John McGagh FTSE

Embracing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

21 July 2023


John McGagh FTSE

Mineral Resources Forum & UN SDGs Working Party Chair

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations (UN) Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries — developed and developing — in a global partnership. Interconnected, they recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth, all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.


As a national Academy with many connections to international researchers and with our Fellows working towards global solutions for issues such as climate change, pandemics, and food security, ATSE has strong alignment with the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In order to make the 2030 Agenda a reality, broad ownership of the SDGs must translate into a strong commitment by all stakeholders to implement the global goals.

Charting a global path

In addition to my involvement with ATSE, I am part of a broader network linked to other engineering institutions. This part of my journey sets the stage for sharing my experiences and reflections on ATSE’s connection to the United Nations SDGs.

Between 2018 and 2022, I had the honour of shaping the centenary celebration for the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). As part of this momentous occasion, we embarked on a quest to explore society’s expectations out to the year 2100. It was a fascinating journey that allowed me to engage with exceptional minds and gather their thoughts on this topic. Interestingly, a recurring theme emerged from these conversations – the urgent need for society at large to work towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Alternative energy concepts. Maintenance engineers supervising the condition of the power equipment in a wind turbines power station with digital tablet. Teamwork.

Coincidentally, in 2020, ATSE received a request related to the UN SDGs. The Chair of the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences (CAETS) Sustainable Development Working Group, the Royal Academy of Engineering, approached us with three thought-provoking questions:

  1. How are Academies demonstrating leadership in sustainability and the SDGs at a national level?
  2. To what extent is engineering’s vital role in achieving the SDGs reflected in national sustainability plans? Can we find examples of stewardship from the engineering community?
  3. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the communication of sustainability plans and targets? How are national engineering communities ensuring that recovery plans align with sustainability?

The questions are intriguing, but they present a challenge.

Decadal review – moving forwards

The crux of the Academy centric response lay in addressing Question 1: How are Academies demonstrating leadership in sustainability and the SDGs at a national level?

With the guidance of Dr Carrie Hillyard AM FTSE, I embarked on an extensive review of a decade’s worth of ATSE’s public reports, submissions, and external communications. It was a meticulous exercise of mapping these initiatives to specific SDGs. The task yielded valuable insights and allowed us to demonstrate to the CAETS Sustainable Development Working Group that YES, ATSE was indeed demonstrating national SDG leadership, particularly in the SDGs requiring engineering and technological science expertise.

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ATSE’s public reports, submissions, and external communications relating to specific SDGs.

ATSE had also been actively engaged in equity, diversity, and gender, and we made sure to highlight this in the report. However, we acknowledged that the analysis had its limitations, as it only considered publicly available content at the time of analysis. Changes had been made since then, but nonetheless, the report showcased our commitment to these critical aspects, although noted room for improvement.

The CAETS Working Group utilised contributions from all member Academies to shape input to COP21 covering SDG #13—Climate Action.

The Working Group has now shifted its focus to other SDGs. In recent meetings, we concentrated on SDG #4—Clean Water and Sanitation, with plans to address additional goals in the future.

Common language and logical taxonomy

ATSE has not been standing still. In early 2022 an ad hoc Working Party was convened to consider how the SDGs could be best used by the Academy. It consists of a range of Fellows, including myself, Leanne Bond FTSE, Dr John Dixon FTSE, Dr Marlene Kanga AO FTSE and supported by ATSE’s secretariat members, Dr Cath Latham, Nicola Smile and Peter Derbyshire. I wish to note that Emeritus Professor Robin King FRSN FTSE was a foundation member of the Working Party, he made a valuable contributions prior to his unexpected passing.

Reflecting on my journey, I am personally convinced that the UN SDGs offer us a logical framework to guide Academy efforts. They provide a common language and a logical taxonomy. I believe it would be advantageous for the Fellowship to adopt this framework as a valuable mapping tool for our reports and studies; of course this is for the Fellowship to action.

There is also an exciting opportunity for ATSE to actively contribute to both the Australian Government’s mid-term review of the SDGs and the United Nations SDG “re-launch” before 2030. Through leveraging Academy progress and use of the SDGs we have the potential to make a positive impact on critical national and international matters. This would be a testament to the national contribution made by the ATSE Fellowship and solidify our position at the important table of change.

John McGagh FTSE

Mineral Resources Forum & UN SDGs Working Party Chair

John McGagh was elected to the Academy in 2013.

At the time of his election, John McGagh was the Global Head of Innovation at Rio Tinto, and had led the development of important research and development centres in universities addressing key technical issues for the global mining industry. The work in these industry-university partnerships encompassed the development and implementation of automation of surface mines, the advanced recovery of minerals through rapid mineral sorting, the reduction of energy required for crushing and grinding processes, and technologies for massive underground block-cave mines. Many important breakthroughs had been made bringing considerable benefits to the mining industry.

John is currently the Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Working Party, and is also currently our Mineral Resources Forum Chair.