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Planning for a Sustainable Future:
A Federal Sustainable Development Strategy for Canada

Sustainable Development Office
Environment Canada

October 2010


Chapter 1: Context

Why sustainable development matters

In the 21st century, the world faces tremendous challenges, including economic crises, global warming, air pollution, poverty, poor health, and loss of biodiversity. For more than two decades, sustainable development has been advanced as a means of reconciling human development with the earth’s ecological systems. The journey toward truly sustainable development and decision-making has become a key goal of public policy in Canada and around the world. Development that is not sustainable will inevitably lead to negative economic, environmental, and social repercussions. Advancing sustainable development is about safeguarding our future and improving the quality of life in Canada and for the global community.

The sustainable development concept emphasizes the importance of maintaining and improving the quality of life by ensuring that decisions made today take into consideration social, economic, and environmental consequences. It integrates the social, economic, and environmental objectives of society in order to maximize human well-being in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (OECD, 2001).

The history of sustainable development strategies

In 1972, the delegates of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment recognized the interconnection of economic development and the environment.  Some 15 years later, the World Commission on Environment and Development took this concept further when it defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987).

That definition has helped shape public policy, business strategies, and individual choices for nearly a quarter century. It envisions a world where all decisions – what we produce, what we buy, where we live, what we value – are informed by the need to take better care of the planet. Rather than looking at policy issues in terms of two pillars – economic and social, with environmental considerations as part of the economic pillar – the concept of sustainable development sees the three pillars as equal and mutually reinforcing.

A truly sustainable economy would require that environmental considerations inform every decision made – by governments, by businesses and organizations, and by individuals. In the past four decades, we can point to anecdotal evidence that this transformation is happening. We recycle. Our homes and vehicles are more energy efficient. We find innovative ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and pollution. We protect wilderness areas and rehabilitate rivers and lakes. The world has changed considerably since 1972. But it is not enough. We are still searching for a way to incorporate environmental considerations into everything we do – to promote the consideration of environmental factors in decisions in the same way we consider economic and social factors.

Around the world, many countries have taken steps to promote sustainable development, and there is much to learn from what has worked elsewhere, and what has not. A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that where governments have attempted to move too quickly and on too many simultaneous fronts to achieve sustainable development the governance systems became overloaded and paralyzed, and little progress was made (OECD, 2001).

Other countries have taken modest, achievable first steps, and built upon early successes to expand into new areas. In these countries, environmental considerations have been better integrated into economic and social policy over time (OECD, 2006). The key to success is to focus on a few priorities early on and, in this way, lay the groundwork for longer-term institutional change.

Canada’s approach – Addressing past limitations

How did Canada handle sustainable development? While some countries have chosen to develop national-level strategies, Canada’s federal system of governance required an approach that acknowledged that many of the levers for promoting sustainable development are controlled by different levels of governments (e.g. municipalities, provinces, and territories). But within the federal government itself, Canada’s efforts had been piecemeal and it did not deliver major results.

These results led to the 1995 amendments to the Auditor General Act that required departments and agencies to develop their own sustainable development strategies. The office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) was also created with a mandate to monitor the extent to which departments met the objectives of their sustainable development strategies.

This decentralized approach was a beginning but, in the years since then, many observers, including the Commissioner himself, have noted that the system is not truly setting Canada on the path toward a sustainable future. The Commissioner has published annual reports on this subject since 1998. Consistently, those reports have highlighted the following points:

  • The absence of an over-arching sustainable development strategy has meant there is neither central direction nor a longer-term focus.
  • Inadequate performance measurement, monitoring, and reporting have resulted in a lack of information about whether initiatives are working or how they should be adjusted over time – there is no cycle of “plan, do, check, improve.”
  • Performance indicators have not been accurate enough, comprehensive enough, or given in a timely enough manner to influence decision-making.
  • Goals and targets at the departmental level have been so vague and unfocused that, even when they were met, they failed to make any real difference.
  • Sustainable development planning and reporting have been separate from, rather than integrated with, core government planning and reporting.

In 2007, these findings culminated in the Commissioner tabling a review of the Government of Canada’s previous 10 years of sustainable development planning and reporting (CESD, 2007). It then became obvious that the government needed to change its approach.

Canada’s new approach – Planning for a sustainable future

To improve the federal government’s performance in putting sustainability at the heart of its policies and programs, a range of options, including legislation and a review of global best practices was examined.

