It’s Called the Sustainable Development Goals Index for a Reason

In defense of our metric for measuring the world’s economic and environmental progress.

Actress Deborah Mailman speaks during the UN Global Goals Flag Raising Ceremony on September 24, 2015 in Sydney, Australia.
Actress Deborah Mailman speaks during the UN Global Goals Flag Raising Ceremony on September 24, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

A recent opinion piece by Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy criticizes the SDG Index and Dashboards that assess progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, published annually by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Bertelsmann Stiftung in the Sustainable Development Report. As co-authors of the annual report, we feel compelled to respond to these critiques.

Hickel is correct that good measures are needed to evaluate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that the official SDG indicator framework, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in July 2017 and revised regularly, has important limitations, especially for tracking environmental and biodiversity goals.

But Hickel is wrong about nearly everything else. His article reflects four basic misunderstandings or misrepresentations about the SDG Index and Dashboards (all of which are independent from the United Nations).

First, Hickel argues that there are issues with the technical construction of the SDG Index, including a weighting problem. Yet, the SDG Index and Dashboards approach was peer-reviewed and published in 2017 in Nature Geoscience. An independent statistical audit by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in 2019 emphasized the robustness of the rankings and the transparency of the methodology and online datasets. The SDG Index averages performance across indicators for each goal, so poor performance on one metric, such as an environmental one, enters fully into the score. The same applies for poor performance on a particular goal.

As emphasized in the Sustainable Development Report and the Joint Research Centre audit, composite indicators aggregate a lot of information into a single number. This provides a good overall picture of SDG progress but of course cannot render indicator-by-indicator nuances. The Sustainable Development Report therefore presents complementary indicator and goal dashboards, which provide granular color-coded information on the strengths and weaknesses countries in relation to each SDG and every indicator. The dashboard color for each goal is generated from the average performance among the two indicators where the county performs worst. This is a harsh grading approach, which addresses the issue of compensation across indicators and emphasizes the indicators where countries perform poorly. So the dashboard is set up to avoid celebrating good average performance, which might gloss over poor performance on environmental or other metrics.

Second, Hickel claims that the “SDG Index celebrates rich countries while turning a blind eye to the damage they are causing.” But our results show that rich countries generally perform poorly and are off track to achieving environmental goals (SDGs 12-15) and that poor countries need help to come out of poverty. Rich European countries top the overall SDG Index. This reflects the nature of the SDGs, as European countries, particularly the Nordic economies, perform strongly on socioeconomic goals, relatively strongly on some local environmental priorities (e.g., wastewater treatment, air pollution, or deforestation), and strongly on public institutions and the rule of law. As correctly pointed out by Hickel, these countries do face substantial environmental challenges, and they generate major environmental spillovers on other countries, but these effects are estimated and included in the SDG Index.

As a result, the SDG Dashboards score rich countries, including Nordic countries, “red”—meaning “major challenges remain”—on several SDGs, particularly those related to responsible consumption and production, climate action, and biodiversity. Many rich countries also face major challenges in achieving SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), which includes unsustainable agriculture, unsustainable diets, and obesity. The harsh grading method of the SDG Dashboards highlights negative environmental spillovers that affect climate, biodiversity, or water scarcity in other countries.

In an effort to accurately measure often-overlooked issues, such as environmental challenges and international spillovers, the SDG Index includes high-quality official and unofficial metrics that fill gaps in the official SDG metrics. For example, the SDG Index has included carbon dioxide emissions since its inception in 2016 even though a measure of greenhouse gas emissions under SDG 13 (Climate Action) was only added to the official list in 2019. The SDG Index and Dashboards also include unofficial measures of unsustainable fisheries and spillovers embodied in trade. Compared with other SDG monitoring reports, the SDG Index generates far more negative scores for rich countries on SDGs 12-15.

