Australia Lags on UN Targets for a More Prosperous, Greener, Fairer Nation, Monash Report Shows

COVID-19 is damaging Australia’s capacity to meet its global commitment to address the planet’s most pressing challenges, with the nation on track to meet only one in five key economic, social and environmental targets by the end of the decade, a new report shows.

The Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report 2020 Update shows that Australia is performing well in health and education, but is failing to reduce CO2 emissions, waste and environmental degradation, and to address cost of living pressures and economic inequality.

The update, produced by the Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI) and launched at an event with CEDA, measures Australia’s performance against 56 economic, social and environmental indicators linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On all but 12 indicators, Australia is at risk of failing to meet the 2030 targets.

The report shows the pandemic has exacerbated trends -- including higher levels of unemployment, poverty and psychological distress -- that were emerging before COVID-19, and that could fracture Australian society.

Despite a near 30-year unbroken period of economic growth -- the longest in modern economic history -- “in the past seven or eight years the middle-class growth engine has stalled, with wages and incomes stagnating,” says Professor Rod Glover of MSDI.

With the COVID-19 crisis closing off Australia’s traditional sources of growth from trade, foreign investment and skilled migration, “we are going to have to work out how to generate our own new drivers of economic dynamism.”

On the other hand, trust levels in Australian society have risen since 2012, and trust in the Federal Government and Australian Public Service has risen significantly since the start of the pandemic, according to research cited in the report.

“The 2020 Transforming Australia Update comes at a pivotal moment,” says MSDI Chair, Professor John Thwaites. “The global disruption caused by COVID-19 is unprecedented in our lifetime and is a serious setback for prosperity and sustainable development – here in Australia and globally.”

While COVID-19 has reduced pollution and global greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, Professor Thwaites says there is a risk of “pressure to reduce environmental safeguards and climate action if countries focus solely on economic recovery.”

Yet Professor Thwaites believes Australia still has an opportunity to forge an effective, collective response to the crisis.

“Governments are taking extraordinary measures to respond to the social and economic impacts of the crisis, which will determine the shape of our economies and lives for years to come. While the impacts have been severe, there is a huge opportunity to design a recovery strategy that begins to substantially address climate change, strengthens our resilience to future shocks and ensures long-term, sustainable prosperity for Australia.”

The 17 UN SDGs, signed in 2015 by all 193 UN member nations, build the foundations for a unified global effort both to define what a peaceful, prosperous life for all humans on a sustainable planet would look like, and to set goals and targets to achieve that overarching objective by 2030.

Use of the SDGs by state and local governments, civil society and business to help track performance is growing. "The SDGs are an increasingly important framework for large investors like super funds as we consider the impact our investments can have on the society in which our members work and will retire into,” says Nicole Bradford, Portfolio Head, Responsible Investment for Cbus Super, a A$55 billion Australian superannuation fund, who launched the report.

Analysis of 56 indicators of Australian life, ranging from unemployment levels and species loss to alcohol use, incarceration rates, investment trends and Internet speeds, shows that:

Economic challenges

  • Women, young people and those without high school qualifications are more likely to have lost jobs or work hours as a result of COVID-19.
  • Australia has relatively low levels of government debt, which will help in the COVID-19 recovery, however household debt is well above the OECD average.
  • Indicators of economic dynamism -- including research and development expenditure and investment in knowledge-based capital as shares of GDP -- are stagnant or trending downwards.
  • Wealth inequality has increased significantly, with the share of household net worth of the poorest 40 percent declining by 30 per cent since 2004.

Social challenges

  • Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and are more likely to lose their jobs and experience psychological distress. Women also continue to lose out on pay equality and housework parity, and domestic violence has increased during COVID-19.
  • Australians are living longer but are more obese and, since the pandemic, drinking more alcohol.
  • Homicide rates have halved since 2000, yet the prison population has increased by 32 per cent since 2006.
  • Indigenous life expectancy has increased but remains well below the national average. Indigenous Australians make up just over 3 percent of the Australian population but more than 27 percent of the prison population.

Environmental challenges

  • Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have declined only marginally since 2000 and little progress has been made since 2013. Australia is well off track to meet a 2030 emissions target that is consistent with the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees.
  • Australia’s per capita material footprint is one of the highest in the world - more than 70 per cent above the OECD average - and rising.
  • Hard coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined and the trend for threatened species has worsened since 2000.
  • Total forest area has increased steadily since 2008 after a period of decline. Yet research by ClimateWorks Australia indicates that 5 million more hectares of plantings are needed by 2030 to reach climate targets.
  • The share of ASX200 companies that submit adequate sustainability reports has increased substantially since 2008.

All main political parties support the SDGs in principle, but the Australian Government has not set an implementation agenda, including targets, for achieving the SDGs.

This report builds on targets and measures of progress that the independent National Sustainable Development Council developed in 2018. Of the 56 indicators examined in the report, only 12 are assessed as on track. Ten need improvement, 11 require a breakthrough, and 23 are off track.

“Targets are crucial -- they set national priorities and level of ambition, provide investment clarity and certainty, and encourage a shift from short- to long-term thinking,” says Dr Cameron Allen of MSDI and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.  “With only 10 years remaining to achieve the SDGs, Australia still lacks national targets and this undermines our ability to effectively plan for our future.”