SDG indicators: Half-filling an empty glass?


The UN Secretary-General’s progress report on the SDGs shows that many will be left behind by 2030, but omits any mention to the responsibilities of the rich.
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By Roberto Bissio

versión en español

UN progress reports on almost any issue on which the secretariat is asked to inform Member States tend to follow the classic glass-half-full formula: We are moving, but much remains to be done.

Not surprisingly, this approach is repeated in the latest draft of the UN Secretary General’s report “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals” to be officially published in July as an input for the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) where the 2030 Agenda is going to be reviewed: “Progress has been made in a number of Goals and targets and a wealth of action has been undertaken;” however, progress has been slow on many Goals, (…) the most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most, and the global response thus far has not been ambitious enough.” (excerpted from the Summary).

Further down, the report shows an even gloomier picture than what the summary depicts. Paragraph 8 of the draft acknowledges that “It is cause for great concern that the extreme poverty rate is projected to be 6 percent in 2030, missing the global target to eradicate it; hunger is on the rise for the third consecutive year; biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate with around one million species already facing extinction, many within decades; green-house gas emissions continue to increase; the required level of sustainable development financing and other means of implementation are not yet coming on stream and institutions are not strong or effective enough to respond adequately to these massive inter-related and cross-border challenges.”

After the adoption of the ambitious 2030 Agenda “ the global landscape for SDG implementation has generally deteriorated since 2015, hindering the efforts of governments and other partners. Moreover, the commitment to multilateral cooperation, so central to implementing our major global agreements, is now under pressure.” (paragraph 12). Such undermining pressure is not limited to a single country, but no names are given in the report.

This report is called “Special Edition” in its title and the UN secretariat added a long and balanced qualitative preamble as well as sections on “Looking beyond the data” and “Accelerating implementation” at the end. As in previous years, the heart of the report conveys the information provided by the global indicators framework for the SDGs. The additional sections are made necessary because “for more than half of the global indicators, data are not regularly collected by most of the countries or there is no established methodology to measure them. This impacts our ability to fully understand SDG progress and challenges.” (paragraph 21)

Many will be left behind

Following the World Bank estimates about the number of people living under the now re-baptized “international poverty line” (USD 1,90 per day), the report states that “the share of the world population living in extreme poverty declined to 10% in 2015, down from 16% in 2010 and 36% in 1990” which is what the SDG indicators database shows. Yet, the report warns that the pace of reduction “has slowed”, echoing World Bank estimates published in October 2018. Thus, the world is “not on track” to eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. According to those same estimates, poverty is actually increasing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nine out of ten people in extreme poverty will be living in Africa by 2030, displacing South Asia as the region where poverty concentrates, but this trend is not mentioned in the report.

There is a growing academic/scientific debate about the reliability of poverty estimates and many researchers and some countries, like Mexico, already use multidimensional poverty indicators, where income is only one of the dimensions (health, housing, sanitation, education are among the others). SDG 1 promises in its title to “ End poverty in all its forms everywhere” and target 1.2 promises to halve by 2030 the proportion of people “living in poverty in all its dimensions”. Yet, the cumbersome process of agreeing on the global indicators framework has stalled the Multidimensional Poverty Index, that could have warned about this slow-down much earlier. Tracking the MPI was deemed a responsibility of national statistical offices, most of which lack the capacity to do so.

What about inequalities?

The World Bank is also the source of the inequalities figures produced for Goal 10: “In more than half of the 92 countries with comparable data over period 2011-2016, the bottom 40% of the population experienced growth rate faster than the overall national average.”

Actually, a closer look at the income growth of the bottom 40 and the national average, shows that for more than one third of the countries with data, the positive or negative difference was of less then 0.5 percent, which should be rounded up to zero, considering the margin error of these measures. Further in one third of the countries with data income of the bottom 40% actually decreased, making the poor poorer. In many of them the national average decreased even more. Is it fair to count those countries where the income of the poor was reduced less than the national average as meeting the promise of target 10.1 to “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average”?

Ultimately, the SDG database shows only that in 28 countries, comprising 13% of the world population, the bottom 40% had growth rates at least one percent higher than the national average. Only in 11 countries was the growth of the poor 2% higher than the national average: Uganda, Viet Nam, Iran, Uruguay, Moldova, Colombia, Peru, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Guinea and North Macedonia.

The Progress Report 2019 is clearly aware of the limitations of the indicator it quotes and it therefore balances the initial statement by saying that “Income inequality continues to rise in many parts of the world” and “In many places, the increasing share of income going to the top 1 percent of earners is of significant concern.”

No source is given for these statements, which clearly are NOT based in the Global Indicator Framework, where neither the Gini index for income nor the Palma ratio (between the income of the top ten and the bottom 40) have been accepted as indicators for the Goal on inequalities.

Do emissions count?

