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New Survey of Experts Finds COVID-19 Pandemic Risks Slowing Progress Towards the Sustainable Development Goals

Evaluating Progress Towards the Sustainable Development Goals 2021 - headline image
GlobeScan/SustainAbility Survey
25/02/2021

25 February 2021 – Five and a half years after the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or the Goals) and their ambition to ensure a better and sustainable future for all, findings from a new report “Evaluating Progress on the SDGs” by GlobeScan and The SustainAbility Institute by ERM show that sustainability practitioners continue to report poor progress towards each of the 17 Goals. Additionally, over half of experts surveyed believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will further slow the rate of progress.


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Nearly 500 experienced sustainability professionals in 75 countries were asked to evaluate the progress that has been made on sustainable development overall and on each SDG, to rank the relative urgency of each Goal, and to share insights into the priorities within their own organizations. Experts were also asked how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact progress on the SDGs. The survey tracked expert opinions polled in 2017 and 2019. Key findings include the following:

  • Sustainability professionals continue to be critical about overall progress made on sustainable development. The proportion of experts who say progress on sustainable development has been poor has increased from 49 percent to 54 percent over the past two years, with European experts and those working in the Academic and Research sectors being the most negative about global progress.
  • When asked to rate society’s performance in having achieved progress toward each one of the SDGs, progress is rated as predominantly poor on every Goal. Progress on Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (#9) and Partnership for the Goals (#17) are rated the most positively, while Reduced Inequalities (#10), Life on Land (#15), and Life Below Water (#14) are rated the most negatively.
  • Experts agree that Climate Action (#13) is the most urgent of the Sustainable Development Goals. When asked to pick the three Sustainable Development Goals that require the most urgent action, 61 percent chose Climate Action, followed by Life on Land, Reduced Inequalities, and Sustainable Production and Consumption (#12) (each mentioned by 22 percent of respondents).
  • Climate Action continues to be the SDG receiving the most attention within respondents’ own organizations. Climate change is a focus area for sustainability professionals across almost all regions and sectors. Responsible Consumption and Production and Quality Education (#4) are also priorities. However, other relatively urgent Goals, including Reduced Inequalities and Life on Land, receive relatively little attention.
  • More than half of experts say the COVID-19 pandemic will slow progress on the SDGs. When asked how the current pandemic and its economic impacts will affect society’s progress toward achieving the Goals over the coming decade, as many as 54 percent believe that the outbreak will impede advancement. Thirty-six percent instead say it will accelerate positive change, while only one in ten say it will not make any difference.

As in 2017 and 2019, experts continue to agree that society’s progress on sustainable development broadly and the SDGs specifically has been inadequate. The proportion of stakeholders who believe progress on sustainable development is poor has returned to the same level recorded in our 2017 survey, reversing the slight improvement in this trend that was observed in 2019. Life Below Water, Reduced Inequalities, Life on Land, and No Poverty (#1) continue to be singled out by experts as the SDGs where society’s level of achievement has lagged most.

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Mark Lee, Director at The SustainAbility Institute by ERM said: “It is a great concern that experts continue to rate progress on the SDGs as poor overall and worse today than two years ago, and even more worrisome that they perceive the least progress on the Goals seen as most urgent: Climate Action, Life on Land, Reduced Inequalities, and Sustainable Production and Consumption. The Goals’ ambition and promise are still there, but society must accelerate efforts to deliver them.”

Chris Coulter, CEO at GlobeScan, said: “Experts have given the world a failing grade for progress on the SDGs. We need to take their assessment seriously if we are to truly make this the Decade of Action. It is especially extraordinary that 84% of stakeholders rate our collective performance as poor when it comes to reducing inequalities. We must do better.”

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Download the full report here

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About The SustainAbility Institute by ERM

The purpose of the Institute is to define, accelerate, and scale sustainability performance by developing actionable insights for business. We provide an independent and authoritative voice to decode complexities. The Institute identifies innovative solutions to global sustainability challenges built on ERM’s experience, expertise, and commitment to transformational change. The Institute collaborates with the world’s leading organizations in ways that operationalize sustainability. We bring together sustainability practitioners with common issues and ambitions to share challenges, discuss current trends, and exchange information on emerging best practices. Learn more at sustainability.com