Opinion article

Sustainable Development Goals can be a blueprint for COVID-19 recovery

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can structure an effective recovery for Australia but only if governments set meaningful targets says Monash Sustainable Development Institute, ClimateWorks Australia & BehaviourWorks Australia Chair, John Thwaites. 

As Australia plans its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, our recovery strategies should be based on a broader set of priorities than we have used in the past. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by all countries at the United Nations, provide a set of objectives and targets that can serve as a blueprint to ‘build back better’ after the pandemic.
The Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report 2020 Update, launched at a CEDA webinar last week, provides a report card on Australia’s progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) leading into the COVID-19 crisis. It also highlights the potential impact of the pandemic on our ability to meet the goals. The report shows that Australia is performing well in health and education but failing in climate, environment and areas linked to social inequality. The pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities and having particularly negative impacts on women, young people and low-income households.
The SDGs address the key challenges facing Australia and the world, including health, decent jobs, innovation, inequality and climate change. They were developed with input from business and civil society before they were agreed by all countries. The SDGs are now the globally agreed framework for sustainable development until 2030. And more and more companies are using them to report and guide their investments.
In adopting the SDGs, all countries including Australia recognised the need to take a long-term and integrated approach to national planning, informed by data and evidence. Central to this approach is the setting of economic, social and environmental targets with a 2030 timeframe that help to provide clear signposts for where we want to get to.
Targets are critical - they set the priorities and level of ambition, encourage a shift from short- to long-term thinking, provide investment certainty and mobilise people to collaborate and innovate to solve problems. They also provide a clear picture of whether we are on-track, and the scale and pace of change needed over time.
Australia still lacks national targets for many of the SDGs, despite there being just 10 years remaining to achieve them. This undermines our ability to plan effectively for our future. Further, Australia does not have a national strategy for implementing the SDGs. This puts Australia behind many other countries. A survey in the Sustainable Development Report 2020 found that 27 of the 30 countries surveyed had adopted a national SDG strategy or included the SDGs in sectoral action plans. Australia, the United States and Russia were the only countries surveyed that had not done so.
The Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report 2020 Update proposes an initial set of quantitative 2030 targets for the nation across a priority set of economic, social and environmental indicators. For our assessment, we drew upon a range of sources and evidence for the targets. These include official SDG targets, Australian Government targets, international benchmarks such as the top-five OECD performers and expert advice from the National Sustainable Development Council for the initial Transforming Australia report in 2018.
We propose these measures to start a conversation about appropriate targets for 2030, as signposts to guide Australia’s direction over the next decade. We expect there will be debate and disagreement about some of the targets, but unless we have hard conversations now about where we want to go as a nation, we are likely to drift along and repeat the same mistakes we have already made.
About the authors

John Thwaites

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John Thwaites is Chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, ClimateWorks Australia & BehaviourWorks Australia. He is Co-Chair of the Leadership Council of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It was launched by the UN Secretary General to provide expert advice and support to the development and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. John was Deputy Premier of Victoria from 1999 until his retirement in 2007 during which time he held various Ministerial portfolios and achieved major reforms in social policy, health, environment and water. He was Victoria’s first Minister for Climate Change, and before Parliament was a barrister and Mayor of South Melbourne.

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