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Sustainability takes Courage – Has the Austrian EU Presidency helped the Implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs?

Experts from the political, economic and science sectors and NGOs discussed the SDG implementation under the Austrian EU Council Presidency

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production, SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals,
 Jan 2019

Vienna, January 25, 2019 - What was the role of the Austrian EU Council presidency regarding promotion and implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs? An event titled “Austria’s EU Council Presidency and the SDGs,” which took place on January 17, sought to explore this question in more detail. This panel discussion was part of an event series named “Sustainability takes Courage” and organized by the Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism, the Centre for Global Change and Sustainability of the University of Agriculture, the Institute for Political Science and Postgraduate Centre of the University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria. The event series takes place within the framework of the initiative “risk dialogue,” which focuses on the global Sustainable Development Goals.

The panellists presented different points of view regarding the following questions: What has the Austrian presidency contributed to SDG implementation in Europe? Did it succeed in strengthening the Global Goals? Which initiatives were put forward and which measures were actually implemented? Which further steps can be expected? Brief inputs and background information from the experts present was the first agenda item, followed by a vivid panel discussion in which the audience was encouraged to participate.

Audience Shows Austrian EU Presidency Red Card

At the outset of the well-attended event, moderator Josef Hackl, expert for sustainable development at the Environment Agency Austria, asked the audience to cast a ballot. Red and green cards were distributed – then the voting process began. Regarding the first question – how much people had actually paid attention to media reporting about the Austrian EU Council Presidency in connection with the SDGs, the result was mixed. In contrast, the second vote where people were asked to give their opinion on whether the SDGs had been an important topic during the EU Council Presidency, the result was unanimous: The Austrian EU Presidency was shown red cards only!

Success with Emissions and Disposable Plastic

This dire result put the first two speakers, Sabine Schneeberger from the Federal Chancellor’s Office and Elisabeth Freytag-Rigler from the Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism, in the uncomfortable position of having to correct this negative impression. Ms. Schneeberger gave a short speech where she pointed out that the UN SDGs were after all mentioned 27 times in the Austrian EU Council Presidency program. In addition, she stressed SDG-related improvements regarding CO2 emissions and non-recyclable plastic packaging – two areas on which Austria had placed a strong focus during its presidency. These successes were subsequently confirmed and explained in greater detail by Ms. Freytag-Rigler, who also provided more profound insights into the way an EU presidency works in practice. The country that holds the presidency has less of a decision making power than many people imagine, said the Ministry official and went on to explain that its function lies more in coordinating the different views and interests of the member countries. The power of the presidency lies more in the area of “agenda-setting” – and here, it is also customary to include the topics proposed by the country that previously held the presidency.

The SDGs as Transformation Agenda

A scientific assessment of the SDGs and their importance – even beyond the immediate Austrian presidency focus – was provided by Prof. Christoph Görg from the University of Agriculture, who referred to the Sustainable Development Goals as a transformation agenda. This, however, Görg noted, required thinking out of the box and in larger contexts. This means that, for instance, a mere reduction of CO2 emissions for cars and trucks is not sufficient – what is needed is real transformation of our mobility concept as such. This requires a change of attitude to the extent that people see the need and indeed the benefit of using public transport, bicycles or simply their feet as a way of getting from one place to another. Transformation is understood as willingness to question and change ourselves and our lifestyle.

One of the biggest challenges in trying to promote the SDGs on an institutional basis is consistent mainstreaming - anchoring the SDGs on all levels in the public institutions. This necessitates streamlining the activities of ministries to achieve coherence in implementing the SDGs. Clear priorities and sufficient financial resources are basic preconditions in this regard. The main difficulty is that politics is always organized in sectors and departments – which results in inflexible power structures and division of competencies that makes consistent SDG mainstreaming very difficult. This fact was also mentioned in the most recent Federal Court of Audit report, which criticized Austria’s grave deficits in the areas of coherence and priority-setting in implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Economic sector profits from Agenda 2030

The implementation of the SDGs through Austrian enterprises was examined in greater detail by Brigitte Frey from economic services provider Ernst & Young. She stressed the increasing commitment of economic stakeholders to the SDGs – and emphasized this was not just attributable to general interest or goodwill, but “because it is absolutely necessary.” However, she also confessed that there were still considerable differences between companies – there are those that make every effort to integrate the SDGs into their entrepreneurial policies and annual reports, while others do everything to thwart SDG implementation. “There is still a lot of resilience against change,” deplored Frey. What was still not sufficiently taken into consideration was the fact that the SDGs also harbour big opportunities for the economic sector – for instance through new markets for more sustainable products or services.

No. 1 priority: “Anchoring the SDGs on the top level”

The representative of SDG Watch Austria and member of the EU Environment Office, Bernhard Zlanabitnig repeatedly underscored the necessity of “anchoring the SDGs on the top level.” The government and especially the Chancellor must make the sustainability agenda their first priority. However, this is not only true for Austria, but for all EU member states, he maintained. This stands somewhat in contrast to the doubts that some of the participants and also part of the audience have voiced regarding the ability and willingness of public and political institutions to transform.

Monika Mörth from the Environment Agency Austria supported this view and added her conviction that a joint effort was necessary to implement the SDGs. “We all have to want this” – only if this is the case will it be possible to find solutions for the current challenges. However, transformation was also always disruptive, Ms. Mörth warned and called upon all actors, public or private, to show courage and find motivation in positive examples of SDG implementation. There are companies that take a pioneer role in adopting the 2030 Agenda, she said and referred in this respect to the Rockefeller Foundation’s decision to opt for a quick exit from the fossil fuels. In her opinion, business needs to be re-defined – with a strong focus on the three pillars of “circular economy,” biological diversity, and decarbonisation. In these areas, new developments, such as “green finance,” and digitalization offer solutions for numerous problems we are facing today, Ms. Mörth concluded.

More courage is needed – we all must change

The event ended with a strong call to action by Helene Dallinger for the NGO OIKOS Vienna. She demanded “more courage to take tougher measures.” SDG implementation required nothing less than a fundamental change of values – it was necessary to change the current way of thinking which places the highest value on economic success, profit and an ever-growing GDP.

Ms. Dallinger’s appeal met with the approval of large parts of the audience – which shared her assessment that not enough is being done to speedily implement the necessary changes. The political actors are being seen, by a critical audience, more as hindering than enabling a quick implementation of the 2030 Agenda.


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Petra Allekotte