It is instructive to look at how the United States, the richest country in the world, performs on the SDG Index and Dashboards. The country ranks 31st overall, well below most other OECD countries. Croatia, Latvia, and Slovakia have much lower GDP per capita, but they perform better. The United States scored “red” on six SDGs and has achieved none of the 17 SDGs, as indicated by the absence of “green” scores on its dashboard. It also ranks 151st on the international spillover index. It is safe to say that the report does not “celebrate” U.S. success on the SDGs.

At the same time, the SDG Index also underlines the fact that countries in extreme poverty need help from the rest of the world. The 10 countries at the bottom of the SDG Index ranking are all located in sub-Saharan Africa. They suffer from extreme poverty, hunger, and in most cases ongoing conflicts. Poor access to basic health services, water, sanitation, and other infrastructure are also major challenges. By contrast, they perform better on many environmental SDGs due to very low levels of consumption and production.

As underlined by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the IMF, low-income developing countries face an SDG financing gap of about 0.4 percent of global GDP. According to the latest figures published by the OECD Development Assistance Committee only five countries have achieved the target of 0.7 percent of gross national income dedicated to official development assistance. These are Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

Third, Hickel claims that the vast majority of the environmental indicators in the SDG Index are “territorial metrics that do not account for impacts related to international trade.” This is also incorrect. The SDG Index and Dashboards does track transboundary impacts and spillovers, including those embodied in trade and consumption. To our knowledge, no other SDG monitoring report has put so much emphasis on tracking spillovers from rich countries on environmental degradation in the rest of the world.

The SDG Index includes a stand-alone spillover index, which covers three dimensions: 1) environmental and social spillovers embodied in trade; 2) economic, finance and governance spillovers (including tax evasion, financial transparency, or official development assistance); and 3) security spillovers (including trade in major conventional weapons). These indicators enter into the calculation of the SDG Index and are presented separately in every country profile. For example, Sweden is ranked first in the 2020 SDG Index but is ranked 137th on international spillovers. Sweden’s poor performance on spillovers is driven by imported carbon dioxide emissions, sulfur dioxide emissions, and biodiversity threats, as well as exports of major conventional weapons. The worst performers on the per capita spillover index are all small rich states, including Kuwait, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Switzerland.

Fourth, Hickel advocates for greater use of material footprint indicators and indicators of natural resource use. While we agree that material resource use and consumption and their impacts on the environment are important policy issues, we stand by the decision to not include “material footprint” or “domestic material consumption” indicators in the SDG Index. In their current form, these indicators present well-known weaknesses that are discussed in the Sustainable Development Report. In particular, they combine by weight vastly different materials that each have different environmental impacts. Moreover, they do not relate material flows by weight with environmental impact, which vary tremendously across countries. For example, one kilogram of biomass use in a humid tropical country has a different footprint from the same biomass consumption in a semi-arid country. As a result, it is very difficult to compare material consumption across countries or to define targets. We therefore do not agree with Hickel’s suggestion to make these metrics the overall measure of environmental sustainability and recommend instead the indicators that are included in the SDG Index and Dashboards.

Despite Hickel’s overriding assertion, the SDG Index certainly does not give a free pass to rich countries. On the contrary, it reports the good performance of European countries, especially Nordic countries, on socioeconomic goals (which form the majority of the 17 SDGs) and tracks their much poorer performance on environmental goals (SDGs 12-15) and on international spillovers. We concur that better data is needed, which is why the Sustainable Development Report highlights data gaps and works to improve the metrics year on year, including through extensive consultations with experts and stakeholders.

Over the years, the Sustainable Development Report has been used extensively to inform priorities for actions and sustainable investments. The sound methodology and the underlying data are available online for everyone to use. Indeed, many countries, regions, and cities do just that.

Guillaume Lafortune works for the Sustainable Development Solutions Networks and co-author the annual Sustainable Development Report.

Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Guido Schmidt-Traub works for the Sustainable Development Solutions Networks and co-authors the annual Sustainable Development Report.

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