Last September, urged on by Pope Francis, the United Nations and its 193 member states embraced the most sweeping quest yet to, basically, save the world and everyone in it — dubbed the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a global agenda to fix climate change, stop hunger, end poverty, extend health and access to jobs, and vastly more — all by 2030.
The goals comprise no less than 17 separate items and 169 “targets” within them. And this isn’t just an airy exercise — the targets are quite specific (“By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average”). That means that at least in many cases, countries can actually be measured on how they’re faring in meeting these goals, based on a large range of sociological, economic and other indicators.
“In the global context, the idea that we should be both measuring and aiming for economic, social, and environmental goals simultaneously, a kind of triple bottom line, has become more and more a worldwide accepted idea,” said Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist and U.N. adviser who has been closely involved in the goals and heads the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. That’s even though, as Sachs points out, here in the U.S. we barely discuss or acknowledge the goals.
When it comes to sticking that “triple bottom line,” not all countries are faring very well at the moment. That’s the gist of a new report from Bertelsmann Stiftung, a large German foundation, and Sachs’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which has actually ranked the countries of the world based on where they stand at the outset of trying to achieve these goals over the next decade and a half.
“What we’ve done in this report is a first scan of about 150 countries,” Sachs said. “It’s the first time anybody has taken a look across the world.” A hundred and ninety-three U.N. member countries endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals, but there wasn’t enough data to include all of them at this point.
Based on the data available, though, the report finds that Scandinavian countries — Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland — win the honors. Sweden was already “84.5 percent of the way to the best possible outcome across the 17 [Sustainable Development Goals],” the report found, ranking number one in the world – and receiving a corresponding score of 84.5. The other three Scandinavian nations then filled out the top four slots, followed by many European nations.
The United States, in contrast, ranked 25th, with a score of 72.7. It fared considerably worse than a comparable neighbor, Canada, which ranked 13th, with a score of 76.8.
In general, the report notes, poorer countries tended to fare worse in the rankings because sustainable development focuses so heavily on extending sustenance, health, advanced energy and infrastructure, and much more to the world’s billions. Indeed, the entire Sustainable Development Goals paradigm is based on the idea that richer countries will help out poorer ones in achieving the goals.
Still, the report also notes that “it is possible to be rich (high income) but with significant inequality and unsustainable environmental practices.” That pretty much seems to sum up the U.S.
In fact, the U.S. scored in the red, meaning “seriously far from achievement as of 2015,” for 12 out of 17 of the sustainable development goals. Those goals were “no poverty,” “zero hunger,” “gender equality,” “affordable and clean energy,” “decent work and economic growth,” “reduced inequalities,” “responsible consumption and production,” “climate action,” “life below water,” “life on land,” “peace, justice and strong institutions,” and “partnerships for the goals” (which involves establishing transnational collaborations to achieve them).
These poor rankings were doled out because (among other things) the U.S. has too many people below the poverty line, too much adult obesity, too little renewable energy, too many homicides and people in prison, and so on and so on. The individual country-level breakdowns can be read here.
The report acknowledges that “some countries may be puzzled by their scores and that some will be unhappy with their place in the global rankings,” promising “to correct errors and update the report as new data become available.”
For Sachs, the poor score of the United States underscores that while we’ve done exceedingly well economically, we’ve neglected the social and the environmental dimensions of progress — issues ranging from equality to ecosystem preservation.
“We’ve long been the richest big economy in the world, but it’s pretty clear that something’s really gone off the rails in our country, and it turns out that both the social indicators and the environmental indicators really show that that’s the case,” he said.
In contrast, the best ranking country, Sweden, was only in the red on two indicators — “climate action” and “life on land,” due to too many carbon dioxide emissions and too much deforestation. That was, in fact, a common theme. Amid an ongoing energy transition, even the four Scandinavian countries were still rated as being in the red on climate action.
“The environment remains a challenge for everybody, which is why this basic question, can the world economy grow, and not destroy the planet, is still a question,” said Sachs.