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January 29, 2024

Why the SDGs, not GDP, are the real measure of economic progress

Cuban medical staff arrive in Africa during the Ebola breakout. Global south countries are cooperating to ensure the economic benefits of progressing towards the SDGs benefit the countries in most need of expertise.
(Photo: Florian Plaucheur/AFP via Getty Images)
Cuban medical staff arrive in Africa during the Ebola breakout. Global south countries are cooperating to ensure the economic benefits of progressing towards the SDGs benefit the countries in most need of expertise. (Photo: Florian Plaucheur/AFP via Getty Images)

Phasing out fossil fuels will not happen unless we change how we measure growth – the UN sustainable development goals can help bring a different perspective

At COP28 in Dubai at the end of 2023, world leaders agreed to move away from fossil fuels. It is now imperative that the world advances beyond the traditional fossil fuel metrics of economic output epitomised by GDP if this pledge is to become more than words on paper.

GDP is a measure of material production and consumption. Its continued use as a beacon for economic policies is holding back global sustainable development efforts because policies aimed at tackling climate change focus on the material footprint of consumption and production, while largely ignoring wider behavioural change.

This tendency is seen in the net zero policy pledges that have blossomed in recent years. They acknowledge the importance of switching to electric vehicles and of insulating buildings, but include little action to encourage businesses and people to alter their behaviour.

In 2019, the UK produced a voluntary national review of progress towards achieving the SDGs, but subsequent governments have failed to adopt them as a compass for economic policies. Using the SDGs hand-in-hand with GPD would require a level of transparency and global cooperation currently not reflected in policymaking.

Global south cooperation

Many countries in the global south are leading the way in bringing the SDGs into their development plans, keeping both GDP and the SDGs as measures on a similar footing. Countries in South America, Africa and elsewhere are reporting annually on their progress towards the SDGs through voluntary national reviews that influence wider policymaking.

They are also relying increasingly on south-south cooperation initiatives to ensure the economic benefits of progressing towards the SDGs benefit the countries that most need injections of expertise and investment. Cuban medical expertise, for example, played a crucial role in containing the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak in West African countries. The mission helped save hundreds of lives and prevent the further spread of the epidemic (SDG 3).

Significant progress was also achieved on the goals of reaching zero hunger (SDG 2); gender equality (SDG5); decent work and economic growth (SDG8); and sustainable partnerships (SDG 17), thanks to the World Food Programme’s triangular cooperation with Brazil, South Africa and the Republic of Congo to tackle chronic malnutrition and find ways to help farmers make a decent living.

Lack of alignment

Economist Mariana Mazzucato has identified the global SDG financing gap as up to $7trn annually – a sum that exceeds the financial capacity of most individual nations and could only be met through partnerships, such as those being enacted in various countries in Africa and South America.

And while poorer countries make progress on the SDGs, the US has been one of the slowest OECD countries to align its development efforts with the SDGs. This poor integration was reflected in the 2022 Good Practices report on the SDGs by the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, which showed the Americas lagging behind Asia, the Pacific, Europe and Africa in reporting on SDG best practices.

The SDGs certainly allow us to retain the old GDP metric (SDG8) to keep track of material output, while monitoring progress to stay within planetary boundaries. But tracking GDP alone, and using it as an indicator of policy success or failure, will not enable the world to meet either the SDGs or climate targets.

The world needs to follow the example of poorer countries and include measuring progress towards the SDGs in economic and climate policymaking.

Aurelie Charles is a senior lecturer in global sustainability and Edoardo Eichberg is a researcher at the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath

A service from the Financial Times