When it comes to discussing climate change, the Progress Report states that “with rising greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is occurring at rates much faster than anticipated and its effects are clearly felt world-wide.” And it quantifies that “In 2017, greenhouse gas (GHGs) concentrations reached new highs, with globally averaged mole fractions of CO2 at 405.5 parts per million (ppm), up from 400.1 ppm in 2015 and 146% of pre-industrial levels. Moving towards 2030 emission objectives compatible with the 2 °C and 1.5 °C pathways require peaking to be achieved as soon as possible, followed by rapid reductions.”

This is not surprising to any informed reader, as such information makes headlines in newspapers around the world. But the official global indicators framework for the SDGs has no data whatsoever on GHG emissions or concentrations, following a pattern of leaving out indicators that could point fingers at developed countries, which are also the main donors of the UN agencies that choose the indicators.

There is only one indicator for SDG 13 that has an agreed methodology and data for a sizeable number of countries and it counts the number of countries implementing national and local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. As of 31 March 2019, a total of 67 countries.

In order to say something meaningful about SDG 13, the Progress Report brings into this chapter an indicator from SDG1 about the losses from climate-related and geophysical disasters in the period of 1998–2017: 1.3 million lives and direct economic losses estimated at almost $3 trillion.

The report also registers an increase of 17% in global climate finance flows in the period 2015–2016 compared with the period 2013–2014, using estimates from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Yet, the report does not mention transfers from developed to developing countries, even target 13.a of the SDGs clearly wants to “implement the commitment undertaken by developed-countries (…) to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020” to support mitigation needs of developing countries. The corresponding indicator is still classified as “Tier III” by the IAEG-SDGs, meaning that there is no agreement yet on its methodology. Using OECD data, OXFAM calculated net climate-specific assistance to be between $16bn and $21bn per year.

From Millions to Thousands

The Progress Report on SDGs sounds the alarm that “biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate with around one million species already facing extinction, many within decades”. This information is provided by the still unpublished report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on the state of biodiversity on Earth. The report will have 1,500 pages, produced by 145 authors from 50 countries, and it sums up about 15,000 scientific papers on the threats against life in the age of humans.

Yet, this research is not part of the official global indicators framework, that uses for its estimates on biodiversity losses the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. With a different methodology, the Red List website announces that “more than 27,000 species are threatened with extinction”, a figure 40 times smaller than the estimate quoted in paragraph 8 of the progress report.

Unsustainable consumption

The 2030 Agenda is explicit in mentioning that all countries should take action towards sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), “with developed countries taking the lead”. Further, Target 8.4 promises to “improve resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation” again “with developed countries taking the lead”. This is consistent with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” that the 2030 Agenda reaffirms.

The Progress Report quotes UNEP’s “Global Resources Outlook 2019” per capita average global figure of 12 tons of resources extracted per person in 2015 (up from 8 tonnes in 1990), but it fails to mention what the Outlook says in the following paragraph: “High-income countries consume 27 tons of materials (per capita) on average, which is 60 per cent higher than the upper-middle countries and more than thirteen times the level of the low-income group (at two tons per capita).”

Decoupling is only mentioned in the Progress Report to celebrate that “global CO2 emissions intensity declined by more than 20% between 2000 and 2016 to 0.30 kg carbon dioxide per dollar, showing a general decoupling of CO2 emissions and GDP growth”.

But it fails to mention that absolute emissions grew in that period (as many more dollars were added to global GDP than the efficiency gains). Even worse, as the Outlook explains “Global material productivity (the efficiency of material use) started to decline around the year 2000, and has stagnated in recent years. Even though material productivity improved rapidly in both the old and new industrialized countries, the simultaneous shift in shares of global production away from economies that have a higher material productivity, to economies that have a lower material productivity explains how difficult it is to bring about a rapid improvement in global material efficiency.”

In the global indicators framework for the SDGs, domestic material consumption (DMC) is an accepted indicator, while “material footprint” is yet to be accepted. As Eurostat explains, DMC does not “provide an entirely consistent picture of global material footprints because they record imports and exports in the actual weight of the traded goods when they cross country borders instead of the weight of materials extracted to produce them.” The material footprint, technically called “raw material equivalent” (RME) of the EU imports in 2016, according to the Eurostat estimates, were 2.5 times higher when expressed in RME than the imports recorded in the material flow accounts on which DMC is based.

By failing to see these aspects and only providing global averages, the Progress Report hides the responsibility of developed countries in current global un-sustainability instead of encouraging them to take the lead.

Investing in data

The Progress Report 2019 concludes that “investing in data is essential for the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda” and it suggests two lines of action: to increase investment in national data and statistical systems (with support of international resources when necessary) and to “strengthen partnerships with all data producers” to better use new technologies.

Yet, by departing from the global indicators framework in order to provide the most meaningful insights on progress and the lack of it, the UN secretariat implicitly passes the message that informed qualitative analysis cannot be replaced by an accumulation of numbers.