Integrating SDGs into Environmental Performance Reviews: Lessons Learned in Europe
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UNECE Environmental Performance Reviews provide an analysis of countries’ progress towards SDGs.

Six EPRs prepared in 2017–2019 provide target-specific assessments and recommendations, with the most attention to SDGs 6, 11, 12, 13 and 15.

Limited data and information appeared as key constraints for the integration of SDGs into EPRs.

Environmental Performance Reviews (EPRs) are a well-established product of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). They assess progress made by individual countries in the development of environmental and green economy policies and their implementation. UNECE EPRs are conducted primarily in the countries of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, EPRs underwent a significant change, integrating the SDGs into the methodology and content of the reviews. EPRs prepared in 2017–2019 for six countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, North Macedonia and Uzbekistan) provide analyses of countries’ performance against SDGs and include recommendations to achieve the Goals.

Each EPR has covered between 40 and 65 SDG targets. The selection of targets for a given EPR is determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the thematic structure of the report agreed with the country under review. In total, 85 targets have been addressed in one or more EPRs conducted so far, and 21 targets have been common to all six EPRs. The Goals most covered in the six reviews are SDGs 6 (clean water and sanitation), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13 (climate action) and 15 (life on land).

Integration of the Goals into UNECE’s EPRs enjoyed strong and early political support: UNECE environment ministers explicitly requested that the Reviews support the achievement and monitoring of the SDGs. But it was not evident how to integrate the multi-dimensional SDGs into the environment-oriented reviews. Other challenges included running the integration process in parallel to SDG nationalization in the countries under review, and making available sufficient expertise for the integration exercise in times of limited resources. 

Expected Lessons Learned

Some of the lessons learned from the integration exercise were anticipated. First, the scope of “EPR-relevant” targets in the SDG context turned to be much broader than the environment-related targets. EPRs analyze not only the policies related to environmental media but also broader issues of environmental governance and integration of environmental requirements into sectoral policies, such as agriculture, energy, industry, transport or health, depending on the needs of the country under review. The environmental dimension of some Goals and targets may be not very pronounced at first glance, but appeared important for sectoral chapters of the EPR reports. For this reason, SDG target 3.6 (on road safety) and SDG target 11.2 (on safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport), for example, were analyzed in the EPRs that included a chapter on transport and environment. Such an approach allowed for tailoring the coverage of targets to the content of each review, but it also expanded the range of targets for review beyond purely “environmental” ones.

Limited data and information appeared as key constraints for the integration of SDGs into EPRs. EPRs encountered not only gaps in data but also differences in data provided by different national authorities of the same country. Some data provided by national authorities were not collected according to internationally accepted methodologies. Therefore, some targets that the reviews attempted to address had to be dropped due to lack of information or non-compatibility of data.

The cross-sectoral nature of the SDGs has been difficult to reflect in the EPRs and EPR recommendations. All six countries reviewed in 2017–2019 opted for the same way to integrate SDGs into their EPRs – by addressing the relevant Goals and targets in thematic chapters of EPR reports, and providing a general review of implementation of the 2030 Agenda in the chapter on the legal and policy framework. This option has limited opportunities for addressing, in a coherent manner, some of the multi-dimensional targets. For example, SDG target 3.9 (on deaths and illnesses from pollution and contamination) has been analyzed in several thematic chapters (air, water, chemicals and health) of the same EPR report, making it difficult to provide a comprehensive picture and target-specific recommendations.

The integration of SDGs into EPRs has been accomplished without additional financial resources. EPR reports are prepared by ad hoc interdisciplinary expert teams. SDG assessments in EPR reports were prepared by these teams without involving any extra expertise or funding but through self-learning and self-development efforts. The UNECE Secretariat developed a handout to facilitate SDG coverage and organized preparatory meetings for the expert teams to provide guidance on the integration exercise. Cooperation was also strengthened with custodian agencies such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to keep abreast of the development of methodologies.

