Empower our grassroots to achieve global sustainability goals

Media release
21 September 2020

We need to "urgently and rapidly" increase our focus on local grassroots initiatives in order to reach the 2030 targets set in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, according to new research from Deakin University.

Dr Enayat A Moallemi, from Deakin's Centre of Integrative Ecology within the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said downscaling global frameworks and turning our attention to community-led, place-specific efforts could have a stronger long-term impact than global or national policies that are often insensitive to local needs and priorities.

"The level of adoption and effectiveness of local, bottom-up initiatives must be urgently and rapidly increased for us to hit the 2030 targets for sustainable development defined by the UN," Dr Moallemi said.

"This urgency has now become further amplified by global disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, confronting humanity and the planet with more complex challenges and deeper uncertainties.

"Rather than trying to tackle this problem entirely at an international or national level, a bottom-up approach to sustainability among local stakeholders such as city councils, community groups, residents and private businesses could get more buy-in and lead to more effective and just outcomes.

"By taking local needs and circumstances into account - instead of just trying to force a one-size-fits-all-approach - we can come up with tailored sustainability programs that better account for the local environment and socio-economic situation."

Dr Moallemi completed his research with Alfred Deakin Professor Brett Bryan and Deakin PhD candidate Katrina Szetey, as well as scientists from Monash University, the Australian National University, and Leiden University (The Netherlands).

He said the team's analysis showed shifting the focus of sustainability to place-based needs and priorities could lead to stronger collective action and public participation.

"This needs to be about empowering local stakeholders and giving them an active role in the process," Dr Moallemi said.

"Local actors understand what's required in their hometown or LGA, and they're often better equipped to make the right decisions at the right time and then carefully monitor them and respond to the changing environment on the ground.

"As a level of governance close to the people; cities, businesses and community groups can contribute significantly to identifying priorities, raising awareness and promoting sustainable development - but they need to be given the opportunity."

Dr Moallemi said the UN Sustainable Development Goals can provide a common framework for linking local environmental efforts to national and global agendas.

"For example, a smaller city moving to clean energy can improve local air quality, but this also contributes to a reduced risk of lung and heart disease and its associated economic burdens at a national scale," he said.

"Downscaling sustainability efforts means we can address unique local problems and translate larger priorities into locally-relevant goals, targets and indicators. This will create clearer benchmarks that local people can really get behind - that are not only salient and credible at a global scale, but also maintain their legitimacy and accountability at grassroots levels."

The research team's full article of findings, "Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals requires transdisciplinary innovation at the local scale", has now been published in the One Earth academic journal from Cell Press.

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