United States Sustainable Development Report 2021

Nov 16, 2021

The report measures the progress of all 50 US states towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It can help states and regions understand where they're making progress, where they need to move faster, and where they're headed in the wrong direction.

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Executive Summary

The United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a useful framework for collaboration because they are shared and supported by all 193 member countries of the UN. They provide a useful framework for sustainability because they require interdisciplinary and intersectoral collaboration. Therefore, understanding US state policy through the lens of the SDGs both connects state efforts to broader, international movements for an environmentally, socially, and economically just world, and supports an interdisciplinary approach to understanding state progress.

To facilitate states and the communities that live in them in leveraging this framework, SDSN tracks SDG progress at the state level. This year, SDSN has expanded on its 2018 report to include information on if, and how quickly, states are approaching SDG achievement. With nine years to go before the 2030 Goals deadline, on average US states are less than halfway to achieving the SDGs. The report finds:

States are not improving quickly enough to meet the SDGs by 2030 and at least 20 percent of indicators in every state are going in the wrong direction. US states are not doing what needs to be done to protect the environment, end inequality, or provide for healthy lives, among other things. In contrast to so many other places around the globe where progress is visible, US states are getting worse across a myriad of areas.

Inequalities are deeply entrenched across US states. Twenty percent of the indicators used in this report measure how states were delivering aspects of sustainable development to excluded communities. Those indicators were among the poorest performers in the report, several of which were getting worse.

Preliminary results show that COVID-19 has increased challenges to SDG delivery and its impacts underline the need for universal health coverage and universal access to key social and physical infrastructure. COVID-19 stay at home orders highlighted the disparity in access to adequate and affordable housing. Racial inequality in homelessness is so prevalent that every state scored a zero (out of a possible 100 points). Many US residents still do not have access to adequate healthcare, broadband, food, and employment. These systems required intervention before the pandemic: the situation is now even more urgent.

Environmental justice efforts show a path forward through Black and Indigenous and other excluded community-led efforts. Lack of state action on climate change is putting all at risk. Excluded communities are already bearing the burden of inaction.Excluded communities have also demonstrated the ability to address both inequality and environmental impacts, and provide crucial leadership on a sustainable path forward.

Data gaps, time lags, and lack of disaggregated data highlight the need for improvement in statistical capacity and new approaches to monitor SDG achievement. State-level data is missing on essential topics such as lead in water and outcomes for people with disabilities. Other areas, particularly those focused on justice and state violence, are woefully out of date and/or the official records are incomplete. Proper and safe stewardship of personal data and careful maintenance of data sovereignty must also be held in balance as data collection and demands grow. The SDGs provide a framework to advocate for a better world. Timely, disaggregated, boundaried, and complete data are essential to complete that aim.

The SDGs were agreed upon at the national level, but local action is essential to their achievement. Universities, like those organized by SDSN’s network teams, have essential roles to play in fostering collaboration and local action, and providing technical expertise to community-led efforts. Tools for measuring SDG achievement have also been powerful ways to unite diverse stakeholders in goal setting and to drive accountability. Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs), Voluntary University Reviews (VURs), and data dashboards like the open-source version provided by SDSN, can also be powerful tools for SDG achievement. The changes necessary to move the states to SDG achievement over the next nine years will need to be bold and courageous; that action is only possible through collaboration. It is possible to achieve these Goals, but business as usual won’t be nearly enough.