New Zealand’s Push for Sustainable Development

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Push for Sustainable Development

The International Conference on Sustainable Development provided a forum for academia, government, civil society, UN agencies and the private sector to come together to share discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year, from September 26 to 28 2018, the Conference took place on multiple campuses around the world, making it a truly global event.

On the second day of the 6th annual International Conference on Sustainable Development, Columbia University had the privilege of hearing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand speak on the SDGs.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, introduced Prime Minister Ardern to roaring applause in Alfred Lerner Hall.

To begin her speech, Ardern discussed injustice and the impact of politics around the world. Ardern says, “if there is one thing we hate, it is injustice. We try to do it right by one another. Perhaps it comes from being a thousand miles from anywhere, isolated and completely reliant on one another… but we are acutely aware of the impact we have on the world and the rest of the world has on us.” As a politician, Ardern says that “politics has an increasing duty, but values do not. Values have always been my starting point. I signed up for a political party when I was 17 years old, not because I was looking for a career, but perhaps, naively, I wanted to change the world.”

As one of the youngest world leaders, Ardern’s strive towards social justice, environmentalism and prosperity is unique. Although New Zealand is redefining success related to the sustainability, Ardern agrees that “SDGs haven’t been treated as a given. Even New Zealand has a long way to go.” Nevertheless, she points out New Zealand is establishing new measures of national achievement that goes beyond growth. “We have, for instance, created a tool called the “living standards framework” that puts the notions of sustainable, intergenerational wellbeing in the seat of different decision-making processes we have,” Ardern said. “Our statistics department, at the moment, is working on an ambitious project called “social indicators within New Zealand” that will help create a set of indicators across dimensions that include current picture models of New Zealand: economic, cultural, social and environmental. This will ultimately help us monitor our delivery of the SDGs.”

Ending her speech on a high note, Ardern ties sustainable development, social justice and politics, saying that “as politicians, we all have choices in how we respond. We can work hard, or we can build a response, our choice in New Zealand is action.”

After Ardern’s inspirational speech, Sachs led a 15-minute question panel related to New Zealand’s difficult agricultural emissions, climate change, migration, the US-China trade war, development aid, the happiness index and youth.

Difficult Agricultural Emissions

Nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture. Entering the first question, Sach asks Ardern about New Zealand’s solution for agricultural emissions. “It is difficult for us on the agricultural side. Our emissions profile is forty eight percent agricultural emissions. That makes us really unique – but one of the points that I am trying to make is that we’ve been doing research with the Global Research Alliance to do what we can to try and literally alter the way we farm to reduce our emissions profile, ” Ardern says, “we all have to address this challenge because it comes at a risk to our food insecurity as well.”

Climate Change

Next, Sachs begins the climate change discussion with Australia’s struggle with fossil fuel emissions. He then asks what advice New Zealand has for Australia. Confidently, Ardern says that “we can all agree about the problem that [climate change] presents, but there are huge interests in maintaining the status quo – that are hard to shift. We recently announced that we will not be issuing offshore oil and gas exploration permits in New Zealand. Those are tough calls, those are industries and jobs. We have a duty of care to those people who have relied on those industries and jobs. So, I understand what Australia is confronting and what others are confronting, but we have a duty as well.”

Identity Politics and Migration

Moving on, Sachs discusses identity politics and migration in New Zealand. In a 2013 consensus, there were approximately 600,000 Indigenous people identifying as Māori in New Zealand, making up roughly fifteen percent of the national population. Sach asks if Ardern could reflect on New Zealand’s special learning about [Indigenous culture]. “Indigenous New Zealand – that relationship dictates that way we look as a government and it is incredibly important to us and it makes us relatively unique… But, I also wanted to discuss the issues of migration. I spoke briefly about the issues of globalization… what I see around the world is a growing sense of insecurity. Whether its financial insecurity, it seems that you are not guaranteed a roof over your head, a stable job or a stable income,” Ardern says, “as progressives, we need to respond to that. And the way progressives respond is we need to be inclusive and we need to offer decent wages and conditions. This needs to apply to issues of migration… The reforms we go through is very much focused on fixing [this]….”

US – China Trade War

On foreign policy, Sachs says that “maybe the biggest divide, politically, is the US trade war on China what should be done about this?” Ardern says that “we should stick to rules, and regardless to whose engaged, rely on predictability, order and rules… we need to recognize our responsibility we have to each other, not just to our people, but to each other as well. Trade wars benefit no one, and they particularly punish our smaller nations with a distinct lack of power. … We base our power on the size of our economies and the size of population and it is really a rejection of multilateralism and I push back on that…”

Lack of Development Aid

According to the World’s Happiness Report, New Zealand ranks #8 in the world. Sachs stated that “New Zealand is on course to achieving all 17 SDGs, which is extremely exciting and one of the happiest places in the world.” However, after much applause, Sachs wanted to critic New Zealand on their lack of development aid, indicating that it was “quite low… something like .2 of one percent.” According to the SDGs, the target for New Zealand’s development aid is 0.7. To counter, Ardern says “in our last budget, we recognized that we had to boost our aid and we need to do our best – so we increased our aid by 700 million dollars…”

From 2015 – 2018, New Zealand’s aid budget is said to include $1B in the Pacific, $600M in economic development and $200M in ASEAN. In addition, issues such as environment, climate change, gender equality, women’s empowerment and human rights issues will be addressed in the aid provided. According to New Zealand’s aid program, “this will help deliver sustainable, inclusive outcomes.”

To Young Women Around the World

Lastly, at 38, Ardern is New Zealand’s youngest ever woman leader. Evidently, she poses as an inspiration and role model to youth around the world. When speaking to, specifically, young women around the world, Ardern says “I do think that globally, we need to make politics a more attractive place to be – we need to make it a more attractive choice. But beyond that, I have noticed, that at least in my country, when I talk to young women about their aspirations, even at a young age, I see that they are opting out. I often make the assumption that it comes down to confidence. I make that assumption because I was exactly the same… There is a tendency for young women to say that you don’t have everything that it takes – to have a tiny little seed of doubt… Yes, we have a huge amount of work to do – we need to make our workplace more flexible, [create] greater options and opportunities to address our conscience minds. Yes, we must do all of that, but we also have to boost our women’s confidence and support them into those roles too – and help them overcome those tiny seeds of doubt because if we don’t, we will be more the poorer.”

The International Conference on Sustainable Development has intersected the SDGs with issues related to migration, human rights, foreign policy and environmentalism. Prime Minister Ardern and New Zealand’s effort to meet the SDGs is a breath of fresh air, challenging the political atmosphere in the U.S. today.

For information on the International Conference on Sustainable Development, check out ICSD’s website.


By Juana Lee

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