Australia ranks 20th in the world – well behind Canada and many European countries but ahead of the United States – according to a new index that compares different nations' performance on the SDGs, which were adopted last September.
Launched at mid-July’s United Nations SDG talks in New York, the index marks each country’s performance towards the 17 goals. These aim to put the world on a more sustainable economic, social and environmental path, and feature 169 targets to be met over the next 15 years in areas such as health, economic growth and climate action.
The ranking, called the SDG Index and Dashboard and prepared by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung, ranks countries' performance using a set of 77 indicators.
Australia: good water, bad energy
Australia, with some of the world’s highest carbon emissions per person, rates poorly on the clean energy and climate change goals. It also falls down on the environmental goals, with high levels of solid waste and land clearing as well as loss of biodiversity.
Despite the long life expectancy and general good health of Australians, the index highlights that Australia has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world.
As shown in the performance chart below, Australia rates relatively highly on lack of poverty, education and water quality. Inequality, while increasing, is not as bad as it is in the United States or the United Kingdom.
Australia’s performance on each of the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG Index and Dashboards report
The best-performing countries on the list are mainly the northern European countries. Sweden, Denmark and Norway are at the top of the pile. Yet even these nations have significant challenges to achieve the climate change and environmental goals.
At the bottom of the rankings are sub-Saharan African countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and the Central African Republic, which face extreme poverty, hunger and major health problems.
In Asia, Japan and Singapore both rate above Australia, in 18th and 19th places respectively. Thailand (61st), Malaysia (63rd) and China (76th) are in the middle of the pack.
Priorities for action
The purpose of the report is to help countries identify the gaps that must be closed in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and to identify priorities for early action.
The SDG Index notes that Australia performs much better in the UN’s Human Development Index (on which it ranks second), which focuses on social and economic development but not environmental sustainability. This clearly demonstrates that Australia needs to act urgently to address the climate and environmental goals. It is in Australia’s interest to do so as we are more vulnerable to climate change than most comparable countries.
The report also highlights some other specific challenges for Australia, including fisheries management and sustainable use of nitrogen-based fertiliser. While Australia is not the worst performer on gender equality, many countries have a higher proportion of women in national parliaments than our 26.7% and we have a significantly larger gender wage gap than New Zealand.
The SDG Index will be updated regularly to improve its quality and coverage and allow people around the world to measure progress against the goals. Australia’s plan for implementing the SDGs within Australia is not yet clear and this will be an important item on the agenda for the re-elected Turnbull government.
John Thwaites receives funding from the Harold Mitchell Foundation. He is chair of Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University. Monash University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU. Victoria State Government provides funding as a strategic partner of The Conversation AU.