Measuring distance to the SDG targets – Belgium

Belgium has already achieved 25 of the 130 SDG targets for which comparable data are available and, based on most recent trends, it is expected to meet 9 additional targets by 2030 (Figure 1). As virtually all OECD countries, Belgium has already met (or is close to meeting) most Targets related to securing basic needs and implementing the policy tools and frameworks mentioned in the 2030 Agenda (see details in Table 1) and also outperforms other OECD countries on many targets, mainly in the Prosperity and Planet categories. Yet, some challenges remain such as on reducing the adverse impact of agriculture on the environment.

This country profile provides a high-level overview of some of Belgium’s strengths and challenges in performance across the SDG Targets. As such, it differs from Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) or other reporting processes. To ensure international comparability, this assessment draws on the global indicator framework and relies on data sourced from the SDG Global Database and OECD databases. VNRs typically use national indicators that reflect national circumstances and are more up-to-date (See section How to read this country profile that provides some methodological details on country profiles).

Average material wellbeing is good. While growth of both GDP and labour productivity has been moderate (Targets 8.1 and 8.2), average hourly earnings are high (USD PPP 22 in 2018) and the unemployment rate is relatively low, at 6% in 2020 (Target 8.5). While Belgium did not make much progress toward poverty reduction (Targets 1.2 and 10.2), the redistributive effect of tax and transfers is among the highest in the OECD (Target 10.4) and the social protection coverage appears to be rather comprehensive (Target 1.3).

Material productivity is high and municipal waste management is efficient. More than half of municipal waste is being fed back into economy, making Belgium one of the best performing countries in this field (Targets 11.6 and 12.5). Belgium is one of the few OECD countries to have achieved significant reductions in municipal waste generation despite the economic and population growth over the past decade. Belgium’s economy is less resource-intensive than many OECD countries (Targets 8.4 and 12.2). Over the past decade, domestic material consumption has fallen, while GDP has increased, resulting in higher material productivity. In addition, while Belgium remains above the WHO-recommended limit of 10 µg per cubic meter, the mean population exposure to PM2.5 in metropolitan areas had been decreasing over the past two decades (Target 11.6).

Belgium has almost met the 2020 Aichi targets to protect at least 17% of land area, and far exceeds the 10% target for protection of coastal and marine areas. In 2020, protected areas covered 16% of Belgium’s territory and more than one third of marine areas. Belgium is also close to meeting Target 15.1 on protecting terrestrial ecosystems and largely meets Targets 14.5 on protecting marine ecosystems. In addition, three quarters of terrestrial, freshwater and marine that are considered to be key for biodiversity are protected. The conversation status of major species is generally better than in other OECD countries (Target 15.5).

Non-medical determinants of health hamper health outcomes. In 2018, about one in seven adults in Belgium smoked tobacco every day, down from over one in five ten years before (Target 3.a). Yet, on the front of malnutrition, progress reversed and one in five people is now considered as obese (Target 2.2). The suicide rate is high but decreasing (Target 3.4) and alcohol intakes are similar to the OECD average (Target 3.5). Near universal health care coverage is achieved but access to health services is more difficult for vulnerable groups and health expenditures exceed 10% of total household expenditures for around 10% of the population (Target 3.8).

Environmental pressures from the agricultural sector remain high. Nitrogen surpluses per hectare of agricultural land decreased over the past two decades, but they remain among the highest in OECD countries, nearly twice as high as the OECD average (Target 2.4). Belgium is also at a large distance from meeting targets on preserving local breeds (Target 2.5) and marine pollution (Target 14.1). On the latter, Belgium among the OECD countries with the largest distance to target, with high nutrient pollution (measured through high and extreme chlorophyll-a deviations) and large amounts of beach litter.

There is room for improving skills and reducing inequalities. While Belgium is ahead of the OECD average on students outcomes (Targets 4.1), one in five student lacks the minimum skills in reading or mathematics, with differences in socio-economic background, gender, location and migrant status explaining a large share of these disparities in education outcomes (Target 4.5). For the adult population, the participation rate in formal and non-formal education and training is slightly below the OECD average, and the same applies to the share of adults with ICT skills (Targets 4.3 and 4.4). When it comes to inclusion, more than one third of the population does not think that Belgium is a good place to live for ethnic and racial minorities (Target 10.3). Relating to inequalities among countries, Belgium is far from meeting Target 10.a on applying duty-free treatment, with 53% of the tariff lines applied to imports from least developed countries being zero-tariff in 2019, as well as for Target 10.c on lowering the cost of migrants’ remittances.

