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Critical SDG Spotlight report 'Beyond Boundlessness' well received

1 March saw the (online) launch of the first Dutch SDG Spotlight report, an initiative of Building Change (FMS, Partos, Woord en Daad, among others). In it, Dutch policy on SDG 10 (reduce inequality) and SDG 15 (life on land, biodiversity) are critically scrutinised. The results can be called downright uncomfortable. The frame that the Netherlands is 'doing well' with the SDGs is wrong. Read the whole report at 

When it comes to social and environmental sustainability, things are not going well. On the contrary: the overall impact of Dutch policies is even negative and does not bring the set goals any closer. Both at home and abroad, the effects of economic policies and of Dutch consumption, production, trade and investment are causing increasing inequality and loss of biodiversity. The Netherlands is failing on the central premise of sustainable development. Our economic growth model is directly at the expense of nature and ecosystems at home and abroad and also causes growing inequality.

Life on land and biodiversity
When it comes to SDG 15, the Netherlands is at the bottom of the EU rankings. We have the smallest share of nature and the quality of nature is very worrying. Of the species we promised to protect (EU), only a quarter are in favourable condition, and of the protected habitat types only 12%. Environmental conditions, such as soil, have not improved over the past decade. The Netherlands has by far the highest nitrogen surplus in the EU; a root cause of poor nature quality.

Reducing inequality
As for SDG 10, the picture is more mixed. Thanks to redistribution and our social safety net, net income inequality in the Netherlands is relatively favourable. But the gap between the richest and poorest 10% is growing. And wealth inequality in the Netherlands is one of the highest in the world: 1 of 2% owns a third of private wealth. A part of the population, especially the less educated and people with a migrant background, benefits structurally less from broad welfare and inequality of opportunity is growing. More than a quarter of the population report experiencing discrimination or exclusion.

International trends
Internationally, the Netherlands has a large and growing ecological footprint. Our consumption and trade requires three times the land area of the Netherlands, even six times if you include what is needed to offset our greenhouse gas emissions. This footprint is a major 'driver' of ecosystem degradation and hence inequality, because it is precisely vulnerable communities that are most dependent on these ecosystems and thus hit hardest.

Adverse policy
There is a clear causal relationship between the scores and trends for SDGs 10 and 15 and the policies of recent cabinets. In part, government policies are actively fuelling growing inequality and biodiversity loss. With the government prioritising the Netherlands as a producer country, trading country and second food exporter in the world, our far too high footprint is maintained. The Netherlands is a major importer of soy, palm oil, cocoa and wood pallets, contributing disproportionately to global deforestation. There is also a direct link between wanting to compete in the global market and low wages for executive work, as is increased labour market insecurity. The design of the global trading system and financial markets allows companies and investors to get rich with almost free commodities, and cheap labour.

Recent cabinets have also allowed ever-increasing market forces in all areas. Public services, which could actually mitigate income differences, have been cut back. The interests of corporations and those with the highest incomes and assets remain central to policy-making. The argument is usually "jobs", but it is precisely at the bottom of the labour market that there are fewer and fewer jobs with a living wage. At the same time, social security is subject to more and more conditions and vulnerable groups are treated with great distrust.

Looking at SDG 15, efforts have been made to increase the area of nature and restore nature locally. But the pressure factors on nature from the environment remain enormous. In the report, we pay particular attention to agriculture, which in the prevailing model causes great damage to nature and the environment, both at home and abroad. The government still supports this model with billions; the polluter does not pay in the Netherlands. The precautionary principle is not respected either. Even our climate solutions lead to negative offloading. With billions in subsidies on burning woody biomass, the cabinet has given a strong incentive to deforestation elsewhere.

The Netherlands has continued to push for new trade and investment agreements without proper environmental, social and human rights safeguards. Agreements made by the Netherlands facilitate multinationals, through tax avoidance and claims, to extract billions from developing countries. Money that these countries therefore cannot invest in their development. Through part of our development aid, we contribute to SDGs 10 and 15, but the budget remains below the internationally agreed standard.

To be sure, the government has also made policies to make the economy and international trade chains more sustainable. But these policies are characterised by a high degree of non-committal. Whether it is about climate, a move towards circular agriculture, circular economy or procurement criteria, it is almost all voluntary. Policy ambitions are insufficiently provided with measurable goals, concrete transition paths, money and legal frameworks. This also applies to the inclusive society. More women at the top? Only a target. More people with disabilities at work? Agreements are not met. To have real impact, the government must act as 'market master', by setting legal frameworks and pricing commodities.

SDG 10 and SDG 15 both bear the brunt of the economic paradigm we have. We see this in the Netherlands but especially internationally, where it is precisely the poorest countries the most vulnerable groups feel the hardest the impact of climate change and ecosystems being depleted. If the SDGs are to be met in context, a completely different paradigm is needed. We need to tackle exploiting people and nature. And government must stop being the inhibitor.

Retrieved from the report can be read.