The Canadian Record Since Rio

CANADA WAS ONE of the first industrial countries to embrace sustainable development as a public policy goal. In 1990, the federal government released Canada’s Green Plan, a $3 billion comprehensive program to protect the environment, improve decision making and strengthen natural resource management. That same year, Canada committed to stabilize its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions at 1990 levels by 2000, a commitment it (and other countries) restated two years later at Rio. To promote a closer integration between environmental and economic considerations, the federal government and all the provinces had set up round tables of senior business, NGO and political leaders as high-level sources of advice to government on sustainable development. Canada’s quick and unequivocal support for the Convention on Biological Diversity was a major factor in encouraging other industrial countries to sign it. In 1992, Canada also committed to phasing out chlorofluorocarbons ahead of schedule and to reduce waste production by 50 percent by 2000.

Ten years later, it is appropriate to ask what progress Canada has made. Unfortunately, measuring such progress is not a straightforward task. For one thing, sustainable development is a multi-faceted concept, encompassing environmental, economic and social dimensions. Not surprisingly, the evidence does not all point in the same direction: while Canada has made progress in several areas (e.g., improved government finances, increased number of protected areas), its performance has been disappointing in others (e.g., the emission of greenhouse gases is up 15 percent and foreign aid budgets have declined).

Second, although 10 years may seem like an eternity in political or even business circles, it is not long at all in the context of the many institutional and policy changes that sustainable development requires. It will take years, for example, before reductions in the emission of some toxic substances translate into drops in concentrations in soil, water or country food; or for changes in silviculture to be noticed in ecosystem health; or for recent increases in government research funding to improve Canada’s innovation and competitiveness; or for a healthier environment to have a noticeable effect on the health of Canadians.

The lag-time between action and result is particularly evident in the many changes in decision-making processes and management practices that governments and civil society have initiated. While these changes are essential, the impact of implementing strategic environmental assessment processes in a government, or an environmental management system in a company, for example, will not be felt fully for years. To a large extent, it is therefore premature to assess their impact at this stage.

Third, much of the environmental information required to make a judgment is often unavailable. Cuts made to scientific and reporting programs in the mid-1990s as part of the government-wide program review reduced the already inadequate effort expended on the acquisition and analysis of environmental information. As a result, the information available is often dated, does not exist or does not allow for easy aggregation. While the federal government has recognized this problem in its (still unfunded) new initiative for a Canadian Information System for the Environment, it will take years before the needed investments in information gathering and analysis yield more up-to-date knowledge of Canada’s state of the environment. The problem is different in the social area where detailed data exist but a conceptual framework to measure social sustainability is still missing.

In this article, therefore, we answer the question of what progress Canada has made selectively by focusing on three areas only: changes in decision making, (because at its core, sustainable development is about changing the way we make decisions, and ultimately the decisions themselves); biodiversity; and climate change, (because both of these represent the most important international conventions to emerge out of Rio). Canada, as did other countries, assumed a number of commitments in Rio and it is fair to ask what it has achieved in these areas.

Decision making

Over the last decade, the federal government has made important structural, procedural and policy changes in an effort to integrate environmental, social and economic values better into policies and programs and reflect the views of stakeholders more effectively. These reforms include promoting greater policy coherence (for example, through the 1999 Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals requiring departments to prepare an environmental assessment of a policy, plan or program proposal that is submitted to a Minister or Cabinet for approval); leadership by example (for example, by increasing the energy efficiency of government buildings and vehicle fleets and purchasing “green” electricity from renewable sources); and the creation of new advisory and policy research bodies such as the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and the International Institute on Sustainable Development.

The most important of these reforms, however, has been the requirement that most federal departments prepare sustainable development strategies every three years and report annually on their implementation. This initiative also created a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development within the Office of the Auditor General. Among other things, the Commissioner reports annually to Parliament on the Government of Canada’s progress in meeting its environment and sustainable development responsibilities.

Sustainable development strategies

Federal departments have tabled two sets of strategies to date (in 1997 and 2001). The strategies, which were developed in consultation with stakeholders, articulate sustainable development goals and detailed action plans. The results so far have been disappointing. Commenting in 1999 on the first generation of strategies, the Commissioner noted that: “Many strategies appear to represent less a commitment to change in order to promote sustainable development than a restatement of the status quo. Those strategies tend to focus more on past accomplishments than future directions. Less than one half identify specific policy, program, legislative, regulatory or operational changes that would be made to implement the strategy.[ 1 ]”

Although these strategies contain a lot of commitments (some 2600 in the 2001 set), these are often vague. Few departments have provided a coherent vision of how their ongoing mandate relates to sustainable development, and fewer still have linked their strategies to their core business plans. Most departments have also taken an introspective approach, focusing much of their attention to “greening” their own operations and undertaking various background studies. It remains unclear, therefore, to what extent these strategies are leading to real change in policies and programs.

