of their industry in the global south since the 1980s.

Carbon emissions aren’t the only development issue that rich nations ship abroad. Deforestation, overfishing, and worker exploitation happen far more in poorer countries whilst their beneficiaries are disproportionately in the west.

For example, the recent devastation of the Amazon under Bolsonaro’s regime, whilst facilitated by a corrupt Brazilian government, has been largely funded by large agricultural firms in the US. Much of the meat grazed on these ecological graveyards ends up on western plates, whilst its climate footprint remains Brazilian. Moreover, workers in the countless sweatshops and workhouses set up in developing regions of South East Asia have western brands like Nike and Primark to thank for cashing in on their comparatively cheap labour to clothe western bodies.

All of this matters in a material sense because SDG Index scores are often a determining factor in aid negotiations and bilateral trade agreements. Rich nations looking for regional influence might use another country’s poor index score to justify their presence there in either government or industry, as has been the case with Russia and Turkey’s involvement in Libya. From on the ground, these notionally more ‘developed’ nations can exert soft power in the comparatively weaker nation, exploiting its resources and using it as a strategic pawn.

Ideologically, the shoddy index also causes a rift between the perception of global progress and its reality. The SDG Index could reasonably be accused of celebrating rich countries while turning a blind eye to the damage they’re causing. Ecological economists have long warned against the danger of allowing rich nations to colonise development, stating that ‘strong sustainability’ is only possible with full transparency and equal input from all corners of the globe.

The SDG Index team are aware of this problem. It’s even mentioned (briefly) in their methodological notes—but then it’s swept under the rug in favour of a final metric that has little grounding in ecological principles.

Fundamentally, the index needs to be re-designed, and quickly. Metrics of sustainable development must be universalisable and provide a set of standards in all aspects of progress that the world can aspire to. To turn again to Hickel’s analysis of the Index, the system must be re-modelled ‘by rendering the ecological indicators in consumption-based terms wherever relevant and possible, to take account of international trade, and by indexing the ecological indicators so that we can see clearly what’s happening on each front.’

I would add to this that something as cerebral and abstruse as a universal set of goals for humankind should take on a qualitative element as well as a qualitative one. The SDGs should realise a narrative function as well as a numeric one where rich nations aren’t able to lie about their progress, allowing policymakers and delegates to use anecdotal evidence when constructing their view of international relations. The next generation of world leaders shouldn’t grow into the system expecting to find loopholes but a rich tapestry of metrics to determine whether a country is a good actor on the world stage.

Until such a time, we should avoid using the SDG Index as a metric of progress at all, because it isn’t. We must tell ourselves, our delegates, and our children more honest and accurate stories about what’s happening to our planet, and who is responsible for it.

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