UN Sustainable Development Goals. Adopted September 2015. UN Sustainable Development Goals. Adopted September 2015.

Canada ranked 20th among 156 countries participating in the United Nations’ effort to measure how societies are addressing 17 of the world’s toughest social and environmental challenges, known as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Released Tuesday, the report shows Canada is on track to meet its 2030 Agenda improvement targets in such broad areas as Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and Good Health and Wellbeing. And while we’re holding the line in areas like access to clean energy and quality education, Canada is falling behind in taking action on climate change and protecting ecologically sensitive marine and land areas.

Most worrying of all is Canada’s failure to reduce social inequality, the only one of 17 SDGs where the country is clearly not doing enough.

Canada’s slow start

Amelia Clarke, associate dean of research at the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, told A\J the federal government has taken key steps to work with provinces, municipalities and Indigenous groups to integrate the UN’s sustainable development goals into public policy.

“For the most part,” Clarke said, “we don’t have a strategic plan for how we’re going to implement this.”

The issue, it seems, is the speed with which Ottawa has taken action. “We’ve been rather slow off the mark on this,” Clarke said. Despite 193 member states of the General Assembly of the United Nations voting unanimously to adopt Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in late 2015, Canada only moved this April to develop a national strategy for implementing its sustainable development goals.

And on April 24, 2018, Julie Gelfand, Canada’s Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development in Canada’s Office of the General Auditor, released an audit of Canada’s ability to implement its development objectives. The federal auditor found Ottawa was “not adequately prepared” to implement the UN’s 2030 Agenda.

“At the end of our audit, there was no governance structure and limited national consultation and engagement on the 2030 Agenda,” Gelfand wrote in her report. “There was no implementation plan with a system to measure, monitor, and report on progress nationally.”

Clarke agrees. “For the most part,” she said, “we don’t have a strategic plan for how we’re going to implement this.”

With a global index score of 76.8, Canada is well behind Scandinavian progressive powerhouses like Sweden (85), Denmark (84.6) and Finland (83), which comprise the top three. The United States ranks 35th among all nations with a global index score of 73.

Urgent need to tackle climate change

Canada’s struggle to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets agreed to in Paris is hurting its ability to meet several SDGs. Among five metrics used to measure a country’s progress on climate action, including climate change vulnerability and putting an effective price on carbon, Canada’s post-Paris momentum has largely stagnated.

Sarah Burch, Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said in a release that Canada remains deeply divided on how (or if) to fight climate change.

“While we’ve set ambitious targets and made crucial steps towards pricing carbon, we continue to exploit and expand our fossil fuel resources rather than investing significantly in renewable energy,” she said. “All levels of government must pull together to tackle climate change with more than just words, creating sustainable communities that are healthy, resilient, and inclusive.”

Managing our waste a constant challenge

Clarke identified rampant consumption and inefficient waste disposal as two of the country’s biggest challenges. Because while Canada has met its sustainable development goals for wastewater treatment, for example, the country is well behind in such areas as e-waste processing, recycling and offering municipal organics composting.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Clarke said of Canadian efforts to reduce processable waste ending up in landfill. The problem isn’t just increasing recycling facilities and organics programs into communities where they don’t currently exist; it’s about how collection is managed overall. “Part of our challenge is that every province is different and every municipality is different. You get a lot of confusion in what can go into the system,” she said.   

But Canada’s challenge goes much deeper, Clarke believes. “We have to look at the whole production and consumption system,” she said, everything from how manufacturers produce products to designing packaging that has an end-of-life beyond being landfilled.

“We have a lot of opportunity as we create this national strategy to think nationally around how are we going to move towards a circular economy,” she said, expertise that, once implemented effectively in Canada, can be exported around the world.

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.

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