Menu Close
Australia’s prodigious coal output is one of the factors that count against it in a new appraisal of sustainability among OECD nations. John Englart/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Australia is among the most liveable nations, but it lags other countries on sustainability

Australia may be one of the most liveable places in the world, but a new report ranks us in the middle when it comes to sustainability.

Of the 34 OECD countries, Australia ranked 18th. The report compared OECD countries’ performance against the new Sustainable Development Goals, to be formalised in New York at the end of this month.

The top five countries were Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland. The bottom five were Mexico, Turkey, Hungary, Chile and Greece. The United States came in 29th, New Zealand 16th, the United Kingdom 15th, and Canada 11th.

So how did Australia get such a mediocre result?

Sustainable development: a matter for everyone

Later this month, the UN General Assembly will make a final decision on the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda including the articulation of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that have been developed over the past three years through an extensive international and cross-sector process of consultation.

The 17 SDGs extend the original Millennium Development Goals) that were established in 2000 with a target date of 2015. Progress against the MDGs is largely regarded as satisfactory, but it is well accepted that further progress on sustainable development is required, as articulated in the outcome document of the 2012 Rio +20 Summit.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the new goals include developed countries. Sustainable development is a global matter to which all countries must turn their focus, whatever their development status.

How Australia measures up

The report assessed Australia against 34 measures, two for each of the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals. These 34 measures were then combined to form an overall index. Australia’s overall score was 18th out of the 34 OECD countries. Three factors affect the compilation of the overall index : (i) the method of combining the different measures; (ii) the mix of themes or domains covered by the index; and (iii) the choice of measures within each theme.

The method applied to combine the 34 measures to form a single index for each country is quite straightforward. Each measure is given equal weight and is scaled to support comparison across countries. It does not appear to be a driver of Australia’s outcome.

The choice of measures within each theme can be important and is often the focus of discussion, but it is not clear this is a significant issue in this case. What emerges from the report is that, among the different measures, some tend to give a better than expected picture for Australia and some worse.

For instance, on goal 6, ensuring availability and sustainable management of water, Australia scores highly because the indicator measures total (national) freshwater withdrawals relative to total internal water resources. This does not take into account the significant mismatch between the location of the water resources (largely in the north) and the location of demand (largely in the southeast). A more appropriate measure for water would likely have lowered the overall score.

On the other hand, Australia’s performance on goal 13, climate change, is relatively poor based on indicators of carbon emissions. The effect is magnified however through the use of two indicators that are highly correlated for Australia – total greenhouse emissions per unit of GDP and CO2 emissions generated from producing goods (Australia ranks 33rd in both indicators).

Overall, even if the measures were different, it’s not obvious that Australia would have ranked differently. Indeed, the same types of situation are likely to play out in different ways in all countries.

High scores on wellbeing

To explain the report’s outcome for Australia, focus must turn to the choice of themes – that is, what factors are assessed in determining the overall score. There are other ways to measure sustainability and wellbeing.

Focusing only on Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics measures Australia’s progress using 26 indicators around society, economy, governance and environment. Australia’s sustainability was measured in the 2013 Sustainable Australia Report, using 15 different themes.

In cross country comparisons, the OECD Better Life Index recently ranked Australia number 1 among OECD countries using a set of 10 broad themes focusing on wellbeing.

The main reason Australia scores relatively poorly in the recent report, especially compared to the OECD Better Life Index, is that it includes themes about how we use the environment and about levels of equality. This can be seen in the table below which shows Australia’s rankings against each theme and measure, relative to the OECD average.

Summary of SDG indicator rankings for Australia. Author provided

For those themes largely relating to Australia’s current quality of life or wellbeing – health, economy, cities and institutions – our performance is relatively sound. This aligns with the outcome from the OECD Better Life index which covers similar types of themes.

Positive results also emerge in relation to water, the management of oceans and infrastructure investment.

There are a few themes where the indicators provide a mixed picture – poverty, agriculture and food, education and biodiversity. The story for education is perhaps one of the most intriguing. Both the ABS Measures of Progress and the Sustainable Australia Report highlight the significant improvement in educational attainment measured in terms of the proportion of 20-64-year-olds with post-school vocational or higher education qualification. This proportion rose by more than 10 percentage points from 2002 to 2012. It is a positive story.

However, the recent sustainable development report uses the same indicator and, relative to other OECD countries, we come in 23rd. It is a sobering outcome, since while at country level the story is positive, the outcome is relatively poor compared to other countries. While more analysis would uncover a range of dynamics at play, the result highlights that taking a broad and cross country view can help form different perspectives.

Poor scores for sustainability

Most significantly, especially in the context of sustainability, our performance is relatively poor for those themes that relate to our use of the environment – energy, sustainable production and consumption, and climate – and those themes that relate to the relative equality of outcomes – gender, inequality, and global partnerships. Indeed, it is our relatively poor performance against these six themes that is the main cause of the overall outcome in the report.

One conclusion is that if we focus largely on themes concerning quality of life and wellbeing we can feel quite happy about our relative ranking. But, when the scope of assessment broadens, there are many other countries that show a relatively stronger performance on sustainability and equality, and hence have stronger overall outcomes against the sustainable development goals.

Of course, some of the outcomes will reflect the specific environmental, economic and social circumstances of Australia and some may argue that such assessments will have a bias towards countries with particular settings. Indeed, there is a range of rationalisations that may be developed to explain the outcome.

But the purpose of these types of assessment is to encourage open discussion and consideration of policy choices within a broader framing of issues. Not believing the messenger and questioning methods and data is one response, but further consideration of not just wellbeing but also sustainability must be an imperative.

A step forward would be to stop framing sustainability as primarily a matter for environmental policy. Rather, we should consider sustainability in terms of the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, and hence a matter of direct interest to us all.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,700 academics and researchers from 4,810 institutions.

Register now