(L-R): Climate Institute CEO John Connor; WWF CEO Dermot O’Gorman, Male Champions of Change founder Elizabeth Broderick; and The Ethics Centre senior Consultant Trent Moy on the Mobilising Collective Action panel.

Australia is lagging in its progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and must step up its efforts to achieve a sustainable, inclusive and low-carbon economy, according to experts from business, academia and the NGO sector.

A Mobilising Collective Action panel hosted by Unilever last month in Sydney looked at practical actions that can be taken to realise the opportunities of the SDGs.

The roundtable event focused on five of the 17 global goals – gender equality, life on land, climate change, responsible consumption and partnerships.

Businesses included Westpac, Energy Australia, City of Sydney, World Wildlife Fund, The Climate Institute, Male Champions of Change, The Ethics Centre and Sustainable Business Australia.

“We need to inspire and educate consumers to make more informed decisions and understand how the products they purchase can have a positive impact on the world,” Sustainable Business Australia chief executive Andrew Petersen said.

“It is also really important that the Australian territories and states comes together on resource use and create a national plan rather than having individual strategies that don’t speak to each other.”

No trade-off between business growth and sustainability

Clive Stiff, chairman and chief executive Unilever Australia & New Zealand said the company had seen there was “no trade-off between profitable business growth and sustainability”.

“In fact it is creating real value for Unilever, inspiring our consumers who are also seeking responsibility and meaning as well as high quality products at the right price.

“Many Australian businesses are also taking a lead and recognising the economic case for action on key social and environmental issues.”

Speaking on the panel about the “Life on Land” goal, Dermot O’Gorman, chief executive of WWF, said we needed to start with traceability and certification, looking at the supply chain and solving the problem of how to make it business as usual across the whole sector.

“Then we must change consumer behaviour. Food waste might be the best starting point as it will be a critical issue,” Mr O’Gorman said.

On the climate change SDG, Climate Institute chief executive John Connor said that if businesses take leadership seriously, they should use their individual and collective voice to explain the benefits and common ground in tackling climate change.

“They should support good policy development and highlight the costs of inaction as well as demonstrate transparency and work collectively with their supply chains to help make it happen.”

Why the SDGs matter for the Aussie property sector

The SDGs have drawn criticism from some in the property industry because they are viewed as “big picture” ideas that apply more to addressing third world poverty than to the issues of developed nation city-dwellers.

However, what is different compared to the UN’s previous Millennium Development Goals is a broader application across all nations. One of the SDGs, for example, is specifically about improving the sustainability, resilience and inclusivity of urban areas in every country by 2030.

Elements of Goal 11 – the Urban Goal – include a focus on affordable and resilient housing, energy efficiency, sustainable planning, low-carbon and accessible transport, reducing the adverse environmental impacts of cities including improving air quality and reducing waste, and universal access to green and public spaces.

ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability has produced a series of resources on Goal 11 and why it matters to cities. In a briefing sheet, it highlights some of the leadership being shown by cities around the world. These include Barcelona’s use of solar energy to support community energy self sufficiency, Vancouver’s Regional Food System Strategy and Bristol’s Growing a European Green Capital strategy.

Australia is dragging its heels and missing out

In the recent SDG Index and Dashboard Report, Australia ranked 20th in performance towards the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets across areas including health, economic growth and climate action.

The best performing countries on the index include Sweden (1st), Denmark (2nd) and Norway (3rd), and the lowest ranking countries are the sub-Saharan African countries of Democratic Republic of Congo (147th), Liberia (148th) and the Central African Republic (149th).

The United Kingdom sits at 10th, Canada (13th), New Zealand (22nd) and the United States (25th).

Australia rated high on education, water quality and lack of poverty and, although Australians generally enjoy good health, it has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. The country rates poorly on clean energy and climate change goals, and also environmental goals with high levels of solid waste, land clearing and loss of biodiversity.

Chair of Monash Sustainability Institute Professor John Thwaites said this clearly showed Australia needed to act urgently to address the climate and environmental goals, as the country is more vulnerable to climate change than most comparable countries.

Writing in The Conversation in September last year, Professor Thwaites identified some of the big opportunities progress towards the SDGs offers Australia, but also specific areas that need to be tackled to get there.

“… Australia faces major challenges in meeting the SDGs relating to sustainable energy (goal 7), sustainable consumption and production (goal 12), and climate change (goal 13),” he wrote.

“Among other targets, these call for a doubling in the rate of improvement in energy efficiency (goal 7.3), implementing a 10-year framework on sustainable consumption and production (goal 12.1), and halving food waste by 2030 (goal 12.3). Australian households waste about 15 per cent of the food they purchase per year – that’s an estimated 361 kilograms of food waste per person per year, so there is plenty of scope for improvement.

“We still have a way to go to meet the goals and targets for inequality within Australia. The gender-equality goal includes a target of ensuring that women have “full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of political and economic decision-making” (goal 5.5). This has proved elusive in Australia.

“And the SDGs seek to raise incomes of the bottom 40 per cent of the population faster than the rest – the opposite of what has been happening in Australia.”

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