By way of comparison, it needs to be pointed out that no province has undertaken such a far-reaching initiative (with perhaps the exception of Manitoba) and very few Canadian corporations have articulated sustainable development goals and strategies.

Economic instruments

In a market economy, such as Canada’s, most investment and consumption decisions are made on the basis of prices. Where these prices do not fully reflect environmental values, there is a risk that decisions will be made that will lead to inadequate environmental protection. In the language of economists, markets need to “internalize environmental externalities” to ensure the appropriate allocation of resources. Economists recommend the use of various fiscal instruments and market mechanisms (e.g., tradable regimes) to reflect environmental externalities. To reduce the risk that such taxes and regimes become a drag on the economy, a growing number of economists around the world also recommend a gradual tax shifting that would see government reducing its revenues from “goods” (e.g., investment and savings) and increasing them from “bads” (e.g., pollution, habitat destruction).

Canadian governments have made few attempts to use economic instruments systematically to promote the integration of environmental considerations into economic decision making although several examples of such instruments exist. Both Ontario and the federal government have also introduced limited emissions trading schemes to improve the efficiency of environmental protection. In this respect, Canada’s approach to sustainable development stands in marked contrast to that of several OECD countries that have made much greater use of economic instruments, particularly to control energy use.

The federal and provincial governments’ reluctance to use fiscal instruments has greatly reduced their ability to influence consumers and investors to make environmentally responsible decisions. It is difficult to see how Canada will make much progress in promoting more sustainable forms of development until Canada has established “a framework in which environmental and economic policy signals point the same way.”[ 2 ]


It is difficult to comment on the overall impact of the government initiatives to integrate environmental, social and economic considerations more fully in their decision making. While changes to decision-making practices are essential if government policies are to promote more sustainable forms of development, their impact is both indirect and long term: they do not translate into immediate changes in environmental, social or economic conditions and their short-term effects are not always apparent. Nevertheless, the steps that Canadian governments have taken over the last decade allow a more systematic consideration of environmental values in decision making and increase consultation, transparency and public accountability.

However, while the federal government has been implementing these reforms, it has also cut its environmental and natural resource management budgets as part of an overall effort to control their deficits. These substantial cuts, in the range of 30 percent, severely reduced the government’s capacity to conduct scientific research, develop new programs and enforce environmental regulations. In 1999, the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development made the following observations about the federal government’s capacity to manage toxic substances:

Conservation and stewardship of biodiversity


Canada ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992. Since then, the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments, as well as non-governmental organizations, have collectively made a significant investment in planning how to meet the CBD commitments and other biodiversity-related agreements such as: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; and the Ramsar Convention on the Protection of Wetlands. A federal Biodiversity Convention Office has guided the development of the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy.

Identification, monitoring and systematization

Like most other countries, Canada still has a long way to go in identifying the total number of species that reside in Canada’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems. So far, approximately 71,000 species have been identified, but this number understates the true biological wealth as previously unknown species are still being discovered. Under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk (1996), the federal, provincial and territorial governments are committed to “monitor, assess and report regularly on the status of all wild species” with the objective of identifying those species for which a formal status assessment or additional management attention is necessary. The first collaborative report, Wild Species 2000: The General Status of Species in Canada, was released in April 2001, and will be updated every five years.

While efforts to monitor the status of species are improving, Canada’s ability to monitor the health of habitats and ecosystems has diminished in recent years. Currently, despite technological advances such as satellite imaging and geographic information system technologies, there is no comprehensive information on large-scale changes in land use patterns.

Environment Canada has taken a step to do this by setting up the Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN) comprising an informal network of 100 research and monitoring sites across Canada. By encouraging the adoption of standard indicators to monitor various aspects of biodiversity, and by mobilizing a cadre of citizen volunteers, EMAN is developing an early warning system that detects, describes and reports on changes in Canadian ecosystems at national or ecozone scales.

In the autumn of 2001, at the first joint meeting of the federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for wildlife, forestry, and fisheries, governments agreed to an action plan with interjurisdictional priorities for implementing the CBD. The agreement included a commitment to develop a strategy by the fall of 2002 to enhance the collection, management, sharing, analysis and accessibility of biological information, and to develop a science and research agenda to address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by the fall of 2003. Ministers also committed to develop a business plan by the fall of 2002 aimed at enhancing the monitoring and integration of biodiversity data across ecosystems and facilitating regular reporting on biodiversity status and trends in Canada beginning in 2005. A biodiversity stewardship strategy is to be in place by the fall of 2003.

