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

Sustainable Development Office
Environment Canada

October 2010

Chapter 4: Priorities for environmental sustainability

In preparing this first FSDS, the Government of Canada has been guided by best practices and international experience that demonstrate the benefits of a strategic and targeted approach to planning and reporting.

The Government of Canada adopted four themes that are consistently high priorities of the Canadian public:

  1. Addressing climate change and air quality;
  2. Maintaining water quality and availability;
  3. Protecting nature; and
  4. Shrinking the environmental footprint – Beginning with government

This chapter discusses the social, economic, and environmental context considered when developing the goals under each of these themes. Annexes 1 through 4 provide a detailed account of current federal goals, targets and implementation strategies for each of the environmental themes, transparently presenting, for the first time in one place, the Government of Canada’s initiatives and priorities for environmental sustainability.

Establishing goals, targets and implementation strategies

The goals, targets and implementation strategies are taken from key commitments made by the Government of Canada in policy and planning documents such as the Speech from the Throne, the Federal Budget, Memoranda to Cabinet, Treasury Board submissions, departmental Reports on Plans and Priorities and Departmental Performance Reports.  As such, they will evolve over time as new policy decisions are taken.

The federal government strives to ensure the goals are:

  • Aspirational;
  • Take a long-term view;
  • Address important challenges and problems;
  • Remain attuned to environmental information, data and indicators;
  • Encourage flexibility in the choice of strategies for achievement; and
  • Reflect domestic and international priorities and commitments.

The targets are more specific in nature. The federal government strives to ensure the targets:

  • Meet the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) criteria;
  • Take a medium-term view;
  • Fall within federal jurisdiction and departmental mandates;
  • Remain informed by environmental baseline data and indicators;
  • Are consistent with Government of Canada priorities; and
  • Reflect the precautionary principle.

In some areas, the targets are already quite strong; strengthening others will take time. For example, the target for terrestrial ecosystems and habitat (park protected habitat) - "maintain or improve the overall ecological integrity in all national parks from March 2008 to March 2013" - already meets the SMART criteria. In some others, the SMART criteria cannot be met until the quality of the targets is improved. The Sustainable Development Office will work to ensure that departmental contributions toward meeting the targets meet SMART criteria to the fullest extent possible.

Finally, departments and agencies undertake implementation strategies as a means of reaching the targets set out in the FSDS. The implementation strategies should:

  • Meet the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) criteria;
  • Take a short-term view;
  • Fit within the reporting and planning structures of the federal government;
  • Identify resources and activities; and
  • Contribute to the related target.

The Federal Sustainable Development Act lists 28 departments that are subject to the Act and are thus required to prepare their own departmental strategies to comply with and contribute to the FSDS. But only a subset of departments have mandates that include programming specifically related to the goals listed in the FSDS under the priorities of Addressing climate change and air quality, Maintaining water quality and availability, and Protecting nature. However, all FSDS departments are required to contribute to achieving the goals and targets of the fourth theme, Shrinking the environmental footprint – Beginning with government.

What will the results be?  Each program and policy has its own impact, and the Annexes describe the implementation strategy for each. The implementation strategies, categorized by four types that reflect the key roles of federal government, are coined as LEAD: 

  • Leading by example –  activities that will have a direct impact on federal government operations, or will change how the federal government manages;
  • Enabling capacity – activities where the federal government is building the capacity of others to take action, or is making strategic investments in support of goals and targets;
  • Advancing knowledge and communications – activities related to science, knowledge gathering and sharing, and public education; and
  • Demanding performance – activities, such as laws and regulations that require industries or individuals to change behaviours.

I. Addressing climate change and air quality

Climate change is a serious challenge to sustainability, but not an insurmountable one. Air pollutants are often closely associated with greenhouse gas emissions.  Many air-borne substances have an impact on smog, pollution and our overall quality of life, including human health.  Poor air quality also affects plants and animals, may put species at risk, and can reduce the productivity of our farms, fisheries and forests.

Over the past decades, as awareness of the stakes involved has increased, so has the will to combat climate change strengthened and Canadians are showing a determination to act. The scientific consensus, as reflected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is that additional greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity are beginning to have a discernible adverse impact on the climate (IPCC, 2007).  New technologies point the way to clean energy and to methods of preventing emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution.   

