Background, purpose and methodology

Briefing Published 02 Dec 2020 Last modified 02 Dec 2020
10 min read
Photo: © Photo by Antoine Petitteville on Unsplash
At the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Summit on 25-26 September 2015, world leaders adopted the global framework ‘Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, which included 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. The 2030 Agenda builds on the Millennium Development Goals and aims to eradicate poverty, leaving no one behind, and to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path.

The SDGs are clustered into five areas, which are also known as the ‘5Ps’ of the 2030 Agenda: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. The planet cluster covers SDGs with an environmental focus and aims, inter alia, to protect the planet from degradation by promoting sustainable consumption and production, the sustainable management of natural resources, and taking urgent action on climate change.  

To track progress towards the SDGs, the UN adopted a revised set of global indicators in July 2017, which includes 232 indicators covering all 169 targets. Throughout 2019, a comprehensive review was conducted to improve the global monitoring framework and facilitate global monitoring of the 2030 Agenda. As a result, the global set now includes 231 indicators with the available methodology. At the European level, Eurostat leads the development and review of the EU SDG indicator set, which was first published on 31 May 2017 and subsequently updated each year (latest update was 16 January 2020). Based on this set of indicators, Eurostat is responsible for publishing annual EU SDG monitoring reports, the latest of which was published in June 2020.

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) has produced a global SDG Index since 2016, and in 2019, published two flagship reports assessing global and country progress in implementing the SDGs. The first report [1], published in June 2019, considered progress in all UN member states, while the second report [2], published in November 2019, focused on progress in EU Member States. The 2019 Europe Sustainable Development Report is the first independent quantitative report on the progress of the EU and its Member States towards the SDGs. Each report includes quantitative SDG indices showing countries’ progress against SDG indicators and indicating that European countries are leading globally in the progress towards achieving the SDGs (SDSN, 2019).

Most recently, the European Sustainable Development Network´s (ESDN) Quarterly Report ‘The Implementation of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs at the National Level in Europe – Taking stock of governance mechanisms’ [3], published in December 2019, provides an overview of the state of implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs at the national level in Europe by surveying ESDN national focal points in around 30 European countries (ESDN, 2020).

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report ‘Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets: An Assessment of Where OECD Countries Stand’ also provides country-level information on SDGs. The report compares countries’ relative compliance with the SDGs in OECD countries, 27 of which are EEA members. However, it has a strong data focus, like the Eurostat-led EU SDG monitoring report, which is not the focus of this report.

At the EU level, the European Commission (EC) published a package on European action for sustainability on 22 November 2016. As part of this package, the EC presented a mapping of the existing European actions with the SDGs and stated that all 17 SDGs were being addressed through European action. However, it added that stronger implementation and further focused action in all areas would be required to implement the full Agenda by 2030 (EC, 2016).

In Europe, 2019 marked an important year for tracking country-level SDG progress. In order to catalyse further action to implement the SDGs in Europe, the EC published a non-legislative initiative in the form of a reflection paper, ‘Towards a sustainable Europe by 2030’, on 30 January 2019 (EC, 2019). The Reflection Paper is part of the debate on the future of Europe which was launched through the Commission’s White Paper on the future of Europe on 1 March 2017 (EC, 2017).

In February 2019, the European Parliament’s study on ‘Europe’s approach to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: Good practices and the way forward’ was published. Its purpose was to capture the two-level character of SDG implementation at the EU and Member State level, to contribute to a joint voluntary EU report at the HLPF 2019, and to examine governance frameworks in place for the implementation of SDGs in EU Member States through 28 country fact sheets. As the first comprehensive comparative overview of SDG governance in the EU, it also provides an overview of the activities and policy developments at the EU level (EP, 2019).