Like in many other OECD countries, data availability remains a challenge when measuring distances to targets (see the Overview chapter for details). For Belgium, available data on the level of the different indicators allow covering 130 of the 169 targets. As shown in Figure 2 below, indicator coverage is uneven across the 17 goals. While eight goals (within the People, Planet and Prosperity categories) have most of their targets covered (the indicator coverage exceeds 80%), coverage is much lower for Goal 11 on cities, with only 40% of its targets covered. Data gaps are starker when focusing on performance indicators, i.e. excluding those providing contextual information. In this case, coverage exceeds 80% for only Goals 3 on health, 4 on education, and 10 on inequalities. For seven goals, mostly related to the Planet category (Goals 12, 13, 14 and 15) but also to gender equality (Goal 5), cities (11), and partnerships (17), data are lacking to monitor progress over time for more than two in three targets.

While some SDG Targets are, on average, close to being met, performance is very uneven across the 17 Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Table 1 presents an overview of Belgium’s progress towards targets based on available data for each of the 17 Goals. It shows that distances to Targets and trends over time differ significantly even when considering a specific goal.

The OECD report The Short and Winding Road to 2030: Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets evaluates the distance that OECD countries need to travel to meet SDG targets for which data are currently available. It also looks at whether countries have been moving towards or away from these targets, and how likely they are to meet their commitments by 2030, based on an analysis of recent trends and the observed volatility in the different indicators.

As most authors and international organisations, this report adopts a rather simple geometric growth model for assessing the direction and pace of recent changes in the context of the SDGs. Yet, instead of making direct estimates of the value of the indicator by 2030, it models the likelihood of achieving a specific level using Monte Carlo simulations.

While the report provides an overview of where OECD countries, taken as a whole, currently stand, country profiles provide details of the performance and data availability of individual OECD countries.

Progress on SDGs requires a granular understanding of countries’ strengths and weaknesses based on the consideration of the 169 targets of the 2030 Agenda. Figure 1 shows both current achievements (in the inner circle; the longer the bar, the smaller the distance remaining to be travelled) as well as whether OECD countries are on track (or are at least making progress) to meet their commitments by 2030 (in the outer circle).

The length of each bar shows current level of achievement on each target. As detailed in the Methodological Annex, countries’ distance to target is measured as the “standardised difference” between a country’s current position and the target end-value. For each indicator, the standardised measurement unit (s.u.) is the standard deviation observed among OECD countries in the reference year (i.e. the year closest to 2015). Therefore, the longer the bar, the shorter the distance still to be travelled to reach the target by 2030. The colours of the bars applied to the various targets refer to the goals they pertain to.

The outer ring shows how OECD countries are performing over time and how likely they are to meet the different targets by 2030 based on the observed trends of the various indicators. It uses stoplight colours to classify the progress towards the target:

  • green is used to indicate those countries that (based on the change in the different indicators over a recent period) should meet the target in 2030 just by maintaining their current pace of progress (i.e. more than 75% of (randomised) projections meet the target);

  • yellow for those countries whose current pace of progress is insufficient to meet the target by 2030 (i.e. less than 75% of randomised projections meet the target, while the correlation coefficient between the indicator and the year is high and statistically significant, implying that a significant trend could be detected); and

  • red for those countries whose recent changes have been stagnating or moving them further away from the target (i.e. less than 75% of randomised projections meet the target and the correlation coefficient between the indicator and the year is low or statistically insignificant, implying that no statistical trend could be identified).

With the aim of helping its member countries in navigating the 2030 Agenda and in setting their own priorities for action, this report relies on a unique methodology for measuring the distance that OECD countries have to travel to achieve SDG targets. The identification of the main strengths and challenges proposed in this report relies on current performances only:

  • A target is considered to be a strength when the distance to the target end-value is lower than 0.5 s.u. (i.e. the distance is deemed to be small) or when the country is closer to the target than the OECD average. For instance, while Korea's distance to Target 2.2 on malnutrition is 1.4 s.u. (i.e. classified as medium distance), the average OECD distance is 2.5 s.u. Therefore, Target 2.2 is categorised as being a strength for Korea.

  • A target is considered to be a challenge when the distance to target is greater than 1.5 s.u. (i.e. distance is deemed to be long) or when the country is further away from the target than the OECD average. For instance, Estonia's distance to Target 4.2 on pre-primary education is 1.1 s.u. (i.e. medium distance), which is higher than the 0.24 s.u. distance for the OECD average. Target 4.2 is therefore classified as a weakness for Estonia.

While the lack of consistent time series often prevents an exhaustive assessment of trends, they are discussed when available and relevant in nuancing the assessment of current performance.

In total, this report relies on 537 data series supporting 183 of the 247 indicators listed in the global indicator framework (or for close proxies of these indicators). These indicators cover 134 of the 169 SDG targets. Yet, target coverage is uneven across the 17 goals and among OECD member countries.

Figure 2 summarises data availability:

  • darker blue bars indicate the share of targets for which at least one indicator (including indicators providing context information) is available

  • lighter blue bars indicate the share of targets for which the available indicator(s) include those having a clear normative direction (i.e. allowing to distinguish between good and bad performance), which are the only ones used to measure distances to target levels.

  • medium blue bars indicate the share of targets for which progress over time can be gauged (i.e. at least three observations are available over a five-year period).

All methods and concepts are further detailed in the Methodological Annex.

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