Photo by Jonathan Denney on Unsplash

Commