SDGs in The U.S.–What’s Going On?

america sdg

This month, we will be talking about SDGs in Japan and around the world. Since we are lucky to have international staff from different countries, we will be writing posts that deal with the SDGs in each of our home countries. First up is the United States. 

I left the U.S. to move to Japan in 2012, a few years before SDGs as a concept emerged. I can’t speak so well as to how SDGs are perceived in the U.S, or how much people know about them. I can guess that, like every issue there, some people are very knowledgeable, and some people just don’t care. So this blog post focuses on national and local government, and what they are doing to accomplish the 17 goals. 

The US is a highly developed, wealthy country. So you might think that it would be progressing well with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Surprisingly, the US ranks 35th out of all countries in terms of its progress in reaching these goals. This is the lowest ranking out of the world’s developed countries.

What is the reason behind such a low ranking? There are a few reasons, but they all have to do with the lack of national leadership on climate change and other sustainability issues affecting cities. For many years, no one has put forward a plan to solve the problems contained in the goals.

National Issues, Local Responsibility 

With climate change becoming a controversial issue at the national level, no major legislative proposals for dealing with sustainability issues have been put forward. Furthermore, while the Obama administration initially joined the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration pulled out of it when he entered office. Four years later, President Biden rejoined the Agreements, but this back-and-forth has led to inconsistent policy.

This, along with the fact that municipalities generally have the most power when it comes to regional development and city sustainability issues, means that the responsibility for meeting SDGs has fallen to state and mostly local governments. 

In effect, this has led to a lot of disparity between different states, regions and cities across the U.S. Some areas are succeeding at trying to push towards accomplishing many of the SDGs, while others are lagging behind. 

Overall U.S. cities scored an average of 48.9 out of 100 in terms of accomplishing the SDGs, which is not so good. While on average U.S. cities scored high for Clean Water and Sanitation, they fell short on other goals, including Affordable and Clean Energy.

So let’s look at some specific areas to see the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Bay Area and Silicon Valley, California

The Bay Area (San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward) and Silicon Valley (San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara), both in Northern California, were at the top of the U.S. cities’ ranking in terms of SDGs in 2019, scoring 69.7 and 67.9 respectively.

This is good compared to the cities that ranked in the lower thirties and forties, but it makes it unlikely that any city in the U.S. will meet the 2030 deadline. The goals where these two metro areas scored well were  “No Poverty” and “Good Health and Well-Being”, both of which are hard to measure precisely.

In areas that are important for environmental protection and sustainable city development, like transit, these city areas, like the rest of the country, lag behind most of the world. Only two metro areas– the Bay Area and Newark, New Jersey–are moving forward towards the sustainable transit goals outlined in the SDGs, according to the 2019 report. Since most of the country does not have adequate public transportation and transit in general, this does not bode well.

Northern California is seen as progressive when it comes to sustainability and environmental regulation. But the report seems to demonstrate that there are other issues holding the area back from being a true leader. Racial inequalities and the unequal burden that lack of sustainability places on marginalized communities, especially in cities like San Francisco, are other reasons why the top metro areas didn’t score as high.

Detroit, Michigan

My hometown is in the Detroit area, which makes it easier for me to talk about, but also represents a good picture of many older “legacy” cities in the U.S. Detroit is the largest city in the state of Michigan. It ranked 63 on the ranking of U.S. cities accomplishment of SDGs, with a score of 46.5, which is below average. 

Detroit used to be the major hub for the car industry, providing factory and industrial jobs for many. The city expanded because of this, until the factories moved to other parts of the country, and then other parts of the world, in search of lower wage workers. This led to a steady decline in jobs, population, and city revenue as more and more people moved away from the city. 

This is similar to other older and “Rust Belt” cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo, and Indianapolis to name a few. With a decline in their tax bases, these cities found it hard to maintain adequate city services and improve infrastructure.

While Detroit and many other older cities are trying to make a comeback, they are still dealing with old pipes and sewage systems, empty lots, and industrial waste on land that used to be factories–all while having massive poverty issues. This makes it hard to really move forward with the SDG goals as quickly as many would like. 

But Detroit is making some progress. The leaders of the city seem to know that the only way forward is to make the city a Green City to attract new residents, businesses and development.          

They created the created plan called the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda Framework, whose four goals are:

  1. Healthy, Thriving People–deal with food and health inequalities, education about nutrition (Detroit is one of the most obese cities in the country), improved air quality, and economic opportunity (green jobs, access to job training).
  2. Affordable, Quality Homes–reduce costs of housing, expand affordability, and make existing homes more safe and healthy.
  3. Clean, connected neighborhoods–Transform vacant lots into safe, productive, sustainable spaces; improve public transportation; reduce waste and garbage.
  4. Equitable, Green City–making infrastructure more green and climate-change resilient; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

I think Detroit is indicative of how many cities are looking at SDGs. They know there are many issues to deal with, so they are focusing on the SDGs that are in tune with their priorities.

Hope for the future

I know I have been a little critical in this blog post, so it’s time to end on a positive note. America has a lot of issues to solve–sure. But it seems to be coming to the realization that it needs a policy that is organized from the top.

As I am writing this, a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill is being negotiated and worked out in Congress. If it passes, it would provide lots of money and resources for local areas to improve their infrastructure and transportation systems. Yet another, even more massive $3.5 trillion bill is also being proposed, which would give money to climate projects like increasing electric vehicles, provide money for day care and higher education, and improve America’s healthcare infrastructure. 

These plans are still far from being passed. But what it shows is that the determination to make the U.S. more sustainable is growing, and people’s imagination for what can be done about it is expanding.  

Photo by Nick Rickert on Unsplash

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