Why it matters

Canada is a country of vast distances and a dispersed population, an economy driven by production and export of natural resources, a northern climate, and of high population growth. Each of these factors contributes to Canada’s growing energy demand, which is a key determinant of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in 2008, approximately 81% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions were generated from the production, distribution, and consumption of energy, including electricity generation, fossil fuel production, transportation activities, and residential, commercial and institutional heating, cooling and lighting (Environment Canada, 2010).

Canada’s prosperity and well-being are linked to the strength of its resource economy and natural environment. Climate change initiaves should consider the economic importance of sectors such as energy (oil and natural gas), agriculture, forestry, fisheries, water resources, and mineral resources. In 2008, natural resources (timber, energy and minerals) contributed 22% to Canada’s total wealth. The value of these natural resources rose 45% to $1,723 billion in the same year (Statistics Canada, 2009b). The natural resources sectors and earth sciences industries directly employed close to 859,000 people in 2008 (Natural Resources Canada, 2008). The main challenge is to meet the energy needs of our growing economy while achieving the important goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On the ground this means making tradeoffs.

More than 25 million Canadians (80%) live in urban areas, where air pollution tends to be most significant (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 2010). Increased air pollution brings risks of increased respiratory and cardiovascular problems and certain types of cancer (Environment Canada, 2008a). Clean air will contribute substantially to the long term competitiveness of the Canadian economy, by reducing health care costs and improving the productivity of workers.

The Ontario Medical Association has estimated that air pollution costs more than $1 billion a year in hospital admissions, emergency room visits, and absenteeism. For example, the medical costs associated with a hospital admission for respiratory illness is, on average, approximately $3,000 as well as approximately an additional $1,000 in lost wages and worker productivity (Environment Canada, 2010c).

Meeting challenges of climate change and air pollution requires new ways to produce and transport products, fuels and foods, light and heat our homes and offices and commute and travel. Globally, we need to create a low-carbon world, where economic growth and competitiveness are driven by clean and efficient technologies. Canada intends to be a leader in that future world by taking concrete actions today.

Goal 1: Climate change

Reduce greenhouse gas emission levels to mitigate the severity and unavoidable impacts of climate change.

What government is doing

The Government of Canada has developed an aggressive strategy to address climate change and air quality by taking action to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution (Environment Canada, 2010d). This includes:

  • Providing sustained action to build a low-carbon economy and make Canada a world leader in clean electricity generation;
  • Working with the international community to implement the Copenhagen Accord, the first international agreement to include all major emitting countries. The Copenhagen Accord commits Canada to investing $400 million for international climate change efforts this fiscal year (2010–2011), and to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020;
  • Developing and implementing a climate change and clean energy strategy that is harmonized with that of the United States, our largest trading partner. Canada has already aligned our 2020 automobile emission reduction target with that of the United States;
  • Publishing draft regulations for greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and continuing to work with the United States to produce regulations for heavy trucks;
  • Tabling new regulations requiring 5% renewable content in gasoline and diesel fuel (Environment Canada, 2010e);
  • Working with the United States to continue to reduce emissions through the Canada-United States Clean Energy Dialogue (CED) launched in 2009. The CED will promote the development of a Canada-United States clean energy sector.  This will enhance the Government of Canada's ability to meet its commitment of 90% of electricity provided by non-emitting sources by 2020 (Environment Canada, 2009b).

Goal 2: Air pollution

Minimize the threats to air quality so that the air Canadians breathe is clean and supports healthy ecosystems.

What government is doing

The Government of Canada is committed to taking action to improve the air we breathe by limiting air pollution, and is working with the provinces, territories, and the private sector to develop strategies that will ensure cleaner air and a cleaner environment for all Canadians by:

  • Moving forward with the Clean Air Regulatory Agenda by enabling the establishment of clear national standards, to move industry from voluntary compliance to regulations, to monitor progress, and to report to Canadians on the progress that Canada is making in reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Continuing to consult with provinces, territories, industries, and Canadians to set and reach targets for the reduction of both indoor and outdoor air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Providing Canadians with the information they need to make informed decisions. For example, the Air Quality Health Index provides Canadians with information and advice on air quality related health risks to help them reduce their level of exposure to air pollutants (Environment Canada, 2010f). Similarly, the National Pollutant Release Inventory, Canada’s legislated, publicly accessible inventory of pollutant releases to air, water, and land, provides Canadians with comprehensive emission summaries and trends for key air pollutants based on facility-reported data.  It also includes emission estimates for other pollution sources such as motor vehicles, residential heating, forest fires, and agriculture;
  • The Government of Canada has also committed to cleaning up the legacy of contaminated sites. The Government of Canada has invested in contaminated site clean-up and has successfully remediated 5,620 of the 19,775 identified sites (Treasury Board Secretariat, 2010).