In April 2019, the EC published the second Environment Implementation Review (EIR) [4], an overview of how EU environmental policies and laws are applied on the ground. It comprises a communication with policy findings and an annex with the priority actions for the EU Member States, a policy background document as well as 28 country reports. The report emphasises that sustainable development links environmental, social and economic policies in a coherent framework and acknowledges that it helps to implement environmental legislation and policies. The second EIR dedicates a section to sustainable development and implementation of the UN SDGs at the end of each country report (EC, 2019).          

The European Semester Autumn Package, adopted in December 2019, includes an ‘Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy’ that reflects the Commission's focus on a sustainable and inclusive economic model. This new economic agenda reflects the ambition of the European Green Deal and rests on four dimensions: environmental sustainability, productivity gains, fairness, and macroeconomic stability. Published in February 2020, the  European Semester Country Reports present a thorough analysis of the key socio-economic challenges of macro-economic relevance facing each Member State. The 2020 country reports feature a reinforced analysis and monitoring of the SDGs, including the contribution of macro-economic policies to their delivery.

The European Semester 2020 Country Reports feature a section on SDGs and an annex with the EU SDG indicators. These reports emphasise the challenges and opportunities for our economies arising from the green transition. Each country report now includes a summary assessment of Member State progress towards achieving the SDGs as well as a dedicated annex setting out individual Member State’s SDG performance and the trend over the past five years, both based on the set of EU SDG indicators developed by Eurostat.

From a sustainability perspective, it is promising to see that SDG knowledge in support of informed policymaking is continuing to expand, particularly in Europe. Similarly, the SOER 2020 stressed that this comprehensive set of sustainability goals and its targets are expected to be increasingly integrated throughout future EU policy frameworks. For an integrated knowledge base on SDG progress, it is also important to apply a combination of qualitative and quantitative SDG assessment approaches [5]. 


Against the backdrop of these recent EU-wide developments, this EEA publication stands out through its environmental lens. The objective of this analysis is to equip its readers with up-to-date cross-country analysis as well as individual country profiles which give insight into the focus and prioritisation of environmental action across Europe, as well as country-by-country insights. It shows both the convergences and divergences towards environmental sustainability in Europe. The converging environmental focus points to the overall environmental challenges that persist in Europe, whereas diversification indicates emerging challenges or different geographical needs and political priorities in countries. Innovative approaches and good practices in the country profiles reflected here may also be inspirational.

Secondly, the geographical scope of this publication includes 33 EEA member countries [6] and 6 cooperating countries [7]. It is useful for non-EU countries to compare their SDG processes against those of EU Member States as well for the EC to gain insights into environmental actions across Europe.


Since 2016, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has performed several mapping activities in relation to the SDGs — for example, the preliminary mapping of the SDGs and global SDG indicators across EEA reports, indicators and data flows (2016).  

More recently, in support of the SOER 2020 integrated assessment, the EEA partnered with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) to build on their methodology and illustrate the importance of considering SDG interactions — i.e. synergies and trade-offs occurring when pursuing the SDG framework as a whole, in a publication entitled ‘SDGs and the environment in the EU: A systems view to improve coherence’ [8]. This approach is also developed, although with a different focus, by the Joint Research Centre, the UN, the OECD and key research organisations (e.g. IIASA).

Figure 1: Cross-impact matrix with interactions between 21 targets and goals

Figure 1: Cross-impact matrix with interactions between 21 targets and goals


Source: SDGs and the environment in the EU: A systems view to improve coherence, SEI Project Report, p. 15, 2019.


By complementing the EEA’s contribution to the EU SDG monitoring report and the abovementioned report on SDG interactions, this web publication aims to support the knowledge base on SDGs, particularly in light of the EC’s new priorities and the Green New Deal for Europe. In this context, this publication is based on a three-year mapping and analysis of [9] environmental SDG actions and processes by EEA member and cooperating countries. It was informed by publications on Europe’s SDG actions, a wider NFP/Eionet consultation conducted between February and April 2020, and the UN Voluntary National Reviews published between 2016-2020. 

