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Towards a Strategy for Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Canada

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By Livia Bizikova, Darren Swanson, April 20, 2016

Canada has committed to helping the poorest and most vulnerable countries to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. Less clear is how Canada will achieve the goals at home. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015. Since then, member states have started to explore how to implement its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their 169 specific targets.

The 2030 Agenda is an “ambitious vision of the future for 2030,” requiring an equally ambitious vision for how our governance systems deal with the complexity and integration of all these interrelated goals and targets.

Canada is thus obliged, like other UN member states, to help achieve these goals both domestically and internationally by 2030. Prime Minister Trudeau has already asked Global Affairs Canada to deliver on “helping the poorest and most vulnerable, and supporting fragile states by supporting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” What is less clear is how Canada will implement the 2030 Agenda at home.

If adapted and tailored to our national context, the SDGs present a tremendous and timely domestic opportunity for the federal government to integrate its economic, social and environmental policies. Building on examples from other countries, the current Federal Sustainable Development Act and its related strategy could become the principal vehicle for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Canada.

As is common in other countries, the ministry focused on the environment in Canada also has the responsibility for sustainable development. Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Act (2008) is worded as a legal framework to “make environmental decision-making more transparent and accountable to Parliament.”  It also mandates the creation of a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS), which at this point is focused only on the environment and is led and monitored by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Given this context, the next Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) could guide the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Canada. The draft FSDS for 2016–2019 is currently undergoing public consultation. The draft strategy covers five core areas, including: Taking Action on Climate Change; Clean Technology, Jobs and Innovation; National Parks, Protected Areas and Ecosystems; Freshwater and Oceans; and Human Health, Well-being and Quality of Life. These areas are already relevant for aspects of the 2030 Agenda, such as SDG 6 on water, SDG 9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure, and SDG 15 on life on land.

While FSDS 2016–2019 provides a great opportunity for SDG implementation, it must expand its scope into a comprehensive economic, social and environmental agenda. The following changes to the Federal Sustainable Development Act and the FSDS would set the stage for Canada’s domestic response to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs:

  • Amending the purpose of the act to go beyond the environment to include economic and social decision making, to reflect all aspects of sustainable development and SDGs/targets in particular.
  • Expanding the current environmental scope of the FSDS to reflect the interlinkages among SDGs and to give the strategy a longer-term outlook (such as to 2030) with regular short- and medium-term reviews and updates based on progress toward these goals.
  • Adding the Minister of Finance and one other minister as the act’s responsible minister, in addition to the Environment and Climate Change minister, to widen the circle of responsibility within the cabinet.
  • Funding the Sustainable Development Advisory Council (co-chaired by these three responsible ministers) so that it can effectively engage Canadians in conversations on national sustainable development issues.
  • Giving the chair of the Committee on Sustainable Development to the prime minister to demonstrate the domestic importance of the 2030 Agenda.
  • Expanding the current Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) to a comprehensive set of national sustainable development indicators that reflect economic, social and environmental issues and thus enable a sound method for consistent measurement of progress toward the SDGs.

Swift and decisive action by the federal government is particularly critical right now to provide national leadership toward the domestic implementation of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs. Cities, businesses and provincial governments are starting to explore what the SDGs mean to them. While activities can, and do, proceed without leadership at the federal level (as we have seen with climate change mitigation, such as provincial carbon taxes), these actions are often less effective than they might otherwise be. A clear federal government strategy toward domestic implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Canada could provide the necessary tools, guidelines and support for the implementation of SDGs across Canada. 

With the next FSDS intended to cover the period up to 2019, it would be a missed opportunity now not to include domestic implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Otherwise, we risk losing three years of an already tight 15-year time frame to achieve the 2030 Agenda and SDGs both at home and abroad. 

By Livia Bizikova and Darren Swanson