What has happened to the Sustainable Development Goals?

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Gary Harkin.

Sustainable Development Goals. Alan Parkinson. flickr cc.

September 2016 marked the first anniversary of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – one year down, 14 to go! Yet Australian media have been notably quiet about these critical Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals comprise a systematic program agreed in September 2015 by 193 world leaders, which aim to achieve three extraordinary global goals in the 15 years from 2015 to 2030: to end extreme poverty, to fight inequality and injustice, and to address climate change.

As Salil Shetty, former director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, put it: “There is a huge gap between the world we live in and the world we want”. The SDGs are characterised by ‘sustainability’, demanding we balance our current needs against the very viability of a liveable and supportive environment for our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.

Australians born in the last decade, particularly females, are predicted to live a hundred years or more. If they could advocate at this point in their lives, I suggest they might express concern about our planetary future. Young people are already advocating on sustainable development.

Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year old Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate and activist for human rights and female education, speaking for youth everywhere, addressed the UN in September 2015, urging world leaders to “keep your commitments and invest in our future”. Yousafzai is perhaps best known as the young woman who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in 2012.

How does Australia perform?

Looking at the seventeen SDGs, Australia performs well on some of the main Goals: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water, and more.

Many Australians would argue that, on other Goals, we are lagging: Clean Energy, Work & Economic Growth, Industry Innovation & Infrastructure, Sustainable Communities, Responsible Consumption & Production, Climate Action, and Peace, Justice, & Strong Institutions.

Malala Yousafzai Briefs Press at UN Headquarters. United Nations Photo. flickr cc.

Regarding the critical climate aspect, following the launch of the SDGs last year, Australia committed to the Paris Agreement in December 2015. That historic event effectively commits Australia to holding any increase in global average temperature to less than 2°C on pre-industrial levels. Big players such as China and the US have already ratified the Paris Agreement. Australia is committed to ratification by the close of 2016.

Specifically regarding those critical climate goals of the SDGs, Fairfax’s Peter Hannam in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 September, cited the The Brown to Green study by Climate Transparency about the decarbonisation plans of the G20 nations, published just prior to the recent G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. The Climate Transparency Group is an open global consortium with a mission to stimulate enhanced transparency towards climate change action.

The study argues that Australia is a laggard on climate action (the critical Goal 13 of the SDGs); indeed, we are the only G20 nation judged ‘very poor’ in four of the seven climate categories. This unflattering assessment for Australia from a respected international source comes as the Federal Government and Opposition, in budget-fix mode, consider a cut of over $1billion for clean energy technologies (the Australian Renewable Energy Agency).

The Monash Sustainable Development Institute

There is nevertheless momentum under way in Australia, albeit at an unhurried pace. The Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI), launched recently, is an example of what is happening. It aims to concentrate the research, delivery, and education focus of Monash (Australia’s largest University) on the complex global challenges posed by the Sustainable Development Goals. MSDI is the regional host of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in the Australia-Pacific, a network established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Monash Institute also co-hosted in September the inaugural Australian SDG Summit in Sydney, Australia’s first high-level multi-stakeholder forum to advance national implementation of the SDGs. One hundred and fifty Australian leaders and decision-makers from government, business, civil society, academia, and youth organisations came together to advance Australian action on the SDGs.

Difficult decisions ahead

To suggest the way ahead is straightforward would be glib. In late September, Australian mainstream media concurrently reported on the possible imminent closure of Victoria’s Latrobe Valley Hazelwood power station and the potential go-ahead for development of two Queensland coalmines (Alpha and Carmichael), after they had cleared respective legal hurdles. The Australian energy market is currently a diabolically difficult issue, which will be characterised in the years ahead by major structural adjustment. Hazelwood is one of the most polluting power stations in the world, but, importantly, supplies up to 25% of Victoria’s base power load. Its closure will put a lot of people out of work.

Alpha and Carmichael are two of nine proposed mega-coalmines in the Queensland Galilee Basin area still supported by state and federal governments. They would provide many jobs, no doubt, but, against the SDGs, they would represent the development of one of the largest untapped coal reserves on the planet and cause a massive increase in our CO2 polluting output.

Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned US economist and UN special advisor on the SDGs, writing recently in The Boston Globe suggests that “around the world, people are calling for a new kind of globalization”, one founded on “sustainable development, to ensure that economic growth is also socially just and environmentally sustainable”.

From a Christian perspective, the prophetic Pope Francis in his May 2015 encyclical, Laudato Sí, drew a line in the sand. Reprising his namesake, the poor man from Assisi, Francis of Rome has articulated a seismic shift, calling for change from a relentless theology of dominion over creation to a new order of care and harmony. What about the SDGs?  I reckon we all have a responsibility to keep them ‘on our radar’.

Gary Harkin has a background in marketing and general management in business, and holds a degree in theology from the University of Divinity.

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