This publication covers country profiles and an accompanying cross-country analysis. The profiles sum up the ways in which countries prioritise or identify the focus of action for those SDGs with an environmental dimension. SDGs with environmental dimension are defined in accordance with the approach taken in SOER 2020 (EEA, 2019) (Figure 2). Based on this, the Agency identified 11 SDGs with both direct and indirect environmental dimensions (SDGs 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15). These SDGs relate to 7th Environment Action Programme (7EAP) objectives as follows:

  • 7EAP Priority Objective 1: To protect, conserve and enhance the EU’s natural capital (SDGs 6, 14, 15).

  • 7EAP Priority Objective 2: To turn the Union into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy (SDGs 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13).

  • 7EAP Priority Objective 3: To safeguard the Union’s citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing (SDGs 2, 3).

However, it is important to mention that SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) and SDG 17 (partnerships) are also very important in achieving effective environmental governance and finance.

Figure 2: SDGs with an environmental dimension

 Figure 2: SDGs with an environmental dimension

Source: EEA compilation based on SOER 2020 (SOER 2020, p.58, 2019).

The EEA report SOER 2020 [10] also highlights that some SDGs embed a strong environmental dimension, particularly SDG 13 on climate action,  SDG 14 on conservation of marine ecosystems, and SDG 15 on the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems and the sustainable use of their resources. Environmental sustainability is also sought in relation to agriculture (SDG 2), health (SDG 3), water (SDG 6), energy (SDG 7), infrastructure and industry (SDG 9), tourism (SDG 8), cities (SDG 11), and consumption and production patterns (SDG 12).

In addition to their environmental lens, the country profiles give brief accounts of national plans, strategies and initiatives, governance, and processes as well as stakeholder engagement specifically set up for SDG actions. The information provided for this purpose was gathered mainly from the UN Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) [11] submitted to the UN High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development between 2016-2020. Acknowledging that VNRs have their own limitations and not all countries have available or recently published VNRs, the EEA also gathered information from other sources listed below, which explore the SDG actions and environmental focus of these 39 countries:

  • Information gathered from the Eionet countries via the wider EEA NFP/Eionet consultation process and questionnaire during February-April 2020.

  • Responses from 18 EEA member countries to the ‘Regional Survey on Planning, Implementation, Follow-up and Review of the Sustainable Development Goals’, carried out by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in 2016 (UNECE, 2016).

  • ‘Europe's approach to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: Good practices and the way forward’ study requested by the European Parliament DEVE committee and published in February 2019 (EU EP, 2019).

  • The Second Environmental Implementation Review (EIR) published by the European Commission in April 2019 (EC, 2019).

  • 2019 Europe Sustainable Development Report published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Institution for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) in November 2019.

  • ESDN Quarterly Report: ‘The Implementation of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs at the National Level in Europe – Taking stock of governance mechanisms’, published in December 2019.

To give an overall picture on SDG actions across Europe, the country profiles are accompanied by a cross-country analysis on SDGs in Europe. The EEA cross-country analysis gives an insight on how countries deal with the environmental dimensions of various SDGs.

For the environmental analysis, EEA mapped key words such as ‘action areas, focus, priority(ies)’ regarding those SDGs with an environmental dimension (Figure 2). For example, in terms of food systems, some countries focused on agriculture whereas others focused on food labelling and food waste. The cross-country analysis also gives a snapshot of Europe as regards delivering Agenda 2030 from an environmental lens.

The methodology for both country profiles and the cross-country analysis is qualitative and uses the mapping of country-level information on the SDGs. 




[1] Sachs et al., 2019.

[2] SDSN and IEEP, 2019.

[3] ESDN, 2019.


[5] OECD, 2019SEI, 2019SOER 2020.

[6] Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom* (*The withdrawal of the UK from the EU did not affect the content of this publication. Data reported by the UK to the UN are included in all analyses and assessments contained herein, unless otherwise indicated.)

[7] Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.


[9] The cut-off date for information provided for this publication is 15 June 2020.

[10] SOER 2020, 2019, p. 58

[11]  Not all of these sources were available for all countries.


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage