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Australia lagging on climate action, inequality, but the time is right for reform

Introduction by Croakey: Australia has just a decade to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed in the 2015 United Nations commitment to “end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere”.

But a recent report has found Australia’s progress to be lagging in many areas.

While the nation is performing well in health and education, The Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report 2020 Update shows that it is failing to address cost of living pressures and economic inequality and to reduce CO2 emissions, waste and environmental degradation.

And recent moves in South Australia and Victoria to tax electric vehicles would seem to be a step in the wrong direction on CO2 emissions reduction.

However, in a more promising sign, the Victorian Government’s 2020-2021 Budget, announced yesterday, was welcomed by environmental groups and social welfare groups, with the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) describing it as an “inequality crushing budget”.

“This budget is literally brimming with positive, smart and effective social policy measures that will make real inroads into poverty and disadvantage,” VCOSS CEO Emma King said in a statement.

In the following article, first published in The Conversation, Professor John Thwaites and Dr Cameron Allen of Monash University say that COVID-19 presents Australia with a chance to design a recovery strategy to boost our resilience to future shocks and address many sustainable development challenges.


John Thwaites and Cameron Allen write:

As Australia plans its recovery from COVID-19, our strategies should be based on a broader set of priorities than we have used in the past.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by all countries at the United Nations, provide a set of objectives and targets that can serve as a blueprint to “build back better” after the pandemic.

Last week, a report card was released on Australia’s progress toward achieving these goals. It also highlighted the potential impact of COVID-19 on our ability to meet our SDG targets by 2030.

The report showed that Australia was performing well in health and education but failing in climate, environment and areas linked to social inequality.

The good news is that trust in government has risen significantly since the pandemic began, no doubt reflecting in part Australia’s relatively good response to the crisis.

Australians are proud of what we have been able to achieve, and this trust and optimism will be needed as we try to tackle some of the stubborn challenges highlighted in the report.

Why targets are critical

In adopting the SDGs, all countries (including Australia) recognised the need to take a long-term and integrated approach to national planning informed by data and evidence.

Central to this approach is the setting of economic, social and environmental targets for 2030, which help to provide clear signposts for where we want to go.

Targets are critical. They set the priorities and level of ambition, encourage a shift from short- to long-term thinking, provide investment certainty and mobilise people to collaborate to solve problems.

They also enable a clear picture of where we are on track or off track, and the scale and pace of change needed.

With only 10 years left to achieve the SDGs, Australia still lacks national targets for many of the specific goals and this is undermining our ability to plan effectively for our future.

The report card makes three important contributions:

1. It proposes an initial set of 2030 targets for Australia across economic, social and environmental indicators.

2. It assesses Australia’s progress towards these targets over the past two decades, highlighting where we are falling behind and where accelerated action is needed.

3. It evaluates the effects of COVID-19 on Australia’s capacity to achieve the SDGs.

Where Australia is lagging

Our key findings in last week’s report show where Australia needs to focus its energies to meet our SDGs.

Social challenges

Environmental challenges

  • Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have declined only marginally since 2000 and little progress has been made since 2013. Australia is not on track to meet a 2030 emissions target consistent with the Paris Agreement objective to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.
  • Australia’s per capita material footprint is one of the highest in the world — more than 70% above the OECD average — and rising.
  • Hard coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined and the number of species now threatened has increased since 2000.

Economic challenges

  • Women, young people and those without high school qualifications are more likely to have had their employment disrupted by COVID-19.
  • Australia’s relatively low levels of government debt will help in the COVID-19 recovery, yet household debt is well above the OECD average.
  • Wealth inequality is getting worse with the share of household net worth of the bottom 40% of the population declining by 30% since 2004.
  • Since 2012, middle-class wages and incomes have stalled.
  • COVID-19 has stymied trade, foreign investment and skilled migration, prompting the need for new drivers of growth.

Opportunity for policy overhaul

This report comes at a pivotal moment. All countries are facing a series of complex and related crises — a global health emergency, climate change, growing inequality, unemployment and biodiversity decline.

COVID-19 has reduced pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but emissions are now returning to pre-COVID-19 levels.

And increased public deficits and debt may constrain governments’ abilities to address social and environmental challenges in the coming decade.

On the other hand, COVID-19 has given governments the chance to undertake much more significant interventions than previously thought possible.

Australia has a huge opportunity to design a recovery strategy that strengthens our resilience to future shocks, addresses many of the challenges of sustainable development that we have not properly dealt with, and ensures the country’s long-term, sustainable prosperity.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

Professor John Thwaites is Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute  and ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University, and Dr Cameron Allen is Adjunct Research Fellow, Monash University.

Disclosure statement

Professor John Thwaites is Chair of Monash Sustainable Development Institute and ClimateWorks Australia which receive funding for research, education and action projects from the Commonwealth and state governments as well as from philanthropy and industry. The Transforming Australia Update 2020 received funding from the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation. He is the former Deputy Premier of Victoria (1999-2007)

Dr Cameron Allen is a Senior Advisor with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics.

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The Croakey Archives
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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15