How the UN Sustainable Development Goals can help Australia build back better

The 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an important framework for planning Australia’s post-COVID recovery, Monash Sustainable Development Institute Chair, Professor John Thwaites told a CEDA livestream audience.

Professor Thwaites said the SDGs addressed key challenges currently facing the country such as health, jobs, innovation, inequality and climate change.

Professor Thwaites, who is also the chair of ClimateWorks Australia, joined Monash Sustainable Development Institute Professor of Policy and Impact, Professor Rod Glover; Cbus Responsible Investment Portfolio Head, Nicole Bradford; and Sustainability Advisor, CitiGroup Australia Chair and Transurban and CoverMore Non-Executive Director, Sam Mostyn for a discussion about Australia’s progress towards the goals.

“There is a widespread desire to build back better and certainly our recovery from COVID-19 needs to address the challenges that existed before the pandemic, not make them worse,” Professor Thwaites said.

“If we’re going to build back better though, we’re going to have to do some things differently and not continue to make the mistakes of the past.”

Professor Glover noted that governments have been very pragmatic during the pandemic, showing an ability to adapt policies quickly when needed.

Throughout COVID-19, governments have been more collaborative, drawn on evidence and data more effectively, communicated better with the community and adapted policy settings to community sentiment and behaviours more rapidly, he explained.

“I think one of the challenges for governments post-COVID is going to be how these things become the new normal for the public sector,” Professor Glover said.

While governments play a significant role in driving Australia towards the SDGs, more business input will also be critical.

Ms Mostyn said many businesses that had survived the COVID-19 pandemic were now thinking about how to apply the SDGs to their own goals to contribute to Australia’s recovery.

“I think this is one of the great moments for business to step up, as it did in the formation of the SDGs, and really throw everything at this,” she said.

“We’ll see business doing better, but I think we need to do this in a very strategic way, and with our federal and state governments all [working together] in a very collaborative fashion.”

Ms Bradford said investors such as Cbus were increasingly looking at how businesses worked with the SDGs and similar frameworks to set company targets and play their part in addressing these major challenges.

“In terms of our expectations of business, the way we look at business from an investor’s perspective is really focusing on materiality,” she said.

“What we want from companies is for them to understand and use these types of frameworks to identify risks and opportunities to create value.

“We consider that if you take into account these issues, the company is looking at itself from a holistic perspective and how it can be more sustainable over the long term.”

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 are: end poverty; zero hunger; good health and wellbeing; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; reduced inequalities; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; life on land; peace, justice and strong institutions; and partnerships for the goals.