Specific initiatives related to Theme I can be found in Annex 1.

II. Maintaining water quality and availability

Canada has approximately seven per cent of the world’s total renewable freshwater supply. But Canadians are among the highest water users per capita in the world. The demand for water is increasing, and often different interests have conflicting demands.

Why it matters

Access to safe, clean water is a crucial issue for Canadians. The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to a reliable and secure supply of clean water, and that our water resources are used wisely, both economically and ecologically.

Water pollution can affect the health of Canadians, the natural environment and the economy. For example, poor water quality can lead to waterborne disease and illness. Health problems related to water pollution in general are estimated to cost $300 million per year in Canada (Environment Canada, 2009b). Each time a Canadian community is served with an advisory to boil drinking water, we are reminded of the importance of taking better care of our water resources. As of June 30, 2010, there were 114 First Nations communities across Canada under a Drinking Water Advisory (Health Canada, 2010).

The Great Lakes provide a prime example of the importance of keeping our water ecosystems clean. This basin supports 33 million people, including nine million Canadians and eight of Canada's 20 largest cities. It is home to 90% of Ontario's population and 40% of Canada's economic activity. Each year, the Great Lakes contribute $180 billion to Canada-United States trade (Environment Canada, 2009b) and are used by 1.5 million recreational boaters and fishers.

A reliable supply of water is essential for Canada’s economy given that approximately 60% of Canada’s GDP is directly dependant on water (Environment Canada, 2002) for sectors such as resource extraction, manufacturing and the production and processing of food. Water and energy production are also fundamentally connected (i.e. thermal electrical power generation, hydroelectric power generation and, to a lesser extent oil and gas extraction).

The sustained growth in water demands from different users in Canada creates the potential for competing uses. Thermal power generation stations, industry, agriculture, households and mining are amongst the highest water users and consumers across Canada, responsible for withdrawing almost 44 billion cubic metres of water from Canadian rivers and lakes each year. Of this water withdrawal, almost 5.5 billion cubic metres is not returned to the ecosystem.

Marine transportation could be affected by lack of water availability. Lower water levels, for example, in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Seaway mean lighter loads putting seaway shippers at a competitive disadvantage to those who do not use the seaway (Environment Canada, 2010g).

Pressure on this water resource will mount as, between now and 2050, Canada’s population is expected to increase by 25% and the Canadian economy is predicted to grow approximately 55% by 2030 (National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, 2010). These stresses, along with climate change, will affect Canada’s watersheds and create new pressures on the long-term sustainability of our water resources.

The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that all Canadians have access to a reliable and secure supply of clean water, and that our water resources are used wisely, both economically and ecologically.

Goal 3: Water quality

Protect and enhance the quality of water so that it is clean, safe and secure for all Canadians and supports healthy ecosystems.

What government is doing

In Canada, all three levels of government (federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal) have roles and responsibilities with respect to fresh water management. The provinces and territories have the primary responsibility for most areas of water management and protection, including the licensing of a majority of the principal water uses. The federal government’s role includes management of water on Aboriginal and federal lands, fisheries, boundary and transboundary water, water monitoring, and water-related science and research. The Government of Canada recognizes the critical importance of a safe and secure water supply to human health, the environment, and the economy as well as clean water for all Canadians.  

The Government of Canada is:

  • Continuing to help Canadians restore lakes and marine ecosystems that have been damaged by pollution – the Government allocated $96 million in clean-up funding: $30 million for Lake Simcoe; $18 million for Lake Winnipeg; and $48 million for Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes (Environment Canada, 2010h);
  • Working with communities and other tiers of government to protect and restore water quality in other priority areas such as the St. Lawrence River;
  • Using a modern and coordinated approach to managing the impact of human activities on Canada’s oceans, and making important progress in expanding the network of marine protected areas;
  • Working to preserve and protect Canada’s water resources through numerous commitments made under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Action Plan for Clean Water – the Oceans Action Plan and the Plan of Action for Drinking Water in First Nations Communities (Environment Canada, 2010h);
  • Working to eliminate the dumping of raw sewage into our waterways and enabling municipalities to upgrade water and wastewater infrastructure;
  • Undertaking important science, research, and monitoring to enhance our understanding of the problems facing our ecosystems and to evaluate the effectiveness of our actions; and
  • Working to ensure effective stewardship of water resources shared with the United States through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. 