Endangered species

Canada is well advanced in accurately identifying threatened and endangered species, especially among vertebrates, birds and fish. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), composed of federal, provincial, territorial, Aboriginal and non-government representatives, has reviewed and revised the national list of identified species at risk since 1978. COSEWIC identified 358 species or populations as endangered, threatened or of special concern in 2001 (Table 1).


This number represents a significant increase since Canada ratified the convention in 1992, attributable in part to an improved ability to identify species at risk. Most species designated to be at risk are in the southern parts of the country, particularly southwest and interior British Columbia, the southern prairies, and southern Ontario. Although the prospects for a number of species have improved, most species considered to be at risk remain in the same state of peril. For some, the situation has become worse.

Federal, provincial and territorial governments have established formal mechanisms for co-operating to prevent species from becoming at risk. In 1996 wildlife ministers from across Canada agreed in principle to the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, in which they committed to adopting a common approach to protecting species at risk, including complementary legislation, policies and programs. A new Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council was established in 1998.

SARA has been intensely controversial since it was first introduced in 1996 with the federal government unable to bridge competing visions of its appropriate role. While many environmental groups have criticized the extent of political discretion in the Act with regard to the listing of threatened species and the perceived inadequacy of the proposed habitat protection provisions, many landowners and resource users have been concerned that the Act could limit their rights.

Protected areas

The Canadian protected area network includes national, provincial and territorial parks and other designations that in total protect over 68 million hectares of nationally and internationally significant habitats. Canada’s national park system is roughly two thirds complete, with 14 of Canada’s 39 natural regions not yet represented. Lands for national parks within five of these 14 regions have been purchased or reserved from development until negotiations to establish them are complete.

To encourage Canadians to play an active role in protecting environmentally important areas, the federal government established the EcoGifts program in 1995, which provides tax credits for donors of properties certified by the Minister of Environment as ecologically sensitive.


There are numerous stewardship projects occurring across Canada aimed at species at risk and at ensuring that common species remain abundant. Legislation in several provinces supports such stewardship projects by providing for conservation easements. To date, some of Canada’s most successful stewardship initiatives have been directed at bird species. Efforts to conserve bird habitat began in earnest in the late 1980s, spurred by diminishing waterfowl populations as a result of unabated loss of wetland and upland habitat due to agricultural and urban expansion. In response to pressure from hunting and conservation communities, Canada and the United States signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) in 1986. Mexico joined in 1994.


Although the pace of habitat alteration appears to have slowed in recent decades, biodiversity is still declining: the number of threatened species is growing, wetlands continue to be drained, and the freshwater habitats of the Fraser River, St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes are still negatively affected by commercial fishing, toxic wastes, agricultural run-off and municipal sewage. The laws and resources in place to protect biodiversity in Canada are often inadequate in light of the magnitude of the challenge.

Canada has a lot of work to do to meet its commitments under the CBD, but it already has much of the infrastructure and many of the tools in place. The keys to bridging the implementation gap are financial investment; maintenance of the public and political commitment; maintenance of industry commitments; and protection of representative areas before lands are developed or allocated for development. Programs such as NAWMP have shown that large-scale conservation successes are possible over a short time where the co-operative mechanisms and financial resources are put in place. In the case of protected areas, the challenge is representing those natural regions that remain unrepresented, particularly within the boreal forest and in arctic Canada.

Climate change

Under the convention, Canada made commitments related to mitigation measures, the preparation of greenhouse gas inventories, the promotion of biological carbon sinks, the transfer of technologies to developing countries, international co-operation in scientific data collection and research, and public education and awareness. In 1997, Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in which it agreed to reduce its net global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions by six percent from 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. Canada has not yet ratified the protocol.



Canada’s cold climate, the vast distances separating population centres and its economic structure make it an energy-intensive country. Other factors also contribute to the major challenge that Canada faces in the development of an effective climate mitigation strategy:

  • Canada’s population is growing more rapidly (11% in the decade to 1999) than that of most other industrialized countries.

Canada’s mitigation strategy has relied on a mix of instruments, with a heavy reliance on voluntary measures, and the creation of extensive consultation processes with all the major stakeholders. Internationally, Canada has argued in favour of the various Kyoto mechanisms to allow emissions trades, the recognition of biological and soil sequestration of carbon to offset emissions through forestry and agricultural practices and the recognition of clean energy exports. Domestically, governments have also introduced various regulatory and economic measures to reduce GHG emissions, but these have been targeted narrowly.

