The Sustainable Development Goals: Game-changer or good-looking rehash?

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From Agenda 21 to the Millennium Development Goals and beyond

By Peter Burnett

Australia, along with most nations in the world, has signed up to the Sustainability Development Goals (or SDGs for short), the UN’s latest effort to broker a pathway forward to a more sustainable future. How are we going in our efforts to meet the SDGs? And, indeed, is there any value in the SDG approach? I’m a tad cynical but the SDGs have definitely put a new face on sustainability.

The value of SDGs came into sharp focus for me last week at a conference in Melbourne titled ‘Why Should the Public Sector Care About Sustainable Development?’ (I think the answer to the conference-title question is simple: our future depends on it.) One of the conference presenters was John Thwaites, former Victorian Deputy Premier and Environment Minister, now a Professorial Fellow and Chair of the National Sustainable Development Council (NSDC), an NGO. John’s topic was the Sustainable Development Goals. Last year the NSDC released a progress report on SDG implementation in Australia, hot on the heels of Australia’s first official progress report.

John spoke with some passion about the value of the SDGs and gave examples of how they were influencing actual decisions by government and non-government bodies alike. Having been more focused on government policy-making, I had not considered his argument that the SDGs were gaining some real traction due to their social influence. So I thought it was time for another look: are the SDGs breathing new life into sustainable development?

Origins of the SDGs

Before answering that question, some history. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The UN describes them as a ‘shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet’.

You’ve probably seen the catchy 17-tiled SDG infographic, as it gets quite a lot of exposure (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Countries made their original commitment to sustainable development at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The summit adopted the Rio Declaration, which sets out some 27 sustainability principles, along with a 350-page action plan called Agenda 21 (an agenda for the 21st Century).

The problem was that, to get everyone on board, rich countries had to make commitments to poor countries based on a principle of ‘intra-generational equity’. In essence this came down to promising poor countries that they wouldn’t lose the opportunity to develop, and to consume their fair share of the environmental resource pie in doing so, just because the rich countries had already eaten most of it.

Of course, this implied that the rich countries would henceforth constrain their own consumption. With the deal done and the pressure seemingly off, the rich countries went home and, unsurprisingly, did not consume less to free up resources for poor countries. So when everyone met again, at ‘Rio+5’ in New York in 1997, the poor countries objected strongly and the meeting almost collapsed.

The MDGs

Giving up on sustainable development wasn’t really an option. So they had another go, this time endorsing eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to mark the new century. The MDGs focused on poverty, with only one goal embodying a commitment to environmental sustainability*. The target date was 2015.

The MDGs breathed some life back into the sustainability. Real progress was made, though I think this was made possible by allowing the rising tide of economic growth to lift all boats, particularly in China, at the expense of ongoing environmental decline.

In any event, the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 decided that the MDGs warranted follow-on goals, and so the SDGs came to pass. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs reflect a more even balance between social and environmental goals, with five of seventeen goals having an environmental focus. The SDG’s also have some real substance, with 17 goals supported by 169 targets and 232 indicators.

Australia and the SDGs

The proof of the pudding however is in the eating. Australia’s first implementation report to the UN is simply a compilation of actions taken by governments and others that align with the SDGs. Further, while some good things are reported (eg, the National Disability Insurance Scheme), others are glossed over. The report for example refers to government support for Ramsar wetlands, omitting mention of the small amounts involved. Still other things are trivialised: the section on ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ reports that community gardens are increasingly popular, supported by ‘grass-roots’ organisations!

Irrespective of how good the reported measures are, the government makes no claim that the SDGs have driven any change in domestic policy and files its report under ‘aid’ on the DFAT website. Clearly the SDGs are not a game-changer from the government’s point of view.

The NSDC report is more analytical, using a ratings scheme under which Australia scores an overall 6.5/10. While this corresponds to a university ‘credit’ grade, averaging conceals a wide spread of ratings. We are best in looking after ourselves, scoring 8.9 in health and education, and worst at sharing, rating 4.4 on climate action (ie, sharing the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution with future generations) and 4.3 on reduced inequalities.

Are the SDGs making a difference?

I’m sure John is right and that the SDGs are gaining some traction, including in ways not readily measured. But is that influence putting a dent in the underlying problem, that we are consuming environmental resources more quickly than nature can replace them?

The NSDC answers this question itself, opening its report with the comment that despite strong economic growth, ‘our children and grandchildren face the prospect of being worse off than we are as a result of increasing inequality, environmental degradation and climate change.’

A key problem is that while the SDGs are new in some respects, they are old in others. The goals, targets and performance measures are new, but the underlying principles are not. The UN Resolution adopting the SDGs in 2015 simply calls up the earlier principles and resolutions, such as those from Rio in 1992. This means that governments (and the rest of us) have no new reason for taking the hard decisions that sustainability requires, to keep the pursuit of economic development within nature’s capacity to replace what we consume.

