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Sustainable development goals at risk, and Australia is one of the culprits

Note: comment from DFAT added on 26 June.

Alison Barrett writes:

Australia is falling behind in efforts to reduce inequalities and poverty, as well as efforts to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of ecosystems, according to a new report by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

At the halfway mark of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the report also shows that the Australian Government has demonstrated a low level of commitment and effort on the sustainable development goals (SDGs). It ranks 69 out of 74 countries on commitment to them.

According to the report, on average only 18 percent of the SDGs globally will be achieved by 2030 if the world remains on its current rate of progress. There is a risk that the gap in SDG outcomes between low-and high-income countries will be greater in 2030 than when the goals were agreed upon in 2015, the SDSN said in a statement.

The SDSN is a global network of universities, research centres and technical institutions launched in 2012 to help find solutions to social, economic and environmental problems, and contributing to the development and adoption of the SDGs.

UN member states are being urged to recommit to the SDGs which were adopted in 2015 as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere”.

Countries should commit to genuine action on progressing the SDGs by reviewing and revising their national SDG strategy, endorsing reform of the global financial architecture and adopting the SDG Stimulus to close the financial gap facing developing and emerging countries, the SDSN urges. Current global investment patterns are not in line with progress towards sustainable development and need to change.

Professor John Thwaites AM, Chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and Climateworks Centre and Co-Chair of the SDSN Leadership Council, emphasised these calls to action.

He told Croakey that the Australian Government should review its progress on the goals. “This will highlight the areas where we need to boost effort and resources,” he said.

“Australia also needs to play its part in assisting countries in our region to achieve the sustainable development goals,” Thwaites said.

“Papua New Guinea is ranked 148 out of 166 countries in the report and it’s going backwards on many key indicators. Australia’s contribution needs to go beyond foreign aid to supporting reform of global financing to provide adequate funds for developing countries in Asia and the Pacific.”

President of the UN SDSN and lead author of the report Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs said in a statement:

It would be unconscionable for the world to miss this opportunity, especially for the richest countries to evade their responsibilities. The SDGs remain fundamental for the future we want.”

Sachs said the SDGs should be a focus in upcoming multilateral meetings including this week’s Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris, the G20 in Delhi, SDG Summit in New York in September and COP28in Dubai.

Stagnation

The world has made some progress since 2015 on goals to strengthen access to key infrastructure including clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and industry, infrastructure and innovation.

However, major challenges exist in the SDGs of subjective wellbeing, and reducing hunger, poverty, unemployment and inequalities, according to the report.

Global SDG targets related to climate action, biodiversity and sustainable cities and communities have stagnated.

Source: Author’s analysis in Sustainable Development Report 2023, available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence.

Ministers from Small Island Developing States met in Bridgetown, Barbados last week to discuss the progress and challenges in meeting the SDG 3.4 related to noncommunicable diseases and mental health, as well as the impact of climate change in these countries that are disproportionately impacted by both.

The 2023 Bridgetown Declaration on NCDs and mental was launched during the conference, outlining steps to address the social, environmental, economic and commercial issues that lead to NCDs and mental health in Small Island Developing States.

Echoing the SDSN’s calls for global financing reform, Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley said in a statement:

Bold action for our climate, good health, and wellbeing relies on redressing and reorganising global financing to unlock billions in investment, while making it less punishing for developing countries to pay their debts.

Funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the most vulnerable countries is also key, with noncommunicable diseases and mental health accounted for.”

The declaration came as UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that current policies are taking the world to a catastrophic 2.8 degree temperature rise by the end of the century.

“Yet the collective response remains pitiful,” he said. “We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open – with far too many willing to bet it all on wishful thinking, unproven technologies and silver bullet solutions.

“It’s time to wake up and step up. The solution is clear – the world must phase out fossil fuels in a just and equitable way – moving to leave oil, coal and gas in the ground where they belong – and massively boosting renewable investment in a just transition.”

Australia’s challenges

The report shows that Australia is on track to achieve 46 percent of SDG targets by 2030.

Australia tends to perform better in health, education and economic growth, according to Dr Cameron Allen from the Monash Sustainability Development Institute – as indicated in the below infographic.

The report shows that Australia is experiencing significant or major challenges addressing the environmental SDGs of responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water and life on land.

Australia’s progress and trends towards SDGs. Source: SDSN report

While Australia has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, its action on climate is insufficiently compatible with the 1.5 degree Paris agreement, according to the report.

Allen said: “To accelerate progress on the SDGs in the remaining time to 2030, it would make sense to prioritise efforts in these areas where progress is lagging behind.

“In the broader context of the SDGs, it’s also important that efforts to accelerate progress are also cognisant of potential trade-offs that may undermine the strong progress in other areas.”

