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What if…we got real about sustainability?

Illustration by Andy Carter

How well are countries doing in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) they signed in 2015, designed to put the global economy back into balance with nature by 2030?

The obvious place to look is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Index. There you can see the 166 countries that signed up, ranked by their overall progress in achieving all 17 goals.

The ambitious goals include: no poverty, zero hunger, quality education, gender equality, clean water, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry and innovation, reducing inequality, sustainable cities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, peace, justice and so on.

But economist, and occasional contributor to New Internationalist, Jason Hickel has spotted a problem.

According to the 2020 index, the best performers are Sweden, Denmark and Finland. But, as he points out in an article for Foreign Policy, they are also some of the ‘most environmentally unsustainable countries in the world’.

Star country Sweden, for example, has a ‘material footprint’ – the natural resources it uses a year – of 32 metric tons per person. That’s on a par with the US, way over the global average of 12 tons and the sustainable level of 7 tons per person.

And it’s not just an oddity about Sweden. Other good sustainability performers are also rich, high consumers. For example, France ranked at 4, Germany 5, Britain 13, New Zealand/Aotearoa 16, Canada 21, US 31 and Australia 37.

At the bottom of the index, we have Madagascar – a country rich in biodiversity – but ranked at 161, Liberia 162, Somalia 163, Chad 164, South Sudan 165, and Central African Republic 166. All are among the poorest countries in the world.

So, what’s going on?

Several things, according to Hickel. First, there’s a problem of weighting. There are 17 goals and a total of 169 indicators attached to them. But these indicators are far more concerned with economic and social development than with ecology – the third part of ‘sustainability’. Ecological concerns are ‘swamped’, he says.

Nor does the index take proper account of the impact of globalization and international trade. It’s so much easier to be squeaky clean if your companies have offshored their most environmentally damaging activities to poorer countries. No wonder the cities with the worst air quality tend to be in the Global South.

And there’s imports. If rich high-consuming countries buy in goods or raw materials from the Global South then that’s where the harmful impacts – deforestation, mining pollution or CO2 emissions – are likely to show up.

Countries near the bottom of the index – South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia – are also recent war zones. But what about the countries profiting from conflict and instability: top arms-dealing nations like the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China?

The UN recognizes the difficulties poor countries face in trying to achieve the SDGs. Project director of the SDG Index Jeffrey Sachs writes: ‘They will need considerable global assistance to supplement national leadership.’

And the UN does acknowledge ‘spill-over effects’ including pollution embedded in trade; biodiversity loss embedded in trade; and the misuse of the global commons, such as overfishing in the high seas.

When these are calculated on a separate ‘spill-over’ index, countries like Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Burundi come out best, having more positive and fewer negative effects on other countries. Countries like France, Sweden, Britain, Germany and the US are among the worst. But this ‘spill-over’ index is not what gets highlighted in the news.

So, what if ecological concerns were given as much attention as economic and social ones; offshoring of carbon emissions by richer onto poorer highlighted? What if the sustainability impacts of international trade were made fully visible and arms sales as well as conflict were a core sustainability issue?

We might end up with a very different-looking sustainability index.

And maybe, if we went further still, and dropped the UN fixation on the nation-state as the only lens through which to look at the world, peoples with no state or living across state boundaries – indigenous peoples of the Amazon, for example – might earn the bouquets while the Swedens of this world got the brickbats.

If targeting assistance is an underlying purpose of the SDGs Index, then perhaps it’s the economically richer countries that need assistance in adjusting how they view – and measure performance in efforts to save – the world they are so busily and efficiently trashing.

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