Thursday, 25 February 2021
Topical Issue Debate
Sustainable Development Goals
This matter arises from the annual sustainable progress index published yesterday by Social Justice Ireland, which mentions Ireland's progress implementing the UN sustainable development goals.
I compared this year's index to last year's and I note that there has been little or no positive change in how the Irish economy is integrating sustainable development and well-being objectives into everyday strategies and actions. Most worryingly, consecutive reports highlight poor and deteriorating performance on particular goals, including sustainable development goal 7, affordable and clean energy; goal 12, responsible consumption and production; goal 13, climate action; and goal 14, life below water. In addition, we are making poor progress in our Aichi biodiversity targets. This year, Ireland has retained its last place position in the index for these goals and targets. It is dead last, with the wooden spoon. These goals all speak strongly to core Green Party objectives. If I see no significant improvement in these areas, my voters will rightly ask me why.
Nearly six years ago, Ireland played an historic role in the process to agree and adopt Agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals, SDGs, as co-chair alongside Kenya. The adoption of Agenda 2030 was one of the pivotal international moments in 2015, with countries from all over the world coming together and committing to do more for fair, equitable and environmentally sustainable development. I was pleased to note that the Taoiseach, in his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations last September, reaffirmed our nation's commitment to the sustainable development goals and Agenda 2030, but this needs to be more than an empty formula and a shiny pin on the lapel, which I notice that both the Minister and I are wearing this evening.
If this is to be the decade of action on the SDGs, we need concrete, measurable actions that help us to live up to the commitments that Ireland played such a key role in framing. I am wary of the perception that the SDGs are something applicable to developing countries - that they are something that we work on thar lear, i bhfad uainn i gcéin. For the SDGs to be effective, they need to be universally applied, as much here as anywhere else. We have seen some concrete progress in this Dáil, with the establishment of the all-party Oireachtas group on sustainable development goals. The SDGs and their attainment are now written into the Standing Orders of each committee.
It should be acknowledged that a national implementation plan has been in place since 2018, though I would question the level of oversight and reporting which exists to ensure the plan is being fully followed through. I have submitted parliamentary questions to each Department to ask which of the 169 sub-targets of the 17 goals it has identified as being relevant to the Department's work and whether the commitments to the SDGs will be reflected in the new strategy statements. The answers I have received have varied from excellent, and I give particular credit to the Department of Finance for its response, to abject. Ireland's shortfalls in meeting our goals and targets demonstrate a failure to enshrine one of the key tenets in Agenda 2030, which is universality. This means that everyone has a role to play and needs to work together. At Government level, this means full endorsement, understanding and leadership of all relevant Ministers and Departments, not just one or two.
I understand that the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has been leading Ireland's implementation of the goals, including through the development of implementation plans, the co-ordination of an interdepartmental working group and engagement with civil society organisations and stakeholders. Will the Minister inform the House of the nature of the work being undertaken?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and I hope I can do exactly what he suggested. I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions we are taking with regard to the SDGs. The programme for Government was developed with close consideration of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and provides specific reference to delivering on objectives in line with the SDGs in many areas. The Government has committed to strengthen engagement and awareness at local level, with a commitment to ensure local authorities have regard to the national planning framework and alignment to the 17 goals when drafting development plans.
The integration of the sustainable development goals at a local level as well as a new national SDG implementation plan, committed to be published later this year, will be vital to support progress towards achieving Agenda 2030. The first Sustainable Development Goals National Implementation Plan 2018-2020, published in 2018, established a framework for how Ireland will implement the SDGs and identified 19 specific actions for delivery in this period. I will now highlight some of these key actions.
Ireland presented its first voluntary national review to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2018. This report set out our progress with the goals. Ireland has committed to prepare a further report to the UN in 2022.
The national SDG stakeholder forum was established and has held six meetings to date. While Covid-19 disrupted planned meetings in 2020, further meetings will be arranged this year and are likely to be taken in a virtual or hybrid format. Twelve SDG champions were appointed to raise awareness of the goals within their respective sectors. The initiative has been extremely successful in its outreach to different communities and groups. A review of the champions programme and stakeholder forum will be finalised as part of the development phase of the next implementation plan.
An SDG policy map has been published, which enhances the ability of stakeholders to track Ireland’s implementation of specific goals and targets. It also supports and enhances cross-Government engagement in implementing each of the goals and targets. This is currently being revised to reflect changes to ministerial and departmental functions under the current Government. The enhanced format will include additional information on related stakeholder forums linked to each target. It will be published on gov.iein the coming weeks.
