The building blocks for a better future? Mainstreaming the UN Sustainable Development Goals into the Covid recovery

by Dr Anne Bardsley
Close up view of solar panels in a city, with skyscrapers in the background.

Opening plenary keynote speech, Climate Change + Business Conference
11 November 2020
Dr Anne Bardsley, Deputy Director, Koi Tū

Video of Anne’s keynote speech

Tēnā koutou katoa

I’d like to first introduce Koi Tū briefly for those who don’t know about us. We are a fairly new think tank and research centre hosted at the University of Auckland, with associates across several NZ universities, as well as international affiliates.

The centre grew out of the office of the former and inaugural Chief Science Advisor to New Zealand’s Prime Minister – that was Sir Peter Gluckman, who is the Centre’s director.

So we come from significant experience working at the interface between science and policymaking. But rather than focusing on providing advice on the issues of the day with the relatively short-term focus that is the norm for most policymaking, we now approach the more complex, longer-term issues from a broad transdisciplinary perspective, with an emphasis on co-determining and co-framing the questions, and co-designing the solutions.

In the time since COVID-19 hit our shores, Koi Tū has convened numerous online conversations with experts, business leaders, policymakers, and civil society members to discuss the challenge confronting us, to identify the key issues and to help frame the questions that require the most urgent attention.

These discussions produced a series of think-pieces under the heading “the Future is Now” including one titled “The Environment is Now” – expanding on the question we are focusing on here today – which is how to ensure that sustainability is woven into the core of our policies and actions as we move forward from the COVID disruption.

Often when the word sustainability is used, people see only the environmental aspects, and of course those are critical – we have only one planet – but there is much more to sustainability. There was an enormous breakthrough in the work that led up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which recognise that environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, social sustainability and individual and institutional health are all intricately linked to each other.

The SDGs offer a shared framework for addressing these multiple challenges simultaneously. Relevant for this conference’s focus on climate change and business, the 17 goals were explicitly designed to engage the private sector in addressing these difficult, interwoven challenges. They are, of course, also meant to engage the public sector in a holistic view of policymaking for long-term sustainability, while continuing to support social justice and economic development around the world.

The SDGs were endorsed in 2015 by 193 countries, but very few developed countries have put them at the centre of their policymaking. Many governments, including in NZ, have seen the SDGs as relating primarily to foreign aid, rather than being a guide to their domestic agenda.

Understandably, most governments would rather be seen to work to their own agenda than be directed by one set internationally. And to be fair, the structure of the goals and the 169 underlying targets do not fit neatly into most national policy frameworks.

But few countries anticipated the acute need for a common framework to address the multiple complex challenges that have been accelerated by the pandemic.

COVID-19 represents a significant inflection point, and the message we’ve heard is that it presents an opportunity to rethink, and reset some of our policies, and to agree on an aspirational vision and direction for Aotearoa as we look to the future. Having been given a taste of the worst-case scenario, a shutdown of our economy and social interactions, we now need to consider how to build a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient economy and society for the long term.

Some deep transformations will be needed – towards sustainable ways of living and doing business. This will require considerable commitment and solidarity across, and at all levels of society.

And this is what is needed for the COVID recovery. The many conversations we had over lockdown, and since then, have highlighted the desire of a broad range of stakeholders to collaborate, and to articulate a clear vision and direction for NZ that would inspire collective action rather than piecemeal activities…

The multi-layered impacts of the pandemic cut across all sectors, highlighting the complex interconnections within our society, and revealed sources of systemic risk in these connections. We suggest that one approach to this is to align our COVID-19 response and recovery efforts with the SDGs as an overarching framework.

What does that mean in NZ? In terms of agendas, we have the Living Standards Framework, designed to inform the wellbeing budget. The 4 capitals of the LSF (natural, human, social, financial/physical capital) represent a way of organising indicators of future wellbeing. The SDGs, on the other hand, are a related set of goals, that may create a more explicit understanding of what needs to be achieved.

Many of the goals interconnect with others. In fact a lot of work has been done, which we’ve been involved with through the International Science Council and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, to show how goals and targets interact both synergistically and antagonistically.

We already know that whatever we do in any of these domains impacts other domains. Consider climate change, which affects food production, health and wellbeing, and increasingly, economics, and in fact the things we do to mitigate and adapt to climate change (SDG 13 – Climate Action) have affects across multiple other goals and targets.

So it is important to look at interactions. In many cases, creating a positive impact on one target will have a benefit across others – amplifying the impact for the effort made. Those are important points to identify. It’s also true that a positive impact in one may have unintended negative consequences in another – highlighting where tradeoffs need to be made, or risks mitigated.

And some goals or targets generate more value than others, so defining a strategy is challenging. It will have to be done specifically in the NZ context. But the overall structure of the SDGs does reflect the objective of better integration across sectors, which we know is needed to address those systemic risks.

One way to think about it is in terms of transformations. Several groups have worked to distil the complexity of the SDGs into a smaller sets of “transformations” – putting goals and targets together around, for example, human wellbeing and capabilities, sustainable and just economies, food systems, energy decarbonisation, urban development, and attention to the global commons. How to group the goals and targets into transformations is something NZ needs to decide for itself.

We are only a decade away from what should be a landmark year (2030) – the goal year for the Sustainable Development Agenda. In NZ we don’t think about this. We certainly have a number groups and organisations taking action, but they are not really working collectively, and so their impact is not as great as it could be.

But I think our recent election outcome would suggest that many NZers are ready for conversations about where we want to be 10-20 years from now. And that we achieved consensus in the last parliament over a climate change commission was a great start. We now have our first national climate change risk assessment completed.

One suggestion that came out of our discussions around an environmentally-focused reset was the possibility that we could extend that thinking to a sustainability commission, which could help ensure policy coherence for long-term goals – looking across the whole system for mutually reinforcing policies, and considering tradeoffs where these must occur, and developing a roadmap for sustainability.

Such a body would need to be both expert and independent, and be recognised as such. Like the Climate Change Commission, it would be responsible for reviewing targets, and providing advice to meet them. An independent commission would give confidence in the quality and independence of decision making extending well beyond the political cycle. Its role, essentially, would be to safeguard our ability to meet the long-term needs of future generations.

 In conclusion, while the SDGs are highly aspirational, like their predecessor the Millennium Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement, if taken seriously they have the potential to help galvanize governments and organizations in ways that can inspire collective action and bring about meaningful progress.

Thank you.

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