SDGs: How is the UK performing?

9 July 2018
Author: Paul Abernethy

In a world that has been getting increasingly isolationist, 2015 was a standout moment of global solidarity. In what many consider an historic moment in global diplomacy, countries met at the United Nations General Assembly to agree 17 new goals to tackle poverty, inequality, and climate change. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) finally gave the world a roadmap to the end of extreme poverty.

Fast forward three years and progress is not where it should be if we are to hit the targets. The implementation of the SDGs has been lacklustre, action plans have become stagnant and the momentum that surrounded the meeting has somewhat subsided. The data needed to track progress is missing and without it, it’ll be tough to know how exactly the world is progressing.

How is the UK doing?

Yesterday, in partnership with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development Group (UKSSD) – a network representing organisations from the UK that “span the business, civil society, academic and public spheres, irrespective of their interests, size or location” – launched the Measuring Up report

Conducted with charities and businesses from across the country, the research gives a snapshot of how the UK is performing on the SDGs ahead of the country’s voluntary national review next year, where the UK will report on it progress to the UN.

So how is the UK doing? It’s a mixed bag. Headline stats:

  • The UK is performing well on nearly a quarter of all the indicators (24%) and is given a green rating. 
  • 57% of indicators are rated amber which means there is gap in policy or poor performance on those indicators. 
  • 15% are rated red which means there is little to no policy in place, or where performance on these indicators is poor.

The Goals that the UK is performing best on

Out of all 17 goals, the UK is performing best on Goal 3 Good Health & Wellbeing, Goal 4 Quality Education, and Goal 17 Partnerships to achieve the Goals, where there is a higher quantity of “good” targets. So, what does this mean in practice?

The report goes on to say:

  • Goal 3 Good Health & Wellbeing - People living in the UK benefit from universal access to health care which plays an important role in the UK’s good performance against many of the targets under SDG 3. However, the UK is at risk of not meeting targets relating to air pollution and preventable mortality. Even where performance against a target is good, UK performance can be disappointing compared with other high-income countries.
  • Goal 4 Quality Education - There has been good progress in achieving this goal although it has been uneven across the country. This is partly due to the lack of policy coherence between early years learning and the national curriculum in England, and the number of under-achieving pupils (disproportionately male) in parts of the UK school system. It is also reflected in the relatively low policy priority and status given to further education and vocational training by successive governments and employers, along with a failure to prioritise training for careers linked to the green economy
  • Goal 17 Partnerships to achieve the Goals - The UK government played an important role in drawing up the SDGs and has maintained its official commitment to their implementation. SDG17 calls for an effective set of structures and partnerships fit for furthering sustainable development, both locally and internationally.

    Yet the most striking feature of the UK’s current performance on SDG17 is the absence of two important types of mechanisms vital for coherent and effective implementation of the SDGs. One is a cross-government mechanism for sustainable development policy development and co-ordination at a senior level in Whitehall. The other is an official UK-wide multi-stakeholder partnership for SDG implementation and the exchange of ideas. The first could be established fairly easily, the second could simply formalise UKSSD as the multi-stakeholder partnership that government becomes active in. Neither raises difficult issues of policy or principle.

The area where the UK is performing worst is on Goal 15, Life on land, where four targets are ranked “poor”. The UKSSD report had this to say about it:

  • The risks posed by biodiversity loss should be considered on the same scale as climate change. Land in the UK is intensively managed and used, with agriculture accounting for approximately 70-75% of land use. There are large pressures on UK wildlife and habitats with 56% of species declining between 1970 and 2011 and reports stating that this is one of the world’s most nature depleted countries.

What next?

The UK government has an important role to play in making the SDGs a success here and abroad. UKSSD have called for the responsibility of the goals to sit at the very top of government, either within the Cabinet Office, or the prime minister herself. 

This week, 47 countries will carry out voluntary national reviews of their progress towards six of the SDGs at the UN’s High-Level Political Forum. Although the UK will not be presenting its progress until 2019, the forum is a crucial opportunity to reflect on how this government and the others around the world are doing.  

But the responsibility doesn’t just sit with government. We can only achieve the goals if governments, businesses, academics, and civil society organisations work together to overcome our shared challenges. 

Find out more about the SDGs in our SDGs hub

About the author

Paul Abernethy
Bond

Paul leads the political advocacy of Bond, working with parliamentarians and ministers in support of ending global poverty.