5 ways Australia can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Strong political leadership, financing for sustainable infrastructure and climate action, and more partnerships across sectors: These are some things Australia needs to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

sdg conference sydney
John Thwaites, professor, Monash University, speaks at the Sustainable Development Goals Australia 2016 conference in Sydney. Image: Eco-Business

Strong political leadership, financing for sustainable infrastructure and climate action, and more cross-sector partnerships: These are just some of the things Australia needs to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at home and abroad, said experts at a recent conference in Sydney. 

Held at the University of Sydney from November 29 to 30, the inaugural Sustainable Development Goals Australia 2016 conference brought together participants from academia, government, business and civil society to develop a roadmap and provide concrete solutions for Australia to fulfil the SDGs.

The SDGs consist of 17 goals—with a checklist of 169 targets that must be met to achieve the targets—developed by the United Nations in consultation with the business and civil society sectors.

They include ending poverty and hunger, averting dangerous climate change, reducing inequality within and among countries, and achieving gender equality.

Australia is currently ranked 20th on a global index compiled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and German non-profit foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung to assess country progress towards the goals, just below Singapore. Areas where Australia lags, according to the report, include adult obesity, a carbon-intensive energy sector and the low adoption of renewable energy technologies.

John Thwaites, professor at Monash University, told the 350-strong audience that it is important for Australia to improve its performance on the SDGs not only domestically—it must also help the region do the same. 

“We live in a region of developing countries,” said Thwaites. “Their success in achieving sustainable development is our success; our future depends on them.”

Speakers at the two-day conference shared a range of ideas for how to improve Australia’s performance on SDGs such as climate action, reducing inequality and building sustainable, inclusive economies. 

Here are five recommendations for the solutions Australia needs to scale up, and the challenges and opportunities in doing so. 

1. Businesses for a fairer economy 

Helen Szoke, chief executive officer, Oxfam Australia, noted that the private sector plays a key role in achieving several of the SDGs, including reducing inequality and ensuring productive work and decent employment for all.

Globally, inequality is rising, and 62 of the world’s richest billionaires own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population, noted Szoke. Oxfam estimates that tax avoidance by multinational corporations costs 110 developing countries about $172 billion every year. 

Corporations must pay their fair share of taxes to address this inequality, she added.

“Companies must also ensure that the communities that they impact are not left worse off,” she urged. 

Mining firms, for example, must respect the right of communities to give consent for business activities while agribusiness companies operating in developing countries should ensure that communities are not unfairly dislocated in the course of plantation development.

2. No SDGs without youth involvement 

Achieving the SDGs will be impossible without the involvement of young people, said Siamak Sam Loni, global youth coordinator, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. 

The 3.5 billion young people which make up half of the world’s population today possess traits such as idealism and creativity that are well suited for developing solutions to SDG-related challenges, noted Loni. 

“Australian youth are among the most well educated, resourced and mentored young people today,” he noted. “Achieving the SDGs at home and in the region will require investing in young people.” 

However, the idealism and creativity of youth needs to be matched with the professional experience, knowledge, and power of older generations, said Loni, noting that the two groups need to work closely together to achieve the goals. 

He added: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that started them.” 

3. Carbon neutral buildings and cities 

When it comes to goals around climate action and creating sustainable and liveable cities, experts noted that “net zero” is a big part of the solution. 

The building sector globally accounts for 30 per cent of greenhouse gas production, while cities are the source of 70 per cent of carbon emissions. 

It is possible for buildings to achieve net zero environmental impact—that is, in terms of energy consumption, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions, said Jorge Chapa, head of market transformation, Green Building Council of Australia. But the number of buildings in Australia that have fulfilled these targets is “insignificant”. 

The GBCA wants to get more buildings in Australia to become net zero, and is in the process of launching new certification that recognises buildings which have achieved this, shared Chapa. 

It has also partnered with the World Green Building Council to implement the Advancing Net Zero project, which aims to get green building councils around the world to develop their own net zero standards. 

Beyond the building sector, the City of Sydney has also pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Anna Mitchell, the city’s senior sustainability manager, shared that this is the biggest challenge facing the council today. Issues that will need to be addressed include ensuring that the transition does not make the city inaccessible or unaffordable for some of its residents.

There will be challenges on the way, said Anna Mitchell, the city’s senior sustainability manager. Examples include housing stress, where many individuals with low-to-middle income jobs in the city can no longer afford to live near their work; and the difficulty of minimising emissions in a city area with a growing population.

A tool that cities around Australia can use to navigate these challenges is the City Resilience Framework, developed by global consultancy Arup and the Rockefeller Foundation. It sets out actions that cities can take to enhance their resilience in four key areas: health & well-being; economy & society; infrastructure & environment; and leadership & strategy.

Urban planners must also address issues such as inequality, she said. “The more unequal our city is, the less resilient it will be.”

4. Political leadership needed 

Besides efforts from the private sector and city administrations, central governments need to have a national plan for achieving the SDGs. 

David Griggs, professor at Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute, said: “We need leadership from the top, from the government. We need to enable action through policies, frameworks and regulation.” 

The government can follow France’s lead, suggested Loni. The country not only has a ministry dedicated to sustainable development, it is also developing a national action plan for the SDGs. 

The United Kingdom, too, has initiated two parliamentary inquiries into issues such as funding and conducting environmental audits to make progress towards achieving the SDGs. 

Marc Purcell, chief executive officer, Australian Council for International Development, pointed out that in Australia, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade coordinates Australia’s contributions to achieving the SDGs through international aid and financing, but there needs to be a greater focus on how to achieve them domestically.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet needs to lead the SDG agenda at home, noted Purcell. 

“Without political leadership, Australia will flounder.” 

5. Partnerships for the goals

Ultimately, it will be impossible for a single sector, whether government, civil society or business to achieve the goals on their own, agreed speakers at the conference. This is why the 17th goal focuses on the importance of partnerships between the various groups, as well between nations and UN agencies. 

Examples of successful partnerships include a collaboration between conference co-organiser and green group World Wide Fund for Nature and seafood giant John West to ensure that the company only sources Marine Stewardship Certified tuna; and a partnership between ANZ Bank and the Australian Water Association to improve the management of water resources in South East Asian countries.

Martin Dowling, founder of the Global Goals Australia campaign, said that a lack of collaboration between various players would be a “serious impediment” to achieving the goals. 

Ultimately, all stakeholders must keep in mind that the success of efforts to achieve the SDGs required achieving all 17 goals, said Monash University’s Griggs. 

 “If we fail on any goal, we fail on them all,” he said. 

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