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Source: European Economic and Social Committee

To discuss ways to accelerate action on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for a sustainable recovery, the EESC Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment  held a debate on 15 December in connection with the Europe Sustainable Development Report 2020, published on 8 December. The report is a joint initiative by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), in collaboration with the EESC.

The event was an opportunity to present the key findings and policy recommendations of the report and to engage in a conversation with high-level representatives from the United Nations (UN) and the European Commission, civil society stakeholders and NAT section members.

In her opening statement, the UN secretary-general’s representative to the EU, Barbara Pesce-Monteiro, highlighted that the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs need to become a guiding compass for our response to the crisis and recovery efforts – moving forward better and changing the existing paradigms. The European Green Deal and the EU recovery plan show we should decouple economic growth from unsustainable practices. The EU Council decision on the 2030 climate targets demonstrates that the EU can lead on this front. However, this needs to take place in the broader context of the SDGs.

The EU is lagging behind on sustainable agriculture and diets, climate, biodiversity and inequalities

The Europe Sustainable Development Report 2020 finds that even before the onset of the pandemic, no European country was on track to achieve all 17 SDGs by 2030. In particular, Europe faces its greatest SDG challenges in the areas of sustainable agriculture and diets, climate and biodiversity, and in strengthening the convergence of living standards across its countries and regions.

Furthermore, the 2020 International Spillover Index included in the report, shows that European countries are generating large, negative spillovers outside Europe – with serious environmental, social and economic consequences for the rest of the world. Unsustainable supply chains also lead to deforestation and increased biodiversity threats.

The report concludes that there is a pressing need to maintain strong political commitment to the Goals, to track progress, and to communicate how the EU and Member States are working to achieve them. While COVID was a setback for the SDGs, the Goals provide a roadmap for a green, inclusive and resilient recovery. With the upcoming Conferences of the Parties on climate and biodiversity, and the UN Food Systems Summit, the EU should build a strong narrative on the SDGs and make 2021 the “Super Year” to achieve them, both in Europe and globally.

Achieving the SDGs requires a systemic transformation

The COVID pandemic has made the implementation of the SDGs more challenging, and yet more important than ever. The EESC’s message is crystal clear: the SDGs and the European Green – and Social – Deal must be the driver of recovery and reconstruction. These are the best blueprints we have to pave the way towards a sustainable recovery from the crisis.

Incremental changes will no longer be enough; we need truly transformational shifts. The Europe Sustainable Development Report clearly shows that the EU is not on track to achieve the SDGs. As we design post-COVID recovery measures, we must prioritise people’s health and wellbeing, social policies and environmental protection, and move beyond GDP-growth at all costs, said Peter Schmidt, president of the EESC NAT section. We need a fundamental change in the economic model towards a new vision of prosperity for people and planet. The keyword is wellbeing economy.

Climate change, environmental degradation, public health problems threaten us all, but, as we are currently witnessing with the global COVID-19 pandemic, these crises have the most damaging effects on the most vulnerable and marginalised. It is vital that the transition leaves no one behind. In particular, the debate highlighted the need to create an enabling framework for SMEs to have easier access to finance and capacity-building, through reskilling and upskilling of employers to respond to the SDGs. New opportunities should also be created for workers in the labour market.

The EU needs an overarching strategy to achieve the SDGs

The EESC, as well as the Parliament, the Council and the Multi-Stakeholder Platform on the SDGs, have been calling on the Commission to set out an EU overarching strategy for the implementation of the SDGs. The Commission has not yet done so. The recent Commission Staff Working Document (SWD), published in November 2020 and presented at the debate, highlights that the Commission’s approach is rather to focus on delivering concrete actions within the European Green Deal that will bring tangible progress in the areas of the SDGs. The Commission’s “whole of government” approach to implement SDGs depends on deeply transformative policies, and on the assumption that all policies should contribute to progress towards SDGs.

An overarching, long-term strategy with concrete targets and indicators is however still missing despite repeated calls from institutions and civil society – and this is very disappointing, said Mr Schmidt. Without a specific SDG strategy, how can we ensure a strong, coherent and holistic approach, cutting across silos? How can decision-makers be held truly accountable for the EU commitment to implement the SDGs?

Civil society must be actively engaged in sustainability decision-making

The involvement and active participation of civil society in the monitoring and, even more so, in the implementation of the SDGs is crucial for the success of the Agenda 2030. In particular, young people should be genuinely engaged in all policies, not just on climate, and throughout the whole policy cycle: development, implementation and evaluation. It is also necessary to involve social partners and ensure social dialogue in the sustainability agenda.

We are delighted to see that the Commission’s document explicitly mentions the EESC and its Sustainable Development Observatory (SDO) as playing an important role, said Lutz Ribbe, president of the EESC SDO. However, we regret that the Commission has not renewed the Multi-Stakeholder Platform and does not foresee any dedicated and inclusive structure for the involvement of civil society in the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs. The transformation to sustainability cannot and must not be imposed from above; it will only be successful if it is based on broad support and active participation by all.

The EESC has long been calling for a “whole of society” approach and for more participatory ways to engage with citizens, including young people, based on co-design, co-creation and empowerment. Our role as civil society is to hold the decision-makers accountable to ensure that the commitment to the SDGs and the Paris Agreement remains the highest priority, that the efforts towards recovery do not lead us to simply restore what existed in the past, but to build back sustainably, and ensure that all policies are aligned with the European Green Deal and the SDGs, concluded Mr Ribbe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected healthcare systems and jobs and remains a major source of uncertainty. Yet, it also provides an opportunity to put Europe’s future on a sustainable path, and to fast-track key transformations for sustainable development.

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