In 1998, the Centre for Excellence for Sustainable Development (CESD) commented that a mix of poor planning and ineffective management was responsible for the fact that the gap for achieving Kyoto’s commitment was widening while the time remaining to achieve it was narrowing. It is fair to add that profound cleavages among the federal and provincial governments, industry and environmental groups have also significantly hampered progress in defining a national strategy. The American decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and continuing uncertainty about the costs of a Canadian mitigation strategy have heightened the concern of those who fear that a commitment to Kyoto will impose unacceptable costs on the Canadian economy that will compromise its international competitiveness.

In light of this deadlock, the government of Canada decided in 2000 to proceed modestly in areas within its jurisdiction through Action Plan 2000 on Climate Change. The Government expects that this five-year, $500-million initiative will reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 65 megatonnes per year by the period 2008-2012 when fully implemented, taking Canada approximately one third of the way to its Kyoto target.

Canadian industry is also largely opposed to controls that would increase business costs and has championed instead voluntary approaches to reducing GHG emissions and increasing energy efficiency. For most of the 1990s, the Voluntary Challenge Register (VCR) (EcoGESte in Quebec) was the flagship national program to address climate change. VCR Inc. is a non-profit partnership between industry and governments that registers participants, records and publishes action plans on its Internet Web site and monitors the progress of voluntary reductions by companies and organizations. As of November 2001, 779 companies and organizations had registered action plans, and 368 had submitted progress reports. While these action plans describe a long list of measures to reduce GHG emissions, an independent analysis of the voluntary measures taken to date indicates that “emissions of companies making detailed submissions to the VCR do not appear to be rising more slowly than national trends.”[ 5 ]



Canada faces a multi-faceted climate challenge in the decades to come. The gap between the Kyoto target and forecast emissions (excluding already announced government measures) is growing rather than shrinking and it is now estimated at 33 percent. The measures implemented to date are clearly inadequate to stabilize emissions, let alone reduce theM. There is no consensus, however, on what additional measures to take nor on the cost of a comprehensive program to reduce GHG emissions. After having indicated that it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the first half of 2002, the federal government has become evasive and the outlines of a Canadian strategy to mitigate climate change remain unclear.

Reducing emissions from transportation will require controls on urban sprawl, large investments in infrastructure, changes in manufacturing practices premised on just-in-time delivery that encourages truck transport over rail and substantial increases in the efficiency of the vehicle fleet. Canada has hardly begun to address these issues over the last decade. Large cuts in emissions from the fossil fuel sector would require similarly broad and expensive measures and remain unacceptable for this reason to the main producing provinces.


As a peaceful, prosperous country with a large land base, Canada is better able than most to make the investments required to enhance the sustainability of the lifestyles of its inhabitants. During the last decade, Canadians have achieved much: we enjoy a higher standard of living and a higher life expectancy, and are better educated than ever before; governments have successfully controlled their deficits, tamed inflation and presided over a long period of economic expansion. On the environmental front, there has been a significant increase in protected areas; large-scale recycling programs have cut municipal solid wastes; the amount of toxic substances being released to the environment has declined; and the efficiency with which we use energy has improved (with the notable exception of the transportation sector). According to one measure of social development—the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI) that integrates health, education and income—Canada has fared very well during the 1990s, ranking first in the world for six consecutive years between 1995 to 2000, and third in 2001.

Canada’s inability to reach domestic consensus on such key actions as a climate change strategy and federal endangered species legislation bodes poorly for improving our sustainable development performance in the future. Nor have the decision-making changes made to date altered appreciably our resource- and energy-intensive lifestyle even though these impose unsustainable environmental costs over the long term.

Canada’s sustainable development journey seems longer and more arduous today than it did ten years ago at Rio.

Read more:


*  David Runnalls is President, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Winnipeg.

*  François Bregha is with Stratos Inc. Ottawa.

 1.  The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Moving Up the Learning Curve (December 1999) p. 9.

 2.  Liberal Party of Canada, Creating Opportunity (1994) p 64.

 3.  Economic Survey of Canada, 2000, (Paris: OEDC, 2000).

 4.  Editor’s note: The Species at Risk Act (Bill C-5) was passed by the House of Commons on June 11, 2002 and is currently before the Canadian Senate.

 5.  M. Bramley, Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Industrial Companies in Canada (Pembina Institute for Appropriate Technology, 2000) Bregha/Runnalls Draft.