Amid economic uncertainty, inflationary concerns, and geopolitical tensions, it is rare to find political leaders prioritizing sustainable development. However, earlier this year, I learned from the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens (disclaimer: I serve on their board) that Austria had bucked the trend. They had not only made achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a 17-point plan to end extreme poverty and address climate change by 2030—a priority, but also set a goal to increase their position in the rankings, moving from 9th to 5th place in recent years.
It is uncommon to find strong political commitment to improving performance on the SDGs, considering that globally only 12% of the goals have been achieved at the halfway mark. To understand more about the rationale behind Austria’s dedication, I had the privilege of speaking with Her Excellency Karoline Edtstadler, the Federal Minister for the EU and Constitution in Austria, who oversees SDG implementation in the country.
Why are the SDGs a priority for you personally and your government?
I have to say that sustainable development became a national goal in the constitutional law back in 2013. Maybe that’s why awareness of sustainability in Austria is higher compared to other countries. This was even before the SDGs were introduced at the UN. Additionally,… I remain highly committed to this cause because I believe nothing less than the future of our children and grandchildren is at stake.
In our first Voluntary National Review [to the UN], we included numerous positive examples of sustainable practices to help people better understand what the SDGs mean in practice. Another challenge was getting the National Review discussed in the Austrian Parliament. It was not initially planned to be on the agenda, so I had to make a strong case… In addition to that, we organized the SDG Dialogue Forums with the Federal Administration, SDG Watch Austria and the Ban Ki-moon Centre. These forums provide a platform for people to come together and discuss sustainable development. I personally participated in these forums, along with other ministers, to demonstrate the Australian government’s high level of interest and commitment.
What were Austria’s successes as well as challenges with the SDGs?
We have made significant progress in achieving Sustainable Development Goals 1 to 7. However, there are areas where we still need to do more, and I want to address those as well. Personally, I consider issues like the gender pay gap and climate change to be of utmost importance. Responsible consumption and production, as well as biodiversity, are also areas where we have made improvements…. One notable achievement is the implementation of an ecological social tax reform in 2022, something we can be proud of. (As an aside, the reform introduces a national CO2 price on fossil fuels starting at €30 and to be gradually lifted to €55 in 2025, and, according to the Austrian Finance Ministry, the reform will boost Austria’s GDP by 1 p.p., generating an estimated additional 30,000 jobs).
Another success is the widespread usage of the climate ticket. For EUR 1.095 for 365 days, people can travel using all public transport within Austria. Especially during the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with soaring fuel prices, many individuals have turned to trains and other public transport options.
We also established the Kofi Annan Award for Innovation. Through this initiative, we aim to promote prosperity and sustainable development by assisting social entrepreneurs in scaling their digital solutions.
While it seems Austria is doing well domestically, how is Austria addressing these challenges on a global scale?
First and foremost, I believe that partnership is more crucial than ever, especially considering the war in Europe and the migration flows affecting the well-being of many people. Just recently, the ministers for the interior reached an important agreement on the migration pact at the European level. This success demonstrates the significance of partnerships and our efforts to understand the circumstances driving individuals to flee their countries. It is important to address the root causes of migration and work together, which has become even more essential since last year’s events. At the European level, it is clear that we need to invest more money into partnerships and implement good projects. It’s not enough to simply spend money; we must also provide ongoing support and oversight for such projects.
As a mid-sized country, Austria can accomplish a great deal by building alliances within the European Union and beyond… The question of how we tackle these challenges globally is not an easy one to answer. However, a prerequisite is strengthening institutions from the World Bank to the European Union and the United Nations, while simultaneously raising awareness about why we are doing so.
It is crucial to always involve civil society, as there are often questions about why money is being allocated to African projects or why we advocate for the accession process of Western Balkan countries. We must explain the purpose and significance of these efforts. President Macron’s emphasis on a new format of the European Political Community, encompassing regions beyond the European Union, is something I strongly support.
Trust in institutions is a precondition for success. This trust can only be achieved through effective communication and explanation of our actions. In Austria, we have endeavored to achieve this through initiatives like the FGC (Future Generations Commission), where we explain to people what it’s all about.
Let me share a story. When I started discussing the Voluntary National Review in the plenary of the Austrian Parliament three years ago, there were conspiracy theories and threats against me from members of the right-wing party. However, now, most people I talk to are aware of the SDGs, and many wear the SDG button. This shows that we have reached a much broader audience in these three years. It indicates progress, but there is still room for improvement. That’s why we are organizing our third Dialogue Forum Austria with NGOs and the Ban Ki-moon Centre in October to further raise awareness and lay the groundwork for the second Voluntary National Review in 2024.
How do you bring sustainable development to the local level?
Well, let me give you a simple example from my own constituency, which was also highlighted in the first Voluntary National Review. In smaller villages in Austria, there are these lovely gatherings where musicians come together with various forms of traditional dance groups and other interests, forming a kind of community behind the festival. It’s like a club, if you will. They dress similarly and attend church together on Sundays. Occasionally, they organize big parties that benefit the entire village.
One idea emerged in connection with the SDGs: using alternatives to plastic for meals and drinks during the festival. They found ways to recycle and reuse materials instead of relying on disposable plastic. This initiative resonated with people, who realized that they were contributing to the SDGs and taking action for the environment. These simple examples demonstrate that people can suddenly see themselves as part of the government’s efforts. I presented this as an example, and then people from another region approached me, saying, “Hey, that was our idea!” It sparked a friendly competition to find other ways of contributing to the SDGs. This is a simple answer, but sometimes simplicity is key.
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