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

Sustainable Development Office
Environment Canada

November 2013

The Government of Canada's sustainable development approach

Transparency and sustainable development

In 2008, the Government of Canada took an important step on the path towards a sustainable future with the passage of the Federal Sustainable Development Act. The Act's purpose is "to provide the legal framework for developing and implementing a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) that will make environmental decision-making more transparent and accountable to Parliament".

Passing the Act signalled a change in how the Government of Canada would fulfill its commitment to sustainable development. The Act requires one comprehensive FSDS representing all of government, with Departmental Sustainable Development Strategies (DSDSs) contributing to its objectives. The first cycle of the FSDS covering the period 2010–2013, was tabled in Parliament on October 6, 2010. It provided three key improvements over previous federal sustainable development approaches:

  1. An integrated, whole-of-government picture of actions and results to achieve environmental sustainability;
  2. A link between sustainable development planning and reporting and the government's core planning and reporting processes; and
  3. Effective measurement, monitoring and reporting in order to track and report on progress to Canadians.

The first cycle also began the process of integrating FSDS goals and targets into strategic environmental assessments (SEAs), enabling the strategy to support decision makers in becoming aware of the potential impact of federal decision making on the environmental issues that matter most to the Government of Canada and to Canadians.

Key principles that guide us all

The Federal Sustainable Development Act defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The Act acknowledges the foundational importance of the precautionary principle in achieving sustainable development. This principle holds that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. The FSDS supports and reflects the federal government's commitment to this principle.

The Act also states that "the Government of Canada accepts the basic principle that sustainable development is based on an ecologically efficient use of natural, social and economic resources." The government's approach to sustainable development therefore reflects a commitment to minimizing the environmental impacts of its policies and operations as well as maximizing the efficient use of natural resources and other goods and services.

What we have done to date

Much has been accomplished since tabling the first FSDS in 2010. The FSDS presents a whole-of-government view of environmental priorities at the federal level, with goals, targets and implementation strategies across 33 departments and agencies. With the tabling of the 2010–2013 FSDS, Canadians had for the first time, in one place, comprehensive information on activities across the federal government that contribute to environmental sustainability. This view has helped bring coherence both to Canada's domestic policy and to its engagement with international partners on sustainable development. It has also provided departments and agencies with policy context for their sustainable development and other initiatives.

Much of the success to date in bringing sustainable development issues into the government's overall decision making comes as a result of incorporating the FSDS into the government's core planning and reporting processes. During the first three-year FSDS cycle, annual Reports on Plans and Priorities and the websites of each federal department and agency incorporated elements of the FSDS. The FSDS also integrated Clean Air Agenda (CAA) reporting into annual DSDSs, and highlights CAA activities in FSDS progress reporting.

To achieve the government's commitment to effective measurement, monitoring and reporting in order to track and report on progress to Canadians, two FSDS progress reports have been produced. The 2011 FSDS Progress Reportfocused on progress made on setting up the systems needed to implement the FSDS. It also laid the foundation for future reporting by including indicators that would be used to track progress of the 2010–2013 FSDS.

The 2012 FSDS Progress Report highlights the progress of 27 departments and agencies towards the goals and targets set out in the 2010–2013 FSDS. It provides Parliamentarians and Canadians with a whole-of-government picture of the contributions of the federal government to environmental sustainability. As the first substantive report on the first cycle of the FSDS, it establishes the starting point for future cycles of the FSDS and progress reports. The Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) program, now a permanent feature of environmental reporting, significantly expanded its scope to provide more than 40 indicators that measure progress towards the goals and targets of the FSDS.

One example of an area that uses CESI is Sustainable Forest Management. The Sustainability of Timber Harvest indicator, maintained by the Canadian Forest Service and reported by CESI, portrays the annual harvest of timber relative to the level of harvest that is deemed to be sustainable. The indicator provides a national context for forest managers planning for harvest levels that will not affect the long-term sustainability of the forest resource. Sustainable forest management means ensuring that forests provide a broad range of goods and services over the long term.

Figure 2 outlines the Government of Canada's progress to date on sustainable development strategies.

Working together

Federal actions to achieve environmental sustainability are complemented by private sector initiatives that are realizing synergies between the environment and the economy. For example, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance brings companies together to accelerate innovation and improve environmental performance through collaboration. Members of the Forest Products Association of Canada have their sustainable forest management practices certified by third-party authorities, which benefits Canada's ecosystems as well as the reputation of Canada's forest sector in international markets.

The federal actions found in this FSDS also complement initiatives by other Canadian jurisdictions. Recognizing that responsibility for environmental sustainability is shared among the federal, provincial and territorial governments, the FSDS focuses specifically on federal actions towards national environmental outcomes, while acknowledging that other governments also contribute significantly to their achievement.

