European Commission Proposes 3 Scenarios for SDG Achievement
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The European Commission released a Reflection Paper outlining policy foundations for realizing a “Sustainable Europe” by 2030, and offering three possible scenarios for pursuing implementation of the SDGs.

Frans Timmermans, EC First Vice-President, said sustainable development is a means to “uphold our way of life,” while Jyrki Katainen, EC Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, stressed the need for embracing circular economy and reaping the benefits of new technologies.

In responses to the Reflection Paper, environmental stakeholders called for an action plan with “real teeth”.

30 January 2019: The European Commission (EC) released a paper outlining policy foundations for realizing a “Sustainable Europe” by 2030 and offering three possible scenarios for pursuing implementation of the SDGs. The Reflection Paper is issued as part of the debate on “the future of Europe,” which will culminate in a summit-level gathering in May 2019.

The paper outlines four key policy foundations for the sustainability transition:

  • Moving from a linear to a circular economy;
  • Correcting imbalances in the food system in order to ensure “sustainability from farm to fork”;
  • Future-proofing energy, buildings and mobility; and
  • Ensuring the transition is socially fair, leaving “no one and no place” behind.

The Paper reports that over the past five years, the EU has made good progress towards almost all of the SDGs, referring to Eurostat’s review of EU progress. Seven EU-27 member States are among the top ten in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) SDG Index ranking in 2018, and all EU-27 member States are in the top 50 (out of 156). While the authors note the benefits for Europe of being a sustainability leader, they caution that European policies will be limited in impact if others pursue “opposing policies.”

The Reflection Paper notes that the EC, under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker, has set out several strategies that have “laid the ground for the next generation of sustainable policies.” These include an Investment Plan, Action Plan on Sustainable Finance, and setting a target of 25% for climate expenditure in the future EU budget. With the imminent end of the 2014-2019 policy cycle for Europe and new Commission taking office in late 2019, the authors note that the Paper “should pave the way for a comprehensive implementation strategy in 2019.” They specify that EU institutions must decide on the structures, tools and policies they will use to achieve the SDGs. The authors hope that the Paper will serve to inspire the preparation of the EU Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 and the priority setting of the next EC President.

The Reflection Paper is released in the context of preparations for a summit on the future of Europe, and the authors note that sustainable development is “inextricably linked with that future.” The future of Europe process will culminate in a summit in Sibiu, Romania, on 9 May 2019.

Three scenarios are presented for stimulating discussion on how to follow up on the SDGs within the EU. The scenarios address the best way to implement the SDGs and the most effective division of roles. The scenarios are:

  1. An overarching EU SDG strategy guiding the actions of the EU and its member States;
  2. A continued mainstreaming of the SDGs in all relevant EU policies by the Commission, but not enforcing member States’ action; and
  3. An enhanced focus on external action while consolidating current sustainability ambition at EU level.

Along with a description of each scenario is an indication of “What this could mean in practice” and “Pros and Cons.” The authors note that the eventual outcome is likely to be a combination of elements from all three scenarios.

Upon the launch of the paper, Frans Timmermans, EC First Vice-President, said sustainable development is a means to “uphold our way of life and upgrade the well-being of our children and grandchildren when it comes to equality, a healthy natural environment, and a thriving, green and inclusive economy.” Jyrki Katainen, EC Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, stressed the need for “modernizing our societies in an inclusive manner, fully embracing circular economy and reaping the benefits of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.”

Several stakeholders have offered responses to the reflection paper. The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) said leaders must give “teeth” to their vision in the form of concrete 2030 policy targets, backed by enforceable commitments by member States. To achieve this, IEEP expresses support for Scenario 1.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental citizens’ organizations, identified important elements from all three scenarios: in the first, the overarching role of the SDGs for the EU and its member States; in the second, mainstreaming sustainability into all EC policies; and in the third, the emphasis on spreading the EU’s standards to the rest of the world. EEB also expressed disappointment that the EC took three years to produce a Reflection Paper, “when what we urgently need is a plan on how to implement [the SDGs and] ambitious commitments to action.” Among other suggestions, EEB said the EC must consider its environmental and social impact beyond its own borders, “rather than living in the illusion of a low-carbon, resource efficient Europe.”

In a guest article on the SDG Knowledge Hub, the WWF also expressed dismay that “almost four years on from their adoption, the EU still doesn’t have a plan for how it will meet the SDGs, with deadlines looming ever closer and several crises, including the ecological crisis, deepening.” WWF called for: concrete actions by which the EU plans to reach the 17 SDGs by 2030; an overarching EU strategy translating the SDGs into all EU policies, addressing gaps, and assigning clear responsibility for delivery and accountability, and including actions to reduce the EU’s considerable environmental footprint.

In October 2018, the EU’s multi-stakeholder platform on SDG implementation provided a contribution to the reflection paper. [Publication: Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030] [EC press release]

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