Global sustainability goals a challenge for Australia

By Mary O'CallaghanApril 13th, 2017

New thinking is required if we are to achieve the future we signed up for with the UN sustainable development goals, a new study has found.
aerial view of Australian farm land

Image: Flickr/Paul Williams

More than a year has passed since Australia and the other 192 UN member states signed up to the UN Agenda 2030 which comprises 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that cross all sectors of society, the environment, and the economy.

The 169 targets that support the goals are necessarily broad to gain consensus among all nations, but now the time has come for nations to tailor, or downscale, targets to the national context and to develop implementation strategies for achieving those targets.

Achieving our targets – what are the chances?

Using Australia as a case study, CSIRO researchers Dr Lei Gao and Prof. Brett Bryan have assessed the feasibility of achieving those targets that relate to land and the environment.

The study is the first to comprehensively downscale targets to a national level and to describe the future socio-economic and environmental conditions under which the targets can be achieved. The results of the study are published in the journal Nature  this week.

UN general assembly with two big screens either side of the podium saying Goal 1 No Poverty

September 2016 United Nations General Assembly, marking the first anniversary of signing UN Sustainable Development Goals. Image: Flickr/UN/Cia Pak

The six targets were drawn from existing national strategies and goals and relate to:

  • economic development
  • food production
  • water resource use
  • renewable energy – biofuel production and bioenergy production
  • emissions abatement
  • biodiversity loss and land degradation.

Using a sophisticated, computer-based, land-use simulation model called LUTO, the researchers identified 648 plausible future pathways (environmental, socio-economic, technological, and policy pathways) spanning the three dimensions of society, the environment and the economy. The number of pathways caters for the great uncertainty inherent in predicting the future, both at national and global levels.

The chances of achieving each target under these pathways were then quantified.

Synergies, trade-offs and policy portfolios

The sobering results took Dr Gao by surprise. The modelling revealed that achieving all targets will be nigh impossible, and achieving even more than a couple of targets, even weak targets, is possible only under very specific environmental, economic, and policy conditions.

While synergies allow some targets to be achieved together, some targets are mutually exclusive and many trade-offs exist. For example, both food production targets and biodiversity / land degradation targets were achieved in only 2.9% of the 648 pathways.

“Trade-offs and synergies between targets, and between interventions for implementing targets, are some of the aspects that were glossed over during international negotiations,” explains Dr Gao.

Another big surprise is that no bioenergy targets were achieved. “Bioenergy is a small component—about 1–2%—of the Australian Government’s 2020 renewable energy target/plan, and some other analyses have suggested that it could be increased to 20–30% by 2050.”

The analysis also revealed the policy portfolios that would need to be in place for targets to have any chance of being achieved. For example, achieving the food production targets and biodiversity / land degradation targets would require strong incentives for sequestering carbon and conserving biodiversity; investment in R&D to create a step change in agricultural productivity growth; incentives for environmental plantings; and investment in infrastructure to support reforestation.

Hard choices are needed

Because of the finite nature of the land, the solution to the dilemma is obvious, says Prof. Bryan:

“You can’t extend land; there’s no more of it. All you can do is adjust what you do to be more productive and more efficient. There are no major gains to be made, there are only marginal gains. You can store carbon in trees, but the trees use more water, and you can’t grow food on land if you’re growing trees. So there are gains and losses.”

So is there a way for Australia to achieve multiple targets? And if so, which ones should we focus on?

table of 17 individual icons showing sustainable development goals

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

“Yes, we can achieve some goals,” says Prof. Bryan. “Clearly they should be the ones that can’t be achieved any other way. The land sector has to do what it does well and what can’t occur anywhere else. That is producing food, conserving biodiversity and ecosystems, and halting land degradation.”

Contributions to other targets such as emissions abatement, water, and renewable energy should only be secondary considerations, he says.

“Other parts of the economy need to do some heavy lifting as well,” he adds. “Land systems will require lots of help from the clean energy, food systems, and water resource management sectors if we are to achieve multiple sustainability targets.”

A new kind of science

Though the CSIRO study applies only to Australia, it offers other nations insights into the complexity of setting meaningful sustainability targets across the three dimensions.

“We’ve brought to light some barriers and complexities to look out for and plotted ways for planning to achieve targets,” says Prof. Bryan.

What’s really needed, say the researchers, is a new kind of science that operates across disciplines and sectors at a national level—a consistent, integrated approach that can be used to aggregate at the global level.

“We are calling for new ways of analysing which are the most efficient ways to achieve sustainability goals. We don’t really know how to do that yet as scientists. We’re talking about a science that looks across all the important sectors and that can look at multiple sustainability interventions. We don’t want to look at just one aspect and later discover unintended consequences.”

The future we want

Diluting the level of ambition of targets is a risk that could see a race to the bottom.

“Our SDG targets are depicting a vision for Australia’s future that is where we want to be in 2030,” says Dr Gao. “Would we choose a ‘business as usual’ world or a prosperous one in 2030? Undoubtedly, we need ambition for a better future and we need to find development pathways for getting us there.”

“We’ve all signed up for these shared global aspirations,” adds Prof. Bryan. “This is the future we want. Now it’s time for some work. Sustainability is not simple, it’s not guaranteed. But if we do the science and help all nations plan to achieve their targets, we can make progress.

“Wealthy nations can contribute to the science and help bring other nations along. We need to go forward as a planet, not as competitors.“



  1. Its great to see that at least a few researchers are starting to look into the real meaning and substance of the SDGs, which so far have either been dealt with in isolation or not much at all on a national or regional level. Doing something like this study on a national level is ambitious and understand the limitations encountered due to the complexity and transdisciplinary nature of the issues we are facing. Living Systems Sciences are needed, which of course needs to include all the natural sciences and social sciences but maybe also political, economic but in my view also philosophical aspects as much as anything. It is a starting point and hope much more will follow particularly in looking at real targets for Australia (or other countries for that matter) or better bioregions (a preferred scale for future sustainable and regenerative development).
    But at that level the issues with this particular study start, where targets for Australia do not really relate to the SDG targets, but are rather wishful thinking based on current economic and political paradigms (for example growth at all costs, increase in whatever production etc), in that sense it is a continuation of business as usual approach and therefore the outcomes and results are not surprising that we cannot really achieve the targets.
    It will take a real effort or rather a complete shift in paradigms and vision for our futures, which cannot be based on the based, hence it takes new views of the world, a transformation of our beliefs and values informing a completely different of targets for our bioregions withing the country. In that sense the SDGs are by themselves an outcome of the paradigms of our time and therefore have significant limitations, for example splitting them up into different areas, and thinking we can deal with any of that in isolation. Systems science will tell us that this is delusional, with saying that of course that stuff has to be made somewhat palatable for the majority, but in the end it does not get us out of the frying pan.
    And of course science and models can only tell us so much and if our underlying assumptions are flawed then it is not that helpful.

  2. Isn’t this news science needed sustainable development science? A degree I completed a few years ago at Murdoch University!

    1. *new

  3. Australia has a very high HDI score of 0.933, so i believe we can do it!

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