Building upon this research, Parliament developed and passed the Federal Sustainable Development Act (FSDA) in 2008. The FSDA requires the Government of Canada to develop a comprehensive Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) that is “to provide the legal framework for developing and implementing a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy that will make environmental decision-making more transparent and accountable to Parliament”.

This first FSDS has been designed to respond to the limitations of the previous approach to sustainable development planning and reporting. It creates an environmental decision-making system that is transparent and accountable and supports the continuous improvement of the management of sustainable development. It conveys a strong commitment to addressing the environmental and sustainable development priorities of Canadians and establishes environmental sustainability as a long-term, government-wide priority across federal departmental mandates.

The FSDS clearly articulates the Government of Canada’s long-term vision, goals, and targets, including its plans for reducing the federal government’s environmental footprint.  It will raise the profile of environmental issues in federal government priority-setting and decision-making, placing them firmly on the same playing field as the country’s economic and social priorities.

This FSDS does not promise an overnight fix – that would be neither responsible nor sustainable. Rather, it ensures that Canadians and Parliamentarians are aware of what the federal government has done and intends to do regarding sustainable development, and makes three key improvements to environmental decision-making.

The FSDS provides the reporting and the transparency that was lacking in the previous approach to sustainable development, and will drive progress over time. It is a mechanism that will help the Government of Canada to be more deliberate in its decision-making and better understand what the trade-offs are and when and where they may need to be made.

Stakeholder consultations

The Federal Sustainable Development Act requires a draft of the FSDS to be submitted for public consultation for a period of not less than 120 days before the final FSDS is tabled in Parliament. Holding public consultations on the draft FSDS is also consistent with the Government of Canada’s commitment to involve Canadians in decision-making processes and has helped to increase the transparency and accountability of the FSDS. Public consultations were undertaken by the Sustainable Development Office at Environment Canada from March 15, 2010 to July 12, 2010. The comments and views from Canadians have helped shape the first FSDS.

The feedback was received from stakeholders including the CESD, Parliamentarians, non-governmental organizations and citizens. It acknowledged that the FSDS is on track in terms of addressing long-standing concerns. Stakeholders supported the major components of the FSDS which are outlined in more detail throughout this report and, which include:

  • Adopting a whole-of-government approach;
  • Linking sustainable development to the Government of Canada’s planning and reporting processes through the Expenditure Management System;
  • Focusing on transparency of decision-making outcomes rather than process;
  • Using environmental indicators to measure and report on progress in the FSDS; and,
  • Using SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) criteria to establish the targets in the FSDS.

The CESD completed its legal requirement to review the draft FSDS. The Commissioner found that the FSDS “represents an important opportunity to correct a long-standing weakness in the federal government’s approach to sustainable development” – namely, the absence of a single or overarching strategy (CESD, 2010). 

This FSDS incorporates stakeholder comments by:

  • Providing more clarity and detail on concepts such as transparency, accountability, and integration into the Expenditure Management System;
  • Highlighting the significance of the sustainable development principles;
  • Clarifying how the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) will be used to measure progress;
  • Adding additional targets and a broader range of departmental programs and initiatives;
  • Improving the quality and measurability of the goals, targets, and implementation strategies;
  • Providing additional information on the role of federal departments; and,
  • Integrating the economic and social dimensions of sustainable development.

The FSDS with its broad goals, targets and implementation strategies makes transparent how key environmental themes will contribute to the overall vision for Canada that:

  • Builds the jobs and industries of the future by investing in Canadians’ skills and education, keeping taxes low, opening markets to Canadian goods and services, and creating the conditions for continued success of industries that are the foundation of Canada’s prosperity;
  • Makes Canada the best place for families to provide for their children, to contribute to the local community, and to live in a safe and secure country;
  • Stands up for what is right in the world including global security, human rights, maternal and child health, financial market regulation and international climate change; and,
  • Strengthens a united Canada in a changing world by pursuing democratic reforms, further strengthening Canada’s Francophone identity, improving the immigration and refugee systems, helping the North realize its vast potential, and protecting and preserving our natural environment (Canada, 2010).

This vision will continue to evolve over time as Canada moves closer to a more sustainable future. Continued involvement with stakeholders in future rounds of the FSDS will help drive improvements.


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