Dutch government policy from the perspective of the SDGs

/ Author: Masja de Ree
Tractor on farmland and wind turbines in the background
© Hollandse Hoogte / Lex van Lieshout
In May 2016 the Dutch Cabinet presented its approach to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the Netherlands. Five years on, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has requested Statistics Netherlands (CBS) to chart the progress made so far. ‘We now have ten years to go and want to know where we stand’, explains Sandra Pellegrom, the Dutch national SDG coordinator. ‘Where are we doing well, where are there still challenges and where has relevant policy been introduced?’ The report with the results of this study was sent to the House of Representatives on 15 February 2021.
With the launch of the 17 SDGs in 2015, all member states of the United Nations pledged to work towards a sustainable future. The Netherlands, too, has committed to achieving these goals. The report ‘Five years of implementation of the SDGs in the Netherlands (2016–2020): monitoring and reflection’ (available in Dutch only) shows how the government has tackled this. Jan-Pieter Smits, project manager of the Monitor of well-being and the SDGs at CBS and professor of measuring sustainability at Eindhoven University of Technology: ‘What is unique to this report is that we have linked the 17 SDGs to policy measures introduced by the government. At CBS we are careful to maintain a distance between our work and government policy, but sometimes a dialogue between the two domains can produce useful results. Not to encroach on each other’s territory, but to complement each other.’

Input from ministries

CBS approaches the SDGs from two points of view. First from the perspective of well-being: how is well-being developing in the Netherlands, and what effect is this having on the rest of the world? Alongside this perspective, the Netherlands has committed to achieving the 17 SDGs, and this means that we have to measure how far along we are in this respect. Smits‘ How healthy are we, are we on track to reach the climate targets, is inequality improving of deteriorating? And will we achieve our goals in 2030 if these trends continue? This is what CBS monitors annually, measuring all the indicators in terms of the national trend, and the position of the Netherlands in relation to the other countries in the European Union.’ For this new report, for each goal the office of the National SDG Coordinator established which ministry is responsible. Smits: ‘These ministries then sent us all their relevant policy documents. At CBS we analysed these, and asked the ministries to check the results.’ This approach resulted in a huge amount of work, he emphasizes, ‘But with tremendous results.’

At CBS we analysed these, and asked the ministries to check the results'

169 targets

‘The result is impressive’, Pellegrom confirms. ‘This approach has delivered much more detailed information that the annual SDG-monitor, namely the current state of play in the Netherlands on each target. This is important because behind each of the 17 SDGs there is a variety of ambitions. We can now see that concrete policy has been introduced in the domains of each of the 169 targets. That is a positive. In combination with the information from CBS on the progress towards the goals, it gives us many insights. If challenges arise on any of the targets, we can see exactly what policy has been put in place. This is a very good starting point for further action.’ She cites the energy transition as an example: for years, the Netherlands was lagging behind. Pellegrom: ‘Now we can see a change in the right direction. At the same time we can see a surge in policy initiatives around this goal. We are catching up, and how!’

Cross-cutting issues

The report also shows how the SDGs interrelate. Where do the goals reinforce each other and where should we be alert to conflicts of interest? For example, we see a number of links between policy in the areas of energy transition, climate transition and spatial planning. Smits: ‘At least, we see a statistical relationship. Which is encouraging. We need to look further to see whether there is also a causal relationship.’ What is a cause for concern is that the largest number of potential trade-offs can be established for SDG 10, which aims to reduce inequalities. Pellegrom explains: ‘Green policy can be at odds with social policy: for example if an environmental tax has an impact on low-income households. We have to remain alert to avoid increasing inequality. This report will help us to monitor this reliably.’ Smits: ‘Some people naively think that we can achieve all 169 targets. I would like to look more deeply into where there is potential synergy, and where they are potentially at odds with each other. It is important to get this straight, then you can align policy.’

Refining policy and indicators

The SDGs have been internationally agreed. Smits: ‘However, there is no translation into specific Dutch policy goals. The collaboration between CBS and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a good starting point for this. With this report on their desks, ministries can determine where policy can be linked more directly to the SDGs. But also where it is important to quantify the goals better. In addition, it’s not unthinkable that we at CBS may adjust the indicators we use accordingly. Take SDG 12, on sustainable production and consumption. The indicators we use at present describe this generically. Now it turns out that very specific policy is in place in this area, so it may be more useful to use more specific indicators. This study has made it possible to get things into focus.’ ‘The report provides a broad overview of where we stand with respect to the SDGs in terms of policy’, says Pellegrom. ‘It also shows where there are still challenges. It is now up to politicians to take this up, and to incorporate it in new Cabinet plans.’