Are we meeting Sustainable Development Goals?

According to a recent study, the challenge to increase sustainable development is currently falling short, in spite of national and international sustainability goals. In fact, almost all national and regional trends are moving away from sustainable development, particularly in high income countries.

The World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations (UN), better known as the Brundtland Commission, stated in its 1987 report that Sustainable Development is development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The United Nations Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, called on all countries to integrate the principles of sustainable development into national policies and programmes.

In a recent study, a group of American and European researchers analysed various nations’ progress towards sustainable development. To track “development” or human well-being, they used the UN Human Development Index (HDI). The qualifier “sustainable” was measured by analysing to what extent the resource demand of each nation is replicable globally. This was measured with the Ecological Footprint. To take into account the shrinking biocapacity per person worldwide, they tracked the Footprint in the so called Earth-equivalents ratio. It is estimated by dividing the national per capita Ecological Footprint by the globally available per capita biocapacity. This parameter measures the number of Earths necessary to support humanity if the given country’s level of consumption were universal.

The results suggest that:

 In 2003, and based on the UN data, only one country out of the 93 surveyed (Cuba) met the two specified minimum requirements with a given consumption pattern without exceeding the biosphere capacity.
  Countries having the highest HDI also have the highest footprint to biocapacity ratios. High income countries tend to show smaller increases in HDI and present greater increases in Footprint to biocapacity ratios relative to lower income countries.
  Between 1975 and 2003 only 33 countries with an HDI greater that 0.8 decreased their footprint to biocapacity ratios. This suggests that during this period, the majority of high income countries have not been successful in achieving sustainable development. Indeed, from 1975 to 2003, high income countries increased their Earth-equivalents ratio from 1.9 to 3.7.
  All the regions analysed (Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America, Europe, Middle East/Central Asia and North America) showed increases in both average HDI footprint to biocapacity ratios during the studies period. No region showed a decrease in the footprint to biocapacity ratios. In fact, the world as a whole entered ecological overshoot during the time period surveyed in this study.
  Only five countries (Burundi, Congo, Ivory Coast, Malawi, and Uruguay) have increased their HDI without increasing their footprint to biocapacity ratios. 

Overall, the results of this study suggest that there is a general movement away from sustainability, particularly in high income countries. Some lower-income countries, on the other hand, have achieved high levels of development without compromising their per capita demand on ecosystem resources.

Source: Moran D. D., Wackernagel M., Kitzes J. A., Goldfinger S.H. and Boutaud A. (2007) « Measuring sustainable development — Nation by nation », Ecological Economics, In Press.

 from "Science for Environment Policy" a service from the European Commission