Trumped by the short term

This is the reason for my cynicism. Because there is nothing new foundationally in the SDGs, short term political imperatives to grow the economy will continue to trump normative or moral obligations to share available resources with future generations and poor countries, no matter how often those obligations are repeated.

I’m sure John Thwaites is right and that the SDGs are making a difference. It’s just that they don’t contain anything that would make a fundamental difference. As a result, I expect that, short of a crisis, we will continue to play the game and report actions that are consistent with the SDGs, without actually changing our ways.

*The MDGs were later endorsed at ‘Rio+10’, the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg, 2002. These ‘Rio+’ conferences are now a thing, with Rio+30 due in 2022.

Calling all economists: don’t let the denialists leave you the blame

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Climate change is both an economic AND a moral issue

By David Salt

“Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

These were Tony Abbott’s parting words on the 18 May 2019 as he conceded defeat at the recent federal elections. The voters in his Warringah electorate had finally tired of his denialist cant, and his wrecking and leaking from the side lines.

But in the ashes of his defeat he still found solace in the fact that while he had lost, his party, the Liberals, had won. They took no credible policy on carbon emissions (or the environment in general) to the election, they backed the development of new coal mines, and they scared the nation that the changes the nation would face under the opposition would cost everyone.

Against all poll-based predications, the Liberals won, and from their (close) victory they claim they have a mandate to ramp up the economic development of our fossil fuel reserves and continue with their non-action on the environmental front (with displacement activity on plastic recycling on the side to cover the void of their inaction).

Economics traduced

So, while Abbott has departed the political stage, possibly his parting observation of how the conservatives should be framing climate change held some truth: ‘Where climate change is framed as an economic issue, the Liberals do very, very well.’

If that’s the case then the once noble science of economics has been traduced – revealed as lacking a moral centre. It is merely a tool (a pawn) in a political game used to instil fear and prejudice in a jittery electorate.

Climate change is big – indeed it’s massive – but it’s also amorphous, uncertain and lies in our future (even though its impacts are starting to be felt). With clever economic framing it’s easy to convince people that the deep, transformative change that the world’s scientists say we need comes with ‘unacceptable’ short term costs. This is the exact game the Liberal party has been playing.

Indeed, the Liberals line in the run up to the last election was that their climate policies met their climate commitments “without wrecking the economy” and they released economic modelling suggesting Labor’s 45% target would cost the economy billions. The Liberals climate commitments have been shown time and again to be inadequate and their modelling of Labor’s higher target have been widely debunked.

It was a climate campaign based on fear and deception, and it seems that it worked in that it convinced voters the short term costs outweighed any longer term benefits. And then the government’s biggest denier (in the form of its past leader Tony Abbott) claimed it was simply an economics framing.

Stand up and be counted!

Well, I say to economists everywhere, please don’t accept this. Your science is based on rationality, public welfare and moral outcomes. Don’t allow conservatives to hide behind the economic façade of short term optimisation. Don’t allow them to sell your science as a reason to turn our back on climate change.

Of course, economists are some of the biggest supporters of meaningful action on climate change. And, truth to tell, there are real dangers in raising any issue to the status of a moral crisis.

In 2007 one of the world’s leading economists, Sir Nicholas Stern, told the world that “climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

“The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. The problem is global and the response must be a collaboration on a global scale,” said Stern.

Our own Prime Minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, then chimed in on this rising tide of concern by labelling climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation.” But then he seemed to squib on his commitment as soon as it hit resistance in parliament (resistance led by Tony Abbott). Surely the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’ was worthy of a bit of a fight.

But with major ecosystems failing, mass extinctions on the increase and Pacific nations drowning under rising seas, there can be no doubt that climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation. It’s also the great ecological, economic and social issue of our times, and experts from all areas should be standing up and demanding our political leaders see it as such.

For a past prime minister (Tony Abbott) to claim otherwise is immoral. To claim legitimacy for his party’s denialism by hiding it behind the cloak of economics is deceitful but in that he invoked economics it’s beholden on economists everywhere to set the record straight.

But the last word goes to the Pope

And another little postscript on Abbott’s election night epiphany. He began by pointing out that ‘where climate change is a moral issue the Liberals do it tough’. Where is Abbott’s moral centre in this debate? As a self-professed Catholic of deep faith, what does he make of Pope Francis’ declaration (coincidently also made in May this year). Pope Francis said: “We continue along old paths because we are trapped by our faulty accounting and by the corruption of vested interests. We still reckon as profit what threatens our very survival.” From this perspective, the Liberals economic framing is revealed to be merely faulty accounting and corrupt.

