A person is holding the globe which has shrunk to the size of a marble between thumb and index finger.

Industrialized nations risk missing new UN Sustainable Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals have led to tangible progress in many developing countries. The UN's global Sustainable Development Goals will also require industrialized countries to implement these standards for the first time, beginning in 2016. But most of them are a long way from serving as role models for sustainable development.

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Most industrialized countries in the OECD are not yet ready for the international community's new sustainability pledge. Many are nowhere near achieving the global policy objectives that are to be adopted by the heads of state or government at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit this month. Indeed, there is the danger that the targets for many indicators will be missed entirely. The greatest deficits of the industrialized nations lie in their less-than-sustainable production and consumption behavior. In addition, in many cases their economic systems also exacerbate the trend toward social inequality.

This is the result of a comparative study of all 34 OECD states conducted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung on the basis of 34 indicators for the 17 future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The study is the first one worldwide to investigate systematically the present status of each of these countries, both individually and in comparison with one another. This snapshot additionally identifies countries that can serve as role models with regard to particular SDGs, while also pointing out where substantial deficits still exist.

According to the study, the countries best positioned to achieve the new UN goals are Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland. The nations with the lowest ranking are the USA, Greece, Chile, Hungary, Turkey and Mexico.

"We in the rich nations, with our growing social inequality and wasteful use of resources, can no longer present ourselves as the world’s teachers."

Aart De Geus, Chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung

Leading countries indicate potential for improvement

The investigation further reveals major differences between the individual countries with respect to various goals. Especially social inequality has now reached record levels in industrialized nations and continues to rise. In 23 OECD states the wealthiest 10 percent of the population now earn at least as much as the poorest 40 percent.

Great differences are also apparent in, for example, environmental pollution. Countries like Australia or Mexico discharge over six times as much carbon dioxide per unit of economic output as do Sweden or Norway. The share of renewable energy also varies considerably between countries. South Korea, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands use less than 4 percent of renewable energies. By contrast, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have already achieved a share of over 47 percent, which they are steadily expanding without hindering economic growth.

"This study will hopefully spark reform debates on sustainability and social justice in many high-income countries. We owe it to our planet and its people."

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and father of the Millennium Development Goals

According to Dr. Christian Kroll, who headed the study, the respective nations show a big potential for making substantial advances by 2030: "If you take the new UN Sustainable Development Goals as the standard, all countries are now developing countries. But our study also shows the best examples for bringing economic, social and ecological progress in line with each other." Kroll added that against the background of the developing nations’ ability to halve the child mortality rate with the help of the Millennium Development Goals, surely we could demand that the high-income countries use the new UN goals to manage the transition toward a more sustainable economic and social model.

Please find the complete study available for download on the right hand side. The infographic below can also be downloaded there.

The OECD member states – including the US – still have a lot to do in order to accomplish the new Sustainable Development Goals.