Can we trust the SDG’s?

Baas, Tom. Cow graze in the peat meadows in the Netherlands. 2021. June 27, 2021.

The United Nation sustainable development goals serve as a useful tool that countries can use to see how well they are doing. However, it is important to understand that these goals should serve as a foundation and there is much more than what is laid out in the targets. The goals can be extremely broad in certain cases, making the UN SDG country rankings potentially misleading. When someone clicks onto the SDG website, they see countries such as Finland and the Netherlands at the top (Sustainable Development Report 2021). However, these countries still have a long way to go in order to be sustainable and often perform worse than countries in the global south in certain targets.

Sustainability is defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Sustainability). Sustainability involves more than just environmental issues; it also encompasses economics and equity. But to the general public, sustainability is extremely closely linked to the environment and global warming; environment and sustainability are synonymous with each other. Yet, the countries ranked at the top are “unsustainable” in this sense, where they often have the largest carbon footprints. Why? Because there is a weight issue with the SDGs.

The UN score system measures a country’s total progress towards achieving all SDGs as a percentage. Each goal has targets and indicators that are used to measure this progress. However, many of the SDG’s deal with development and equity issues, using targets and indicators to address these (Sustainable Development Report 2021). More targets and indicators are linked to these two problems with very few ecological indicators (Hickel). On top of this, of the 17 SDGs, only 4 goals deal with ecological sustainability. These issues lead to ecological issues being overlooked, making developed countries seem more “sustainable” than they actually are.

The Netherlands is not exempt from this problem. Although they rank 11 overall, any goals related to ecology and environmental health are unreached (Netherlands). Farmers Jan Dirk and Irene van de Voort have created an organic dairy farm void of antibiotics and vaccines. The result is a farm that is more in tune with the environment and supports natural cycles. When farmers use antibiotics and medicine to treat their cattle, it also affects other organisms. For example, lungworm medication also kills worms that are essential for recycling nutrients. While antibiotics eventually end up in the soil, killing the grass (Gerritse). Over reliance on antibiotics not only disrupts the natural ecosystem by messing with other organisms, but also has economic impacts. The use of antibiotics on one part of the cow prevents the farmers from using the milk for a period of time. In fact, properly feeding animals gets rid of the coli bacteria that damages cheese (Gerritse).

Of 17,000 dairy cow farms in the Netherlands, Dirk and Voort’s is the only cheesemaking farm that is organic and does not use antibiotics. In fact, only 330 other farms are organic while 15 do not use antibiotics. But their journey to create this farm was hindered by departments that almost withdrew their license because they refused to use antibiotics (Gerritse). In the end, their animals are healthy, and they created a farm that should be a model of a sustainable farm that works with the ecosystem.

Farmers on peat meadows especially must watch their practices because draining peats releases carbon dioxide and ammonia and also disrupts the ecosystem. This reduces biodiversity, which can be seen in dropping insect and bird populations. Farmers need to realize that they are not only producing food but also “producing and creating an ecosystem” (Fransen). It is important to promote healthy and resilient landscapes in peat meadows in order to prevent the loss of biodiversity and preserve ecosystems, as well as lower emissions.

Endless Travel. The cyclists’ union believes an underhand approach is being taken to squeeze the two-wheeler out in favour of the two-footer. June 27, 2021.

Although the SDG targets are not a foolproof way to measure a countries success, they provide a guideline for countries to follow. There are cases where the unmet goals of the SDG’s bring to light issues that challenge the accepted image of the country. The Netherlands has an extremely green image, seen as “sustainability champions” around the world (Rooij). Yet, they fail to meet almost any target in SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production, as well as other targets pertaining to emissions.

Much of the Netherland’s green image comes from their impressive cycling culture. Look into any major city and the infrastructure is built for the cyclists, putting pedestrians and automobiles on halt for them. The Dutch have some of the best designed junctions, which have separate cycle paths on the junction itself. This structure gives the cyclist “a protected waiting area for crossing… and a completely free right turn” (Junction Design for Safer Cycling (Netherlands)). Junctions are designed so that drivers turning can always see cyclists. Cyclists also have their own traffic lights that eliminates certain conflicts with turning cars. This infrastructure creates some of the safest roads in the world for cyclists. In Amsterdam, parking garages lie empty, but bikes line the streets. This reflects the idea that when people are provided the means, it incentivizes certain behaviors. Most residents in Amsterdam cycle and only 25% own cars (Pascal van den Noort), taking advantage of the well-designed infrastructure that allows them to cycle safely and comfortably.

No doubt, more cities should learn from Amsterdam and build infrastructure to support cyclists. Cycling is more accessible as a form of transportation, keeps people active, and reduces emissions. But even with cycling as the main form of transportation for Dutch citizens, their emissions are some of the worst in Europe. In the past decades, “the Netherlands has had a higher carbon dioxide emission per capita than the average of the entire EU” (The Netherlands and Sustainability: Leader or Laggard?). Of the 27 nations in the European union, the Netherlands has the third highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita (CO2 Emissions per Capita). The high emissions are due to its high population density (increasing the amount of people living in urban areas), Europe’s largest port and third largest airport are located in the Netherlands, and the Netherlands ranks in the top ten for imports and exports in the world.

By using the Netherlands as our “host” country, we can see certain faults in the sustainable development goals. In the 17 goals, there is a distribution issue within the targets that causes ecological issues to be overshadowed by developmental issues. This makes richer countries seem more sustainable when they fail to reach any ecological goals and contribute the most to global emissions. However, the goals and targets still provide a baseline for countries to measure their progress with. In the case of the Netherlands, they can expose how a seemingly green country still has many areas that need improvement.


“CO2 Emissions per Capita.” Worldometer,

Fransen, Eva. “A New Dutch Polder Landscape.” 4 Returns, 9 Dec. 2020,

Gerritse, Onno, director. Dancing with Horned Ladies, 2017,

Hickel, Jason. “The World’s Sustainable Development Goals Aren’t Sustainable.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 19 Oct. 2020,

“Junction Design for Safer Cycling (Netherlands).” BICYCLE DUTCH, 7 Sept. 2010,

“The Netherlands and Sustainability: Leader or Laggard?” Dos Aguas Consulting, 21 Sept. 2018,

“Netherlands.” Sustainable Development Report 2021,

Rooij, Rogier van. “Netherlands One Of Least Sustainable EU Countries. How Did The Dutch Get Their Green Image?” CleanTechnica, 12 July 2017,

“Sustainability.” United Nations, United Nations,

Sustainable Development Report 2021,

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