Measuring distance to the SDG targets – The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has already achieved 29 of the 130 SDG targets for which comparable data are available and based on most recent trends it is expected to meet 7 additional targets by 2030 (Figure 1). As virtually all OECD countries, the United Kingdom 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). It outperforms other OECD countries on many targets, mainly in the Prosperity and Planet categories. Yet, challenges remain. As in most OECD countries, long-term growth of GDP and labour productivity have been slowing down and more can be bone to foster inclusion.

This country profile provides a high-level overview of some of United Kingdom’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 builds 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).

On average, material wellbeing in the United Kingdom is high. Average hourly earnings of employees are relatively high (USD PPP 20 per hour in 2019) and unemployment rate is low (5% in 2020) (Target 8.5). In addition, many indicators relating to urbanisation and housing are above the OECD average. For instance, the United Kingdom’s overcrowding rate is nearly half the OECD average (Target 11.1), and the country outperforms most OECD countries on Target 11.3 focusing on sustainable urbanisation, with long-term reduction in built area per capita. In addition, resilience to disasters seems higher in terms of both policy and outcomes measures (Targets 1.5, 11.5, 11.a, 11.b and 13.1). When looking beyond national borders, the contribution of the United Kingdom appears to be more nuanced. Although the United Kingdom meets the Target 17.2 on ODA to developing and least developed countries (0.72% of the GNI in 2020) there is scope for improvement when it comes to aligning ODA to partner countries’ priorities and to country-owned results frameworks (Target 17.15). In addition, the cost of sending remittances remains high (Target 10.c). On trade flows, the United Kingdom ranks sixth lowest in the OECD when it comes to duty-free treatment of imports from least developed and developing countries, with duty-free treatment applied to 53% of the tariff-lines in 2019 (Target 10.a).

The adverse environmental impact of the UK economy is being reduced. Material consumption has decoupled from economic and population growth, and it is among the lowest among OECD countries (Targets 8.4 and 12.2), in part thanks to effective waste management policy – the recovery rate is 5 percentage points higher than the OECD average (Targets 11.6 and 12.5). In addition, energy efficiency is high (Target 7.3), and both industrial CO2 emissions intensity and total GHG emissions intensity (per unit of GDP) are declining (Targets 9.4 and 13.2). When it comes to the protection of biodiversity, protected areas cover 28% of the terrestrial area and 44% of the territorial sea, well beyond the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. In addition, more than 85% of freshwater, terrestrial, mountain and marine areas that are considered as key for biodiversity are already protected (Targets 14.5, 15.1, 15.4). The United Kingdom has also implemented some of the policy instruments listed under the Planet category, including by Targets 14.6 on harmful subsidies to fisheries, 15.6 on benefits from genetic resources and 15.8 on Invasive Alien Species. While the loss of biodiversity is a global concern, the conservation status of major species in the United Kingdom is better than in most OECD countries (Target 15.5).

The United Kingdom could do more to foster inclusion. In the United Kingdom, one in four adults lacks basic functional numeracy skills (Target 4.6) and more than one in ten of the population is income poor (Targets 1.2 and 10.2). In addition, many population groups including women, young adults and migrants face additional challenges. For instance, despite progress, women’s participation in management positions is still limited in both private and public spheres (Targets 5.5 and 16.7). While the share of young people not in education, employment or training is slightly below the OECD average, it is still high (at 12% in 2020, Target 8.6). Finally, unhealthy behaviours such as malnutrition (Target 2.2) and tobacco consumption (Target 3.a), which are more common among low socio-economic groups, exacerbate inequalities.

Despite some good performance on many environmental indicators, there is still room for improvement in several areas. Although decreasing, the environmental impact of the agricultural sector remain high. The United Kingdom's nutrient balance (the quantity of nutrient inputs not removed by crop and pasture production) is high (Target 2.4), lake water quality is low (Target 6.6) and a large share of local breeds are considered to be at risk of extinction (Target 2.5). In addition, a review of curricula, national education policies and student assessment suggest that global citizenship education and education for sustainable development could be improved (Targets 4.7, 12.8 and 13.3). Finally, while in line with the OECD average, the United Kingdom could improve on policies and practices against IUU fishing (Targets 14.4 and 14.b).

Like in many other OECD countries, data availability remains a challenge when measuring distances to targets (see the Overview chapter for details). For the United Kingdom, 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 ten goals (within the People, Planet and Prosperity categories) have most of their targets covered (the indicator coverage exceeds 80%), coverage is lower for Goals 11 on cities and 14 on life below water, with only 60% of their targets covered. Data gaps become starker when focusing on performance indicators, excluding those providing contextual information. In this case, coverage exceeds 80% only for Goals 3 on health and 4 on education. Moreover, for seven goals, mostly within the Planet category (Goals 12, 13, 14 and 15) but also on gender equality (Goal 5), cities (Goal 11) and partnerships (Goal 17), data are lacking to monitor changes 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 United Kingdom’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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