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The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) define an ambitious action plan for the future we want but say little about implementation.

For advanced countries such as Australia, rapid progress towards the SDGs is there for the taking and greater gains will be made by addressing all SDGs together.

The SDGs can deliver a fairer, greener and more prosperous nation, however the last steps to achieving the Goals will be the most challenging.

Achieving the SDGs requires deep, deliberate structural changes in resource use, infrastructure, institutions technologies, consumption patterns and social relations over a relatively short period of time. Delivering such transformations is unprecedented in human history.

To add to the challenge, the 2030 Agenda says very little about implementation. Supporting decision makers in government, business and civil society to operationalise the goals will be a critical. Of concern is that the comprehensive scope and inherent tensions and trade-offs between the 169 SDG targets will undermine their achievability. Many of our planning, programming and policy decisions are undertaken at the sectoral level in silos. An integrated systems approach is needed to understand and manage these tensions and leverage potential co-benefits or synergies.

It’s clear that the SDGs will not be achieved using the same conventional approaches used in the past. Building the evidence-base on the transitions needed to attain the SDGs is a key area where science and transdisciplinary research can make a tangible contribution. 

Our new research published this week in Nature Sustainability explores how countries can accelerate national progress on the SDGs using a coherent set of policies and investments, with a focus on Australia. We chose Australia as a use case of a wealthy, advanced economy with mixed performance on the SDGs, and comparatively poor performance on global SDG rankings when compared with other OECD countries.

We formulated a set of four alternative scenarios on how Australia could develop through until 2030: an Australia that is fairer, greener, neither, or both. We also ran a ‘business-as-usual’ (BAU) scenario leaving existing policy settings intact to set a baseline for comparison. For each scenario, we adopted a different set of policy and investment settings, particularly around tax and subsidies, government expenditure and private investment. 

Our ‘Growth at all Costs’ scenario focuses on accelerating economic growth through more rapid population growth, lower taxes on income and profits, and a reduction in government expenditure, particularly for service provision, social transfers and environmental management. Economic growth remains strongly coupled to resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Our ‘Green Economy’ scenario pursues sufficient economic growth to support continuous job creation, and greater resource efficiency, clean energy, greenhouse gas reduction, and sustainable land management. Population growth slows and economic value creation decouples from material and energy consumption.

Our ‘Inclusive Growth’ scenario focuses on achieving strong economic growth while also targeting wealth distribution, progressive taxation, and larger investments in education and health. Population grows more rapidly and remains coupled to energy, water and resource consumption.

Our ‘Sustainability Transition’ scenario shifts Australia to a more sustainable path, combining aspects of inclusive growth and a greener economy in a coherent approach to development. All policy measures adopted were considered readily available to government and technically feasible.

We used an integrated assessment model that we developed specifically for Australia (iSDG-Australia model) to simulate each scenario through until 2030. The performance of each scenario in 2030 was evaluated based on a set of 52 SDG targets and around 100 indicators across all 17 goals. Performance was assessed based on the amount of progress made towards each target, each goal, and across all targets and goals (i.e. % progress on the SDGs). This included a balanced spread of economic, social and environmental objectives, including poverty, inequality, health, education, clean energy and water, climate change and biodiversity.

We find that Australia is projected to fall well short of the SDGs in 2030 under a BAU scenario – we project overall progress of around 40% on average across all SDG targets. While Australia performs well on goals on health, education and clean water, our performance on environmental goals is badly off-track.

Focusing on more rapid economic growth alone delivers little improvement on the SDGs (around 42% progress on average towards the SDGs under ‘Growth at all Costs’) – inequality and poverty increase, improvements in life expectancy are slower, and greenhouse gas emissions accelerate. 

Only minimal improvements on the SDGs are achieved through a more inclusive growth model (around 47% progress under ‘Inclusive Growth’). This is largely because Australia already performs well on targets relating to health and education and additional investment delivers diminishing returns, while performance on environmental targets continues to lag behind.

The green economy scenario sees rapid progress on environmental targets and synergies with economic and social targets which delivers strong gains on the SDGs (around 63% of progress towards the SDGs under ‘Green Economy’). Noteworthy is the improved performance resulting from only modest additional investment, showing that quick gains for Australia can be made through a focused set of green policy interventions.

The greatest gains for Australia can be made by addressing all SDGs together. The Sustainability Transition scenario experiences slower economic growth overall, yet consistently outperforms other scenarios on a number of fronts – reaching 70% overall progress on SDG targets – delivering a fairer, greener and more prosperous Australia.  However, even our most optimistic scenario still falls short of the progress needed to achieve all SDG targets.

Future risks associated with climate change could also undermine progress and closing the gap to 100% SDG achievement will be very challenging. This will likely require a shift from ‘sustainability transition’ to a deeper ‘SDG transformation’.

This article was authored by Cameron Allen, Graciela Metternicht, Thomas Wiedmann, Matteo Pedercini

Cameron Allen is an independent consultant and PhD researcher at the UNSW Sydney School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Cameron has around 20 years of experience working in sustainable development and interdisciplinary environmental management with previous positions with the United Nations and Australian Government working primarily on the SDGs and climate change. Cameron’s current research focuses on the use of systems thinking and analysis and advanced modelling and data-driven approaches to support national implementation of the SDGs in Australia and abroad.

Graciela Metternicht is Professor of Environmental Geography at the UNSW Sydney, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, with expertise in environmental management and sustainability. Land degradation adviser to the UN Global Environmental Facility (STAP), she co-leads the Dryland Ecosystems Specialist Group of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, and is member of the Science Policy Interface of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.  2018 awardee of the President’s International Initiative, Chinese Academy of Science. Past appointments include Regional Coordinator of Early Warning and Assessment at UN Environment.

Thomas (Tommy) Wiedmann is Associate Professor of sustainability research and leader of the Sustainability Assessment Program at UNSW Sydney. He has long-standing expertise in integrated sustainability assessment and environmental footprint analysis. His main research question is how to achieve human and planetary wellbeing concurrently. Tommy leads the national IELab e-research infrastructure and coordinates a number of research projects related to sustainability. In 2012 he received the Thomson Reuters Citation Award in Australia and has been listed as Highly Cited Researcher and World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds annually since 2015.

Matteo Pedercini leads the Millennium Institute modeling and research practice, working with governments, international organizations, and private sector stakeholders to use system dynamics simulation models for analyzing and developing sustainable development strategies. His expertise spans a broad range of development topics, including ecological agriculture and food security, green economy, health, and population dynamics. He has extensive experience working in developing and middle-income countries.

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