In 2018 I was approached by the then NSW SES Local Commander to conduct an environmental audit and highlight areas for improvement within the Newcastle SES Unit, I saw an opportunity to combine my SES volunteer role with my Disaster Resilience studies about the 2030 Development Agenda.
Together we formulated a draft Sustainability Strategy for the NSW SES Unit using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The aim was to create a 2019–2024 Sustainability Strategy for the NSW SES, Newcastle Unit, as a pilot for possible broader implementation throughout the NSW SES.
From the outset, the intent was to focus on practical sustainability. As our focus is on capability, the sustainability initiatives needed to be pragmatic and practical with effective leadership and up-to-date information. On that note, we developed a comprehensive strategy intended to inspire and equip the NSW SES with the capability to drive long-term sustainability. However, it eventually became apparent that the real opportunity for change had been much broader than the initial idea and hence the project was born.
The world is changing and so is the scope of emergency service agencies
It is increasingly acknowledged amongst first responders that communities are facing additional vulnerabilities due to climate change. Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) recently galvanized to coordinate a national response to the Australian climate and bushfire crises. ‘We felt we had a duty to tell people how climate change is super-charging our natural disaster risks. I wish we were wrong, but we’re not.’ (Greg Mullins AO AFSM). The ELCA are advocating for vital policy-level changes that acknowledge the direct links between worsening weather hazards and climate change.
It appears that emergency agencies are experiencing increased incidence and intensity of severe storms, floods, droughts and fires. Emergency response personnel are aware of people’s high levels of exposure to risks, and many emergency agencies have an organizational mission to reduce those risks. Yet what if emergency agencies themselves were contributing to disaster risks through damaging environmental or community capacity? How could we know, predict and plan? And what are our opportunities to improve the overall situation?
What have the Sustainable Development Goals got to do with emergency agencies?
The United Nations SDGs are an internationally agreed blueprint for development during the period 2020–2030. They include ambitious targets to reduce human and environmental vulnerability including addressing and eradicating poverty and mitigating and adapting to climate change.
The successful implementation of the SDGs requires collective effort of the government and public sector, organizations, communities and individuals across all nations. The SDGs provide a benchmark of best practice and quality analysis that can be used to facilitate change including within emergency services. By adopting the SDGs, emergency services have an opportunity to contribute towards achieving targets in a cluster of relevant global agreements including the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change 2015.
Why would the NSW SES act for sustainability?
SES is a large organization, requiring specialized gear for bulk numbers of people. Decisions made in procurement, operations and disposal can have a far-reaching impact on carbon emissions, trade practices and waste; for example, we are currently using mass quantities of water bottles, uniforms and tarpaulins as well as managing vehicle fleet and specialized equipment.
In our various capacities as community leaders our actions can have a multiplier effect: as a state agency, our influence flows from and into the levels of government; as a volunteer centered organization, our values, procedures and training proliferate throughout the community; and as emergency responders we are leaders on climate resilience and adaptation, and thus we have a central role in signaling appropriate disaster risk reduction values and actions to governments and communities. Acting for the SDGs within our agency could have far-reaching impact.
How the proposed Newcastle NSW SES Climate Action Strategy was developed
A desktop search for ‘sustainability’ and ‘environment’ in first-responder agencies (conducted in late 2018) showed that most agencies did not have a publicly available sustainability plan, an exception being the Rural Fire Service, which was found to have had an Ecological Sustainability Policy since 2003. This particular gap in planning was consistent with the then Local Commander’s degree of ‘frustration with Newcastle Unit performance in adhering to modern expectations of environmental responsibility’.
Further to the desktop search of first-responder agencies’ sustainability policies, an analysis of SDGs was conducted. The SES 2016–2021 Strategic Plan and SES value chain were analysed in relation to the SDGs to determine:
- Synergies, connections and gaps between the SES Unit and the SDGs
- Priorities to reduce the identified gaps with the SDGs
- A Strategy to enable the NSW SES Unit to close the gaps and increase alignment with the SDGs.
The results of the SES SDG analysis presented as follows:
- Values: There is a high level of values crossover with the SDGs.
- Synergies: There are many synergies between the SES and the SDGs. Two synergy highlights include the quality training provided to members, which aligns with Goal 4 Quality Education. Secondly, the SES storm response and community resilience roles align closely with Goal 13 Climate Action.
- Gaps: Lack of focus on environmental resilience is similar to other response agencies. However, it is not aligned with SDG Goal 13 Climate Action or SDG Goal 12 responsible consumption.
- Priorities: To focus the Sustainability Strategy on Goal 13 Climate Action and Goal 12 Responsible Consumption
Proposed Climate Action Strategy: ‘Sustainability is everyone’s business’
From the outputs of the SDG analysis, a strategy was formulated to address the gaps as follows:
- Aim: Through implementing the 2019–2024 Sustainability Strategy, the SES will become the leading environmentally responsible emergency agency in Australia.
- Objective: The SES will lead by example in responsible consumption and climate action by becoming carbon negative, enviro positive, and ensuring ethical trade practice and zero waste by 2024.
- Target delivery timeline: An ambitious program of 100% targets ensures that everyone is included, 2019 Startup; 2020 Carbon Negative; 2021 Enviro Positive; 2022 Zero Waste; 2023 Fair Trade.
Aligning with the original intent of practical sustainability for our agency, the strategy covers policy, people, practicalities and partnerships as outlined in the strategic priorities: Integrate SDGs: to develop an understanding of the UN SDGs and integrate the SDGs into our organizational strategies and procedures; Cultural Shift: to develop and centralize an SES culture of environmental responsibility alongside Capability, Safety and Inclusion; Systems and Supply: to collaboratively develop and apply sustainable work systems and supply chains; and Accelerate Sustainability Partnerships to seek partnership, support and leadership roles to accelerate the effective implementation and communication of the SDGs.
- Strategy Tactics and implementation: Formation and empowerment of a Climate Working Group of members to conduct the baseline, implementation and monitoring processes is a key element of the strategy. This group forms an action learning loop to keep the strategy creative, practical and flexible.
- The Strategy roadmap and monitoring tools: Action plans have been developed for each strategic priority, strategy-start-up and the target timeline with key milestones setting working targets. Monitoring of key indicators will show progress toward the targets against baseline data.
While there has been enthusiasm at the Unit for the strategy and practical actions taken, allocation of limited volunteer resources between training and projects has been found to be a barrier during 2019/20 to establishing an active Climate Working Group. With so many challenges facing our agencies, this type of work can be easily postponed along with inclusion and gender. However, it is important to resource such projects as need has been clearly demonstrated.
Conclusion and an invitation
Overall, the SES performed very well against the SDGs. While the SES is a community leader in climate resilience and adaptation, it lags behind on climate mitigation. At the core of this gap, there is an dearth of environmental values at an organizational level.
Emergency Leaders for Climate Action have begun to push for urgent climate action at a policy level across Australia, yet there is a complementary role for rank and file members of emergency services to step up and begin organizing and transforming our units from within. The Draft NSW SES Climate Action Strategy is available for viewing and adaptation by other emergency units who may be interested. I hope that we may form a ‘community of practice’ for Emergency Agencies implementing the SDGs and the Frameworks for Disaster Risk Reduction.
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