Goal 4: Water availability

Enhance information to ensure that Canadians can manage and use water resources in a manner consistent with the sustainability of the resource.

What government is doing

The Government is collaborating with other jurisdictions and major stakeholders on sustainable water management through research, promotion, and distribution of information that will support water efficiency and integrated management.

In the 2008 Speech from the Throne, the Government of Canada also committed to introducing legislation to ban all bulk water transfers or exports from Canadian freshwater basins. If passed, the Transboundary Waters Protection Act will bring transboundary waters – those that flow across the Canada-U.S. border – under the same protections that are currently in place for boundary waters such as the Great Lakes.

Annex 2 contains many Government of Canada initiatives now underway to maintain water quality and availability, including action to limit the levels of phosphates in laundry and dishwasher detergents, as well as working with the agricultural community regarding agricultural run-off and water use. The Government is working with other jurisdictions and partners including First Nations communities to improve drinking water quality and wastewater treatment, and improve water sustainability.

III. Protecting nature

Canadians are proud of the nation’s rich and diverse natural heritage. Canada is a steward of many globally significant ecosystems, including 30% of the world’s boreal forests and 20–30% of freshwater wetlands. Nature and natural ecosystems clean the air we breathe and the water we drink, support the food we grow, and play a critical part in maintaining our general well-being. They are vital to our economy, including pulp, timber, fishing and recreational activities and serve as the basis for the emerging bio-based economy, such as genomics, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Canada’s natural heritage includes significant non-renewable resources such as minerals, metals, oil and gas.

Why it matters

The sustainable use of all our natural resources is the basis for healthy, prosperous communities and sustainable livelihoods. Hundreds of communities in Canada depend directly on employment in fisheries, forestry, and agriculture, including many indigenous communities (Government of Canada 2009).

The country’s natural resource base is an important part of the Canadian economy. In 2008, for example, 1.9% of Canada’s GDP came from forests and 8% from agriculture and agri-foods. In financial terms the ocean sector contributed $17.7 billion in direct to the GDP in Canada in 2006, creating more than 150,000 jobs. (Natural Resources Canada, 2008; Pinfold, 2009). Natural resource wealth depends on a number of factors including the size of physical resource reserves as well as resource prices. Fuelled by increases in resource prices, natural resource wealth grew, on average 10% per year during the last decade. In 2005, Canada’s natural resource wealth crossed the trillion dollar mark (Islam and Adams, 2010).

Canadians themselves value nature and spend more than $11 billion annually on nature-related activities such as bird watching and canoeing, creating approximately 215,000 jobs (Statistics Canada, 2000). Hunting, fishing, and trapping are an integral part of traditional Canadian life, especially in Aboriginal communities, and contribute to the provision of essential goods in communities around the country. During any given year, an estimated six million Canadians participate in recreational hunting, fishing, and trapping.

In 2002, Canada’s boreal forests provided the net economic value of natural capital extraction of $50.9 billion.  The non-market economic value of its ecosystem services (e.g. clean drinking water and decomposition of waste) if left intact was estimated at $703 billion (Anielski and Wilson 2009).

As the pressures on natural habitat increase, the stakes for protecting nature continue to grow as well. Over the past 40 years, the total area of urban land in Canada has almost doubled, more land is being converted to industrial use and the integrity of ecosystems is being compromised by pollutants, invasive alien species, and a changing climate.

Since the St. Lawrence Seaway was opened, more than 180 alien species have been reported in the Great Lakes basin. In 2008, the annual cost to the Great Lakes region due to alien invasive species introduced through shipping was calculated at a minimum of $200 million (Great Lakes United, 2008).

The Government of Canada understands the importance of protecting nature for current and future generations of Canadians.

Goal 5: Wildlife conservation

Maintain or restore populations of wildlife to healthy levels.

What government is doing

The Government of Canada is committed to protecting natural spaces and wildlife, including species at risk and migratory birds. To promote stewardship activities that protect and restore threatened ecosystems and endangered species, the Government works in partnership with the provinces and territories, private industry, Aboriginal communities, conservation organizations, and individual Canadians. Animals such as whooping cranes and sea otters have been brought back from near extinction, along with the Banff Springs snail, Blanding’s Turtle, and the Atlantic Whitefish. By helping maintain the integrity of ecosystems, the habitats necessary for supporting the health of species are conserved.