The Central Statistics Office, CSO, working in conjunction with Ordnance Survey Ireland, has developed an online GeoHive data hub to provide spatially relevant information on our progress toward targets under the SDGs. As part of this initiative, the CSO is publishing a series of individual SDG goal reports. Goals 1 to 5 are available online and goal 6, water, will be published in the coming weeks. My Department will lead the development of Ireland's second SDG national implementation plan to further guide implementation and promote awareness of the goals.
It is important to emphasise that meeting Ireland's commitments under the SDGs will entail ambition across Government and wider society. For this reason, I intend to continue the established SDG governance arrangements of a senior officials group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, supported by the interdepartmental working group, chaired by my Department. These governance arrangements are, of course, complemented by the valuable work of the SDG stakeholder forum, as well as sectoral engagement initiatives, which not only support the more coherent implementation of the goals to address environmental, social and economic challenges related to sustainable development, but also provide an essential interface between the public bodies and civil society in our collective work to deliver the SDGs in Ireland over the next decade.
I thank the Deputy for his interest in this area. I am interested to see how we can deliver it at local as well as a national level across the country. I know we were talking recently about the opportunity for Waterford to become the best example of a sustainable city in our country. I believe that is achievable with good leadership at a local level.
I thank the Minister. To give him his due, I know that the information in this year's report pre-dates our participation in government. We may not have our knees under the table for long but I would say that this reply sounds like business as usual, as if we are doing grand. Unfortunately the figures show that we are not doing grand, especially with environmental and sustainable development goals. We are ranking dead last. I want to see a step change in how we implement the SDGs. We should take them seriously and drive that agenda forward. I know the senior officials group met last week but that was its first meeting since November 2019. If we are serious about driving this agenda forward, we need to ensure that the meetings are more regular, or quarterly, as they are supposed to be.
I have three suggestions to make about driving this agenda forward. I know that there is work on well-being indicators. Iceland aligned its well-being indicators closely with the SDGs to make sure that the reporting happened in a transparent but meaningful way. I would like to see the SDGs reflected in the well-being indicators that are being developed by the Government. There is a programme for Government commitment about social dialogue. It has serious potential to be a framework for a whole-of-society discussion about the level of transformative change that we need in climate, in our society and in attaining Agenda 2030. With due respect to the work happening in the Department but recognising the cross-cutting nature of the sustainable development goals, I contend that this should not belong in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications but in the Department of the Taoiseach, with proper oversight of the cross-cutting nature of the goals.
Will the Minister comment on that?
It is true. The response I delivered is, if I may say so, a kind of departmental presentation as to what the system is doing, which I believe is what was requested. I agree with the Deputy; we need to be more ambitious, heed that report from Social Justice Ireland and realise that we are not doing enough to meet the environmental goals in particular. We have to go further and to be far more radical. I commit to delivering on those goals as best I can.
I will give some examples of areas in which we are starting to ramp up and show real leadership which might encourage the Deputy. We are only at the public consultation stage at present but the introduction of a nationwide ban on smoky fuels, which will improve air quality, is an example of Government delivering an environmental benefit that will also deliver significant health benefits. It is something we can do. Earlier today, in answer to a question on promised legislation, I referred to the work the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is doing with regard to the roll-out of less intensive farming systems and opening up the organics scheme in order to radically increase the number of farmers who are paid well for their produce while being engaged in the restoration and protection of nature and developing high-quality food.
I would also refer to the work being done to develop marine protected areas. Again, we are only at the consultation stage, but we are going to deliver on this. Our sea area is ten times larger than our land area. We have a responsibility to protect nature there with real ambition and to do what the great ecologist E. O. Wilson recommends, which is to set aside large areas of the natural world for the protection and restoration of nature. A further example within my own Department is our really ambitious 200-action plan for a new circular economy. This will take the advice of yesterday's Social Justice Ireland report with regard to phasing out single-use plastics. We have also done real work in the area of just transition. We are investing in the rewetting of our bogs to create jobs. The Deputy is absolutely right; this Government has started developing a new well-being index, which is a key part of this transition. We also recognise that, as the Deputy says, it is in the likes of the Department of Finance as well as in the Department of Taoiseach that this must be centred. I believe that is happening.
We are only at the start but the Deputy is right; let us be held to account. If we cannot improve on our delivery on those 17 goals, we will have failed in our mission. That is our manifesto. It is for all parties in this House. It is to provide us with a better future and I believe we can do that.