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Lack of climate action leads to poor SDG ranking for Australia

Australia’s progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ranks among the worst in the OECD, with climate action and responsible consumption the country’s poorest markers.

This is according to the Sustainable Development Report 2019, released by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) last month. Previously called the Sustainable Development Index, the annual ranking found no country is on track to achieve all 17 goals by the 2030 deadline.

Australia came in at number 38 out of 162 countries, some distance behind Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which were at the top of the list.

“There are challenges for all countries in achieving the SDGs, but Australia isn’t doing nearly as well as we should, considering how wealthy we are,” Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute Chair Professor John Thwaites said.

“Australia should aim to be more like the Northern European countries: caring for the environment and reducing carbon emissions while maintaining a strong economy.”

Globally, the worst results were in relation to SDG 13: Climate action, SDG 14: Life below water, and SDG 15: Life on land. The report also found many high-income countries are generating negative environmental and economic spillover impacts that are undermining other countries’ ability to achieve the SDGs – for example, Australia’s fossil fuel exports.

“Our biggest challenge in achieving the SDGs is climate action, or more particularly a lack of climate action,” Thwaites said.

“We also have major challenges in achieving the environmental SDGs, and in some other areas including inequality.”

Making progress

Australia got its best results on SDG 1: No poverty and SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing. Thwaites, who is also the SDSN Australia Chair, said the country could apply these positive results to other areas.

“We could learn from ourselves in terms of health; our health system is one of the best in the world,” he said.

“We deliver very good health outcomes, but we don’t seem to put the same effort into protecting the environment or reducing inequality.”

He said there has been a lack of political will to deliver on climate action in recent years, and that to advance sustainable development Australia should diversify its economy and rely less on fossil fuels and resource extraction. 

“Australia has an incredible opportunity to be a leader in renewable energy; we have more sun and wind than just about any other country, ” Thwaites said.

“We could use this for ourselves, but we could also potentially export it through a hydrogen industry.”

Transforming the goals

The report said six major transformations are needed in every country in order to achieve the SDGs. These relate to skills and jobs, health, clean energy, biodiversity and land use, cities, and digital technology.

These broad transformations are necessary because the SDGs are so interdependent. For example, improved education is a key contributor to health goals, reducing inequality and many of the environmental objectives. 

Similarly, a healthy environment and reducing man-made climate change will contribute to better health outcomes.

“Market forces alone will not achieve the SDGs,” the report said. 

“Instead, directed transformations are needed to develop the technologies, promote the public and private investments, and ensure adequate governance mechanisms needed to achieve the time-bound goals.”

Water leaders

Thwaites, who is chair of Melbourne Water and was chair of the Australian Water Association’s Ozwater’19 organising committee, and said water utilities across the country are making good progress on the SDGs.

This includes initiatives like Yarra Valley Water’s People, Planet, Prosperity report, which outlined how the utility’s goals relate to the SDGs and the progress that has been made.

“We’re seeing some water authorities as leaders in implementing the SDGs," Thwaites said.

"Melbourne Water is finding that using the SDGs helps us make better and more innovative decisions.

“So it is a positive story, but there’s certainly a lot more that water authorities can do. And if they do, they’ll be providing better services for their customers and improving the environment they operate in.”

Keen to get involved in the conversation around the SDGs? Check out the Australian Water Association's Sustainable Development Goals Specialist Network