Not that Abbott has ever shown the moral fortitude of the leader of his Church. At the same time that Abbott was telling the world that climate change was not something to worry about, Pope Francis is on the record as saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”

Image byPete Linforth fromPixabay

Environmental regulation and the Productivity Commission

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Is ‘efficiency’ the sole solution to the challenge of ‘sustainability’?

By Peter Burnett

Last week the Australian Government announced a new inquiry by the Productivity Commission (PC) into regulation of the resources sector. While not confined to environmental regulation, in announcing the review Treasurer Josh Frydenberg made specific reference to improving the efficiency of environmental approvals to reduce the ‘regulatory burden’ on business. Frydenberg also said that the review would complement the forthcoming statutory review of national environmental protection law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. (For more on this review, see my recent blog).

In his media release, Frydenberg repeated the mantra of recent governments: that the aim was to ensure that projects were assessed efficiently while ‘upholding robust environmental standards’. This largely reflects the terms of reference of the PC inquiry, which talk of removing unnecessary costs while ‘ensuring robust protections for the environment are maintained’.

The week before the inquiry was announced, the new chair of the Minerals Council of Australia, Helen Coonan (a former Howard Government minister), identified efficient regulation as one of her top priorities. She claimed that if project approvals were sped up by one year, this would release some $160 billion and 69,000 jobs to the economy. I’m not sure where this figure came from, but it may have been based on a PC inquiry into the upstream oil and gas industry in 2009, which estimated that expediting the regulatory approval process for a major project by one year could increase its net present value by up to 18%. In any event, that’s a juicy target for efficiency savings.

The PC’s role on sustainability

On its website, the PC advertises itself as ‘providing independent research and advice to Government on economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians’. That’s not bad for a slogan but the substance is a little more complicated.

Under the Productivity Commission Act 1998 the substantive functions of the PC are all cast in terms of industry development and productivity. And the PC’s statutory policy guidelines, to which it must have regard, are dominated by considerations of improving economic performance through higher productivity; reducing regulation and increasing efficiency.

The statutory guidelines do, however, include considerations relevant to sustainability. Beyond a direct reference to the need ‘to ensure that industry develops in a way that is ecologically sustainable’, there are also references to other things connected to sustainability such as regional development; avoiding hardship from structural change; and meeting Australia’s international obligations. Further, one of the Commissioners must be experienced in sustainability and conservation while another must be experienced in social issues.

So, while the PC is definitely about efficiency and growth, it doesn’t have a one-track mind. Environmental and social impacts are definitely members of the cast, though in supporting roles. As we’ll see below, the problem doesn’t seem to be the PC but what the government does or doesn’t do with its recommendations.

We’ve been here before

Industry keeps complaining about inefficiency and duplication in environmental regulation, and governments keep returning to this theme, often through references to the PC. In recent years, in addition to sector-specific reports on regulation (including environmental regulation) of transport, agriculture, fisheries, water, upstream oil and gas, and mineral exploration, the PC has produced general reports on native vegetation and biodiversity regulation (2004); planning, zoning and development assessment (2011); COAG’s regulatory reform agenda including environmental regulation (2012); and major project assessment (2013).

This is in addition to the statutory review of the EPBC Act itself by Allan Hawke in 2009, which also included significant recommendations for regulatory streamlining.

The PC has also conducted other relevant review activities, such as convening a roundtable on Promoting Better Environmental Outcomes (2009).

And it looks like we’ll do it again

The terms of reference for this latest review focus on identifying practices for project approval that have led to streamlining the process without compromising environmental standards. This is rather unimaginative and I think will simply lead the PC back to places it has already gone, such as recommending increased use of regional plans and other landscape scale approaches; increased regulatory guidance; and a single national threatened species list.

In response to past recommendations, governments have done some of all these things. For example, there is a process underway to adopt a common assessment method for threatened species listings.

But governments don’t seem to tackle the issues in a fulsome and vigorous way, to deal with them once and for all. In fact, they attempt to walk on both sides of the street, pursuing reforms in an incremental way while simultaneously cutting environment department budgets. On this basis, one must even question their appetite for reform.

So much at stake

So is environmental regulation just a convenient whipping boy? There’s so much at stake that I don’t think so. Perhaps governments are wedged between their own policies and the politics: they don’t want to increase spending and can’t be seen to water down existing standards, yet remain frustrated by the processes that those standards bring with them.

If governments want real improvements to regulatory efficiency, without simply winding environmental laws back, they have to front-load the regulatory process with information and guidance and resources, ie with things that the PC and others have already recommended. These boil down pretty much to landscape-scale approaches such as regional planning (done comprehensively) supported by increased levels of regulatory service, including detailed guidance on what will and won’t be approved.

It’s not rocket science, but it will take serious money. But keep in mind that such an investment would lead to saving even more serious money.