Informing policy

The pandemic and other multiple crises including ongoing conflict in Ukraine have substantially interrupted global progress on the SDGs. Another key recommendation in the report is for all UN member states to pursue peace.

In 2020, Allen and Thwaites argued that the pandemic provided an opportunity for Australia to design a recovery strategy to address many of the SDGs.

Thwaites and Allen told Croakey this week that using the SDGs to inform budget priorities or policy would be beneficial.

Allen said that while recent proposals for measuring wellbeing and for a wellbeing budget in Australia “are very promising”, they could be better linked with the SDGs to “ensure that broader opportunities and priorities are not missed”.

Limited commitment

The report’s finding that Australia has demonstrated limited commitment to the SDGs is based on a survey by SDSN on “national coordination and implementation mechanisms at the centre/federal level of government”.

The survey found that Australia last submitted a voluntary national review of the SDGs in 2018 and no national indicators have been developed to monitor Australia’s implementation of the goals, although progress towards the official SDG indicators are reported online.

Allen told Croakey that not setting specific national target values for the SDGs is a gap. It is important to set national targets for determining a level of ambition and “sending clear signals to markets, and unleashing investment and innovation”.

Allen said it also makes evaluating progress, strengths and gaps difficult.

“We would certainly encourage governments to consider setting specific targets aligned with the global ambition of the SDGs but tailored to national circumstances and priorities,” Allen said.

Thwaites added that “by setting targets we will drive policy action and resources where they are needed”.

Another measure of national commitment is to incorporate SDGs in the national budget. The report shows that the SDGs are not mentioned in Australia’s latest national budget (noting that the survey was conducted in February 2023, prior to the May budget).

According to the report survey, Australia also has no central government coordination of the SDGs and they are not integrated into sectoral action plans or an overarching strategy.

Allen said that “coordination is critical for the SDGs as they encompass many portfolios and responsibilities, and trade-offs are a well-known characteristic of the goals”.

He told Croakey that many countries have set up institutional mechanisms to enhance coordination led by central agencies. “Such a mechanism is lacking in Australia and would be beneficial,” he said.

This became clear during investigation of this story. Croakey approached multiple federal departments whose work is relevant to the SDGs for comment, including the Departments of Health, Education, and Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. We also sought comment from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Despite all SDGs having an impact on overall health and wellbeing, the DOH and PM&C referred Croakey to DFAT. At time of publication, we have not heard from the Department of Education.

DFAT said they will respond – we will update the article once a response has been received.

A spokesperson from the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water told Croakey:

“The Australian Government is committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is taking action on climate change – with one of the first acts of the new Government to legislate emissions reduction targets of 43 percent by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

In addition, the Government has reformed the Safeguard Mechanism to ensure that Australia’s largest emitting facilities reduce their emissions, delivering 200 million tonnes of emissions reduction to 2030 – equivalent of taking two-thirds of the nations’ cars off the road.

Other Australian Government initiatives to meet the goals include:

  • Implementing the Nature Positive Plan which sets out the government’s commitment to reform Australia’s environmental laws to better protect, restore and manage our environment.
  • Establishing a Nature Repair Market to make it easier for businesses, organisations, governments and individuals to invest in projects that protect our natural environment.
  • The establishment of the National Food Waste Strategy to halve Australia’s food waste by 2030.
  • Implementing a target to protect 30 percent of Australia’s land and oceans by 2030, as well as a national target of zero new extinctions across our native plants and animals.

The Government is also rapidly increasing the share of renewable capacity in the electricity grid – with 82 percent renewables in Australia’s energy grid by 2030, investing $20 billion through Rewiring the Nation and unlocking $10 billion in dispatchable renewable capacity through the Capacity Investment Scheme.

The Government is continuing its commitment to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, working more closely with First Nations peoples and local communities as well as investing in long term water security for all Australians through the National Water Grid.”

***Comment below from DFAT added on 26 June.***

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told Croakey:
Australia presented its first Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) under the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development in 2018. The Government is considering its approach to VNR presentation between now and the 2030 deadline.

Australia remains committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs represent the agreed roadmap for sustainable development and growth, and our collective vision for minimum living standards for all, underpinned by full respect for international law and human rights. Australia is focused on demonstrating concrete implementation of the SDGs through our development program and safeguarding the commitments, to protect against backsliding, and address uneven implementation of the SDGs.

The Australian Government will attend the SDG Summit in New York in September.

Further reading

Dashboard to Australian data from the SDSN SDG report.

The full report can be downloaded here: Sustainable Development Report 2023: Implementing the SDG Stimulus

Concurrent climate emergencies heighten need for government policy action, by Alison Barrett at Croakey Health Media

From Twitter


See Croakey’s archive of articles on health in all policies.

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