Halfway to 2030: How is the UK Performing on the Sustainable Development Goals?

Early findings from the UN Global Compact Network UK’s Measuring Up 2.0 report suggest that the UK is only performing well on 21% of the Targets that are relevant to the domestic delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK. In the past four years there has been no change in the performance against 64 Targets and the UK has regressed in at least 14 areas.

In 2015, the UK Government joined every other country in the world and committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goals provide a holistic framework to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities, combat catastrophic climate change, and protect our natural environment by 2030. Yet with just seven years to go, and already halfway through the 2030 Agenda, the UK is far from achieving the Goals.

This year, the UN Global Compact Network UK is working with stakeholders to review how the UK is performing against the 17 SDGs and 169 Targets, the wider policy context, and the historical trends that affect us achieving the Goals.

The Measuring Up 2.0 report, due to be launched in September 2022, will follow on from the first Measuring Up publication which was coordinated by UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) in 2018. In the four years since the initial exercise, and three years since the UK Government’s Voluntary National Review, progress on the SDGs has been disappointing. The impact of Covid-19 has significantly impacted many Goals and progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas of the country.

The preliminary findings of this year’s research indicate that 131 of the Targets are relevant to the domestic delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK. Of these Targets, the UN Global Compact Network UK found that the UK is only performing well on 21% of them. There are gaps in policy or inadequate performance for 59% of them, and 12% where there is little to no policy in place to address the Target and where performance is poor or even declining. Compared to the 2018 exercise, these results suggest improvements in 24 Targets, regression in 14 Targets, and no change in 64 of the Targets which were rated amber or red.  The remaining 8% of Targets were considered to have gaps in available or appropriate data to measure the UK’s performance, and the time lag in data does not yet reveal the full extent to which Covid-19 has impacted progress on the Agenda. Nevertheless, halfway to 2030 there are already some notable trends.

For example, the UK has made good progress on reducing food waste, an estimated 15% reduction since 2007 (Target 12.3), but we are reaching a critical state around the prevalence of food and nutritious food which is likely to get worse in the coming months (Target 2.1). Childhood obesity rates have shot up in the last year alone with one in four reception-aged children and two in five year 6 children in England now overweight or obese (Targets 2.2 and 3.4).

Early findings %

Despite the successful Covid-19 vaccination programme, the UK’s vaccination coverage rates overall are concerning (Target 3.b). In 2020/21, for the third consecutive year, the UK failed to meet the WHO’s target of achieving 95% coverage for all UK routine childhood immunisations. As a result of the school closures and school immunisation programmes being put on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic, coverage of the second dose of the HPV vaccine fell sharply from 84% to 65% of females aged 13-14, and despite efforts to catch up the overall coverage for dose 2 has not recovered to pre-pandemic rates.

For the first time in 20 years, the proportion of youth not in employment, education, or training is now less than 10% which, given the pandemic and post-pandemic conditions, is a significant milestone (Target 8.6). Yet in the past year alone, the number of children engaged in child labour in the UK has risen by a staggering 34% compared to the previous year and Covid-19 has exacerbated the educational attainment gap (Targets 4.2 and 8.7).

Since 2018, the Government has made significant progress in increasing the scale and scope of its climate change ambitions by setting a legally binding net zero target and developing a net zero strategy. Brexit has led to the introduction of the Sustainable Farming Incentive and a number of measures to support sustainable agriculture which have the potential to see great gains in landscape and local nature recovery, biodiversity goals, and our progress towards achieving net zero (Targets 2.4, 15.1, and 15.3). However as it stands the UK is still projected to exceed its upcoming Carbon Budgets and significant work is needed to follow through on our domestic commitments and create truly cohesive and integrated approaches to combating and preparing for climate change (Target 13.2).

The 17 Goals provide us with an internationally agreed framework, which also works at national, regional, and local levels, alongside and reinforcing existing plans and commitments. They enable Government to work cross-departmentally and with stakeholders to create programmes and policies that are aligned with the needs of our economy, society, and environment both domestically and internationally. Many of the Government’s priorities – to invest in health and social care, to level up the country with better education, housing, skills, and infrastructure, to lead the way globally to reach Net Zero by 2050, and to strengthen the Union to help solve local problems – can be achieved through alignment with the SDGs and a mobilisation of the many stakeholders from the business, investor, civil society, and academia communities that are already committed to the Goals. To achieve this, however, all levels of the UK Government must demonstrate top-level political leadership on this Agenda.

The full Measuring Up 2.0 publication will be launched in September and will identify how and where the UK Government, and other organisations, should focus efforts for the remainder of the Decade of Action. Find out how you can get involved and support the project here.

Measuring Up is led by the UN Global Compact Network UK, with financial support from Shoosmiths and SSE, and research led by volunteers from Arden University, Bristol City Council, Change Agents UK, FareShare, Cardiff Water Research Institute, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water, Glasgow Caledonian University, Marine Conservation Society, National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO), Newcastle University, Queen’s University Belfast, Regen, Sustainable Development Solutions Network UK (SDSN UK) hosted by UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, University of Bristol, University of Sussex, and University of the West of England.