Date posted: 14/10/2020

UN goals provide starting point for next Government

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provide a ready-made framework for a COVID-19 recovery plan. There is no need to invent, or even reinvent.

As we think about creating a fairer, cleaner and more resilient New Zealand this election campaign, one question looms large – where to start?

If these are to be our goals, then much of the hard work has already been done to answer that question.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a ready-made framework for a COVID-19 recovery plan which leads to a greener, more inclusive economy and a stronger, more resilient society.

The SDGs already enjoy widespread support in New Zealand. The Sustainable Business Council, representing companies responsible for 28 percent of the country’s private sector GDP, aligns its work to the SDGs.

The Government describes the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a “collective blueprint” for the country.

Treasury’s Living Standards Framework takes a similar approach to the SDGs, representing Treasury’s perspective on what matters for New Zealanders’ wellbeing, now and into the future. It is designed to prompt thinking about policy impacts across the different dimensions of wellbeing, as well as the long-term and distributional issues and implications.

Finally, the SDGs provide a coherent, equitable and sustainable plan which works at national, regional, and local levels.

There is no need to invent, or even reinvent. The plan is there and it enjoys solid support.

Recognising this, the CEOs of members of the Global Compact Network Australia, that country’s principal sustainability initiative, including CA ANZ’s CEO Ainslie van Onselen recently wrote to the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison asking his Government to use the SDGs as a framework for policy design in planning for a recovery from the economic impacts of the COVID-19.

That letter talks about using the SDGs to establish a level of ambition for Australia’s pandemic-recovery and to create intergenerational value.

New Zealand’s next Government should also be ambitious.

Falling short

In the latest Sustainable Development Report, which assesses a country’s progress towards achieving the 17 SDGs, New Zealand has three ‘reds’ – areas “where major challenges remain”. There are also five areas of “significant challenges” (or ‘ambers’).

Only one area is a green: Affordable and clean energy where New Zealand has attained the goal.

One of the ‘red’ SDGs is responsible consumption and production. This SDG references indicators including emissions associated with the production of goods and services, electronic waste and reactive nitrogen emitted during the production of commodities. According to the Sustainable Development Report, we do not know in what direction this goal is heading because of a lack of information.

In climate action, another goal registering red, we are going sideways or as the Report says “stagnating or [the score is] increasing at less than 50 percent of the required rate”.

The final ‘red’ measures our commitment to implementing and revitalising the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development. This includes Government spending on health and education (which is improving).

Forging ahead

Achieving greens across the board requires a holistic approach, consistent with the intention underpinning the development of the SDGs by the United Nations. Policy development needs to inform the nation’s quest for prosperity, one that emphasises long-term growth and productivity, ultimately supporting inter-generational prosperity.

Taking a holistic approach allows regulators to develop an infrastructure that is best able to protect the country from economic shocks that do not necessarily present themselves as financial risks per se.

New Zealand has previously demonstrated an ability to take such an approach, for example, the health response to COVID-19 has been accompanied by an economic response. The months long virus elimination experiment illustrated the importance of recognising the interrelationship between policy outcomes and the balancing act required. Globally, statistics are beginning to show that generally nations with lower numbers of COVID related deaths are also those experiencing less significant negative economic impacts.

In essence, that policy development cannot and should not occur in a vacuum.

The ongoing uncertainty of 2020 has expectedly resulted in change fatigue, and it is reasonable for the public to prefer the status quo in policy development – small and iterative movements towards our goals.

Political rhetoric seems to recognise this fatigue too. The political parties have developed policies to build back better, but still within the general low appetite for change. Announcements suggest change is possible, all within the current infrastructure. The patchy approach implies a lack of holistic thinking.

“Achieving appropriate outcomes in the SDGs and being ranked more highly requires something much more transformative.”    
Karen McWilliams FCA

It requires a whole-of-government (and arguably, across-the-political-spectrum) approach which first acknowledges that the current system is and has been lacking, and secondly seeks the development of transformational policies that benefit future generations, although current generations may not necessarily reap all of these benefits.

While change is perhaps the last preferable option right now, it is what the country needs. The next Government needs to take our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals seriously, so, as we build back from COVID-19, we are also creating a fairer, cleaner and more resilient New Zealand.

The NZ dashboard

An assessment of New Zealand’s progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The role of accountants in sustainable business

Business and the profession can contribute to the achievement of the sustainable development goals.