Unexpected Lessons Learned

Another set of important lessons learned from this exercise emerged unexpectedly. Looking beyond the globally agreed indicators has been a real challenge for the analysis of specific SDG targets in the EPRs. International experts drafting EPR chapters have tended to assess countries’ performance vis-à-vis the global indicators without looking at other aspects of assigned targets that are not covered by those indicators. This difficulty seems to be part of a broader problem that indicators receive more attention than the targets themselves. In one of the countries reviewed – Uzbekistan – some global SDG targets were dropped during the process of defining the national SDG targets, because their indicators repeated indicators for other targets that were nationalized.

Constant adjustments are needed to the way that EPRs analyze SDGs, because the implementation and monitoring of the 2030 Agenda is a dynamically developing area. EPRs had to adapt to varying situations between countries, with some having already nationalized the Goals while others were at the very beginning of the process. The situation was also changing at the global level, especially with regard to the understanding of many SDG indicators. For example, three years ago, no methodology existed at the global level for indicator 17.14.1 of SDG target 17.14 (on policy coherence for sustainable development), so EPR experts had to come up with their own understanding of mechanisms for policy coherence in their analysis. However, as the methodology for this indicator has been developing at the global level, the understanding of the mechanisms had to be adjusted from one EPR to another.

Integrating the SDGs increased attention to vulnerable groups in the EPR reports. In the past, EPRs looked at gender and environment issues, urban-rural disparities, exposure of children to environmental pollution, and impacts of utility tariff reforms on vulnerable groups of the population. However, SDG integration made EPR expert teams more sensitive to the concept of “leaving no one behind,” more persistent in searching for relevant data and more diligent in reflecting these aspects in EPR reports.

The integration of SDGs into EPRs raised the profile of national environmental authorities within the national settings for monitoring and implementation of SDGs. In all six countries, the national environmental authorities are neither the leading nor coordinating authorities for monitoring and implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Integration of SDGs into EPRs raised attention to their central role for implementation of a large number of the Goals that was previously not fully understood at the national level. It also increased the understanding of the collaborative efforts needed by statistical offices, environmental and other authorities for the production of many SDG indicators which are not available at present.

The integration of SDGs into EPRs offers many opportunities for peer learning. In addition to emphasizing areas to improve, EPRs highlight good practices in implementation and monitoring of SDGs that can be useful to other countries. For example, the EPR of Mongolia praises the country for having achieved high levels of ownership of and impressive awareness about the SDGs among government officials and ordinary citizens. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, an innovative consultation tool was developed to raise awareness of the Goals. In Uzbekistan, an impressive effort has been made to adapt global targets and indicators to national circumstances. Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina have gained useful experience in aligning efforts to attain the SDGs with the European Union accession process. Sharing good practices in implementation of the SDGs between countries participating in EPRs has already started with several workshops organized by UNECE in 2017–2019 and a project assisting implementation of SDG-related EPR recommendations in several countries with support from the UN Development Account.

Future Plans

Governments in the UNECE region have expressed that the priority for improving the integration of SDGs into EPRs is to strengthen the provision of SDG-related recommendations in EPRs. A logical continuation of this effort would be to raise the role of EPR recommendations in facilitating SDG-related investments in the countries under review.

From the methodological point of view, the option of covering the EPR-relevant SDGs in a dedicated chapter of an EPR report could provide opportunities for better reflecting on cross-sectoral and multidimensional nature of the Global Goals in the future, when SDG implementation in the countries under review is at a more advanced stage.

The author of this guest article, Iulia Trombitcaia, is an Environmental Affairs Officer at UNECE.

EPRs are a peer review mechanism to assess progress a country has made in reconciling its environmental and economic targets and in meeting its international environmental commitments. Financial and expert support to EPRs is provided by Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the European Union. OECD, UNEP and WHO regularly participate on the international expert teams.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the United Nations or its Member States.

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