Individual Canadians also have a role to play in achieving environmental sustainability objectives. For example, individual choices to use lower-emission modes of transportation more often, install energy- and water-saving appliances, reduce household pesticide and fertilizer use, and enjoy protected areas responsibly can contribute to achieving FSDS goals and targets.

The continued importance of sustainable development

Sustainable development remains an important concept in policy discussion within Canada and around the world. It also continues to evolve--notably, towards greater recognition of synergies between environmental and economic sustainability and towards recognition of the value of natural capital in underpinning economic and social prosperity, both for the present and into the future.

Interconnections between the environment and the economy are evident in the federal government's efforts to support sustainable economic growth and responsible resource development--for example, by expanding Canada's international trade. The FSDS is helping to advance Canada's international trade agenda by providing a comprehensive expression of Canada's commitments to the environment and sustainable development to our trading partners. It thereby supports discussions in multilateral, bilateral and regional trade and investment negotiations that ensure economic growth, protection and conservation of the environment are mutually supportive.

A number of FSDS targets and implementation strategies reflect valuing natural capital to ensure that it can support economic and social development in the future, thereby addressing the needs of future generations. Activities can be found throughout the 2013–2016 FSDS that reflect valuing natural capital and include fisheries and aquaculture (Targets 5.1 and 5.2 ), forestry (Target 5.3, Implementation strategy 1.1.57), agriculture (Targets 3.10 and 5.4), policy analysis (Implementation strategies 1.1.14 and 2.1.16), efficient resource use (Implementation strategies 1.1.6 and 2.1.1), beneficial uses of bodies of water (Targets 3.3, 3.5, and 3.7), species and land conservation (Targets 4.1, 4.2, 4.3 and 4.5, Implementation strategies 4.3.8 and 4.3.9).

FSDS targets and implementation strategies also directly support the government's responsible resource development agenda. Responsible resource development--a key pillar of Economic Action Plan 2012--will ensure Canada's regulatory regime is among the most efficient and competitive in the world, while ensuring strong environmental protection and enhanced consultations with Aboriginal Canadians. By, for example, introducing new compliance and enforcement tools, responsible resource development strives to ensure that natural resources can be developed sustainably, meeting economic, social, and above all, environmental objectives. Building on the responsible resource development foundation, the government has steadily deepened and expanded its efforts to protect the environment and is advancing world class pipeline and marine safety regimes (see Implementation strategies 4.7.6 and 3.8.3).

Responsible resource development is supported by recent changes to environmental assessment resulting from the implementation of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 (CEAA 2012). Under CEAA 2012, environmental assessments are completed in a timely manner, and efforts focus on projects that have greater potential for significant adverse environmental effects. CEAA 2012 also strengthens environmental protection and provides tools to reduce duplication between the federal and provincial environmental assessment processes, contributing to the goal of creating a modern, effective and efficient regulatory system for major projects. It also allows for greater use of regional environmental assessments to assess and address cumulative effects.

Further information on what the government is doing to promote responsible resource development can be found in Canada's Economic Action Plan.

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Figure 2 – Sustainable development timeline

This figure shows a timeline of key milestones in federal sustainable development planning and reporting (long description is located below the image).

Long description

This figure shows a timeline of key milestones in federal sustainable development planning and reporting since 1992. The timeline starts with the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development and finishes with the anticipated tabling of the second cycle of the FSDS in fall 2013.

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and decision making

SEA is a key analytical tool used by the federal government to evaluate the potential environmental effects of proposed policies, plans and programs.

In accordance with the Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals, it is expected that an SEA be conducted for every proposal submitted to an individual minister or Cabinet for approval, if important environmental effects (including effects on the FSDS goals and targets) are expected to result from its implementation. When conducting an SEA, departments and agencies assess whether the potential environmental effects of a proposal are important based on considerations such as frequency and duration of the effect; location and magnitude; timing; risk (for example, to human health); irreversibility; and the potential for cumulative effects.

SEA seeks to incorporate environmental considerations into the development of policies, plans and programs on an equal basis with economic or social considerations, in order for decisions to be made in support of sustainable development. Departments and agencies must prepare a public statement of environmental effects when a detailed assessment of environmental effects has been conducted through SEA.

Since the establishment of the first FSDS in 2010, SEAs conducted by federal departments and agencies have been required to consider how proposals could affect the achievement of the FSDS goals and targets. The requirement to conduct SEAs applies to all federal departments and agencies. Therefore, considering the FSDS goals and targets in SEA enables the government's environmental sustainability priorities to inform social and economic decision making.

SEA differs from project-level environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 in that it applies to policies, plans and programs rather than designated projects defined in the regulations associated with CEAA 2012. However, SEA and project-level environmental assessment are complementary in that both processes support informed decision making for sustainable development.

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