The Government of Canada is equally committed to protecting the natural heritage of our country. Specifically, the Government has made commitments to protect species at risk, migratory birds, and their habitat. Examples include the following investments and commitments:

  • $30 million per year to better implement the Species at Risk Act;
  • $11.3 million to 205 projects in communities across Canada through the Habitat Stewardship Program in 2008–2009; and
  • $85 million in funding to address the threat of invasive alien species by implementing an Invasive Alien Species Strategy for Canada.

Goal 6: Ecosystem/habitat conservation and protection

Maintain productive and resilient ecosystems with the capacity to recover and adapt; and protect areas in ways that leave them unimpaired for present and future generations.

What government is doing

Canadians value the health of the country’s natural environment, and the Government of Canada recognizes that our social and economic well-being depends on its sustainability. That is why the Government of Canada is taking action and investing in conservation and protection of ecosystems and habitat including:

  • Setting aside land for national parks – since 2006, 85,860 km2 for national parks, national wildlife areas, national marine conservation areas, and other conservation purposes;
  • Expanding Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories to six times its original size;
  • Negotiating an agreement with Greenland to protect polar bears;
  • Providing $225 million to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to establish the Natural Areas Conservation Program;
  • Investing $5.5 million to monitor current Marine Protected Areas; and
  • Strengthening the enforcement of environmental laws that protect ecosystems and important habitat.

Goal 7: Biological resources

Sustainable production and consumption of biological resources are within ecosystem limits.

What government is doing

The Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the responsible development and use of Canada’s natural resources. The Government of Canada works to ensure the natural resource uses are environmentally sustainable, while supporting economic prosperity by:

  • Providing funding and support to First Nations to participate in the forest sector – in 2008–2009 the Program supported more than 130 projects at the community level and helped facilitate development of regional-scale projects;
  • Undertaking important research to improve the understanding of ecosystems needed for future policy and regulatory decisions;
  • Determining the resilience of the National Protected Areas network particularly in the face of climate change and other stressors;
  • Assessing risks to Canada’s forest biodiversity; and
  • Taking action to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive alien species in Canadian ecosystems through the Invasive Alien Species Partnership Program and through the Ballast Water Control and Management Regulations.

Specific initiatives related to how the Government is working to protect nature can be found in Annex 3.

IV. Shrinking the environmental footprint – Beginning with government

The federal government has a considerable environmental footprint ranging from the energy used to heat and cool federal buildings and operate the federal vehicle fleet, to the goods purchased to deliver services to Canadians and the disposal of electronic equipment at the end of its useful life.

Canadians expect their government to lead in finding ways to reduce its environmental impact and find more sustainable ways to deliver results. The Government of Canada has already launched initiatives throughout its operations, including the Policy on Green Procurement, and has made progress in important areas such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Many departments and agencies have also made considerable progress with their own initiatives.

Why it matters

The Government of Canada has a significant operational presence across the country, with more than 40,000 buildings owned or leased, more than 30,000 on-road vehicles, and 260,000 employees across Canada. As a result, the Government of Canada is itself a major consumer of natural resources and a producer of air emissions and waste products which have a significant impact on the environment. As custodian, fleet manager, procurer of goods and services, and employer, the Government has demonstrated a commitment to do its part to reduce the impact of its operations and leadership with regard to greening operations.

The Government of Canada is committed to improving the environmental performance of its own operations. With this in mind, the federal government has developed new targets in the areas of green buildings, greenhouse gas emissions, electronic waste, printing units, paper consumption, green meetings, and green procurement. Public Works and Government Services Canada will continue to provide technical support to departments in greening their operations.

Goal 8: Greening government operations

Minimize the environmental footprint of government operations.

What government is doing

The Government of Canada has already taken significant action to reduce its environmental footprint. For example, all new government office buildings are required to meet the Canada Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED - Canada) Gold level. In 2006, the Treasury Board Secretariat approved the Policy on Green Procurement which requires that environmental performance considerations be integrated into federal procurement decision-making processes. In addition, in 2010 the government implemented a strategy to address the environmentally sound disposal of all federally generated e-waste.

Specific iniatives related to Theme IV can be found in Annex 4.

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