And there’s an incidental benefit in such an approach. Proper environmental information and planning will also improve the quality of decision-making, which should improve environmental outcomes.

Image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nothing to see here

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Displacement is the game when you have nothing really to say (on the environment)

By David Salt

‘How good is the environment?’

Well, by any objective measure it’s in serious trouble and getting worse. But what do you say if your policies aren’t prepared to acknowledge this?

As our national government, you’re in charge of protecting the environment. You’re faced with collapsing ecosystems, declining biodiversity and a rising toll from climate extremes. In spite of this, you’ve made cut after cut to your Environment Department, told everyone Australia is going to make our carbon emission targets ‘at a canter’ (despite all the hard evidence that emissions are actually going up) and repeatedly stated when it comes to the environment everything is sweet. It’s getting harder to sustain this line but you have to say (and do) something. So, what will it be?

Based on what our Environment Minister is saying in Parliament in answer to questions from her own side, the game appears to be to focus on the little picture and displace everyone’s attention.

A tiny agenda

‘Questions without notice’ are supposed to be an opportunity for members to raise important issues relating to their electorates. Unfortunately, they have largely become political theatre in which the major parties just try to embarrass each other.

Under Question-Time rules, government members are allowed to ask questions of their own side. These are called ‘Dorothy Dixers’, after a famous syndicated column in womens’ magazines, ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’, in which ‘Dorothy’ played agony aunt to her readers and provided homespun advice on marriage and the other challenges of home life.

When the government gets a Dorothy Dixer (or ‘Dixers’ as the insiders call them) it’s an opportunity for the government to use a rehearsed question from a friendly questioner to spell out its strategy and agenda, often in the context of announcing (or re-announcing) the spending of money. So when the Minister for the Environment is asked by her own side what’s on the environmental agenda we get a good idea on what the Government is setting out to achieve, what its grand vision is, including how it intends to spend our money.

In recent weeks, that vision seems to consist of small community projects – “it’s supporting grassroots organisations working on small projects that make a big difference”; a bit of environmental restoration, a bit more on soil conservation (God bless our farmers) and a big focus on increasing recycling and reducing waste. (Note: the links in this paragraph take you to the Hansard record of Parliament for the day in question – 23, 30 & 31 July in these cases – but not to the specific answers in the Questions-Without-Notice sessions that I’m referring to. Why Hansard can’t provide specific links to specific answers I don’t know. Maybe to make it harder to pin Ministers down to their answers.)

Indeed, recycling and waste reduction seem to be this government’s big ticket item when it comes to the Environment: “We can’t opt out of modern living or the modern world,” says Sussan Ley, our new Environment Minister, “but we can get smarter about the way we live and the pressure we place on our environment, and about doing everything we can to mitigate that—reducing waste, increasing recycling.”

We don’t need to save the reef (?)

They’ve even appointed an ‘envoy for the reef’ in the form of Warren Entsch (Member for Leichhardt in far north Queensland) who has refused to acknowledge the imminent threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef instead citing plastics as being the big problem and increased recycling as the solution.

“We don’t need to save the reef,” Entsch said recently in The Guardian. “It’s still going – we need to manage it and manage it well and we’re the best reef managers in the world.”

So what is his (and this Government’s) solution to saving the Reef? Get rid of single-use plastics. Though, when it comes down to it, our political leaders don’t even believe Australia is the cause of this problem: “the bulk of it [plastic] on our seas comes down from our northern neighbours,” says Entsch. “If we can create world’s best practice and get them to clean up their own backyard then we will reduce the volumes that come down to us.”

What about cleaning up our own backyard, Mr Reef Envoy? Have you read any of the voluminous science coming out over recent years telling us our reef is dying (from declining water quality, increased storm activity, increased outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish and, multiplying every threat, climate change)?

“Australians care about our environment,” says Environment Minister Ley. “They want to be involved in protecting it now and into the future. The Morrison government will work internationally and with communities, with local organisations and with our scientific experts to address all of the issues that confront us, large and small, including Asia-Pacific rainforest recovery, blue carbon and sequestering carbon in our coastal and marine ecosystems, and we will continue to invest in protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

Nice words, but it’s such shallow rhetoric. When it comes to our environment, the government only pays lip service to the big issues, and only engages in doing things that are too small to make much difference overall. All the while it ignores and marginalises the scientific expertise it claims to respect.

High opportunity cost

This is displacement activity of the worse type because the opportunity cost of ignoring the bigger picture – trashing the evidence and degrading our environmental capacity – is the horrible cost of environmental failure our society (and children) will bear down the line.

And, even as I write this, the Government is doing more displacement on the environmentally linked sector of energy – let’s set up an enquiry on nuclear energy to show we mean business.

Nothing to see here.

Image: Tane Sinclair-Taylor, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies