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States Are Lagging on Sustainable Development Goals, U.N. Group Finds | Best States

States Are Lagging on Sustainable Development Goals, U.N. Group Finds | Best States

Not one state is on track to achieve targets related to sustainable development by 2030, and the ones that are falling furthest behind are mostly located in the South, according to a report released Tuesday by a United Nations initiative.

The findings from the U.S. branch of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. project launched in 2012, demonstrate that the nation is faltering when it comes to a “holistic picture of wellbeing,” as described by Jeffrey Sachs, the president of the network and a professor at Columbia University.

“When Americans think the country is off track, they’re right,” adds Sachs, who is also the director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development.

The report rates all states on their progress toward 17 sustainable development goals, which have lofty targets such as ending poverty in all its forms, taking “urgent action” to combat climate change and achieving food security. The goals were adopted by 193 countries, including the U.S., in 2015, according to a news release. Each state was assigned a score – which also translates as a percentage – tied to how far along it is to achieving its sustainable development goals by 2030.

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On average, states are less than halfway to achieving their goals, and only 16 states have scores higher than 50, meaning they are more than 50% of the way toward achieving their targets, according to the network. Most of the states lagging furthest behind are in the South. Four states at the bottom of the list – Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas – are less than a third of the way toward achieving the 17 goals. Only three states – Delaware, Maine and Massachusetts – have at least one goal that is on target for achievement, the report finds.

“Definitely the U.S. is characterized by strong regional differences,” Sachs says. “These show up politically, they show up in the structure of economies and they show up in the performance of sustainable development, meaning the combination of economic, social and environmental conditions in the states.”

Vermont, with a score just over 60, is making the most progress among states. Many of the other states with the highest scores are located in either the Northeast or Pacific Northwest, with Massachusetts, Washington, Minnesota and Maine rounding out the top five. Sachs calls out New England and the Northeast for leading the country in a number of areas, such as education and having “real intention” when it comes to green energy. The latter is an area where the South is struggling when it comes to sustainability, he adds.

“In the South, there’s much more oil and coal dependence, and there has been a long-standing resistance to the energy transformation that we need, actually worldwide,” Sachs says. “This is despite the fact that the South is really suffering very, very severely from the climate crisis.”

But even the states that are performing relatively well are not fully on track. All states have at least one goal and 20% of their indicators moving in the wrong direction, according to the release. And to achieve the goals by 2030, states would need to improve their scores by about 5.5 points each year, which is more than the average improvement over the last five years combined, the report finds. The slow progress across the board “represents the very real hunger, violence, disenfranchisement and insecurity that people in the U.S. face every day,” the authors wrote.

While the authors note that the COVID-19 pandemic has “increased challenges” for states to deliver on the goals, the results still provide a “sobering reminder” that not one state was on target even before the health crisis.

The findings “tell us something important about the nature of the divisions in our society right now,” Sachs adds. “I think that they are an important wake-up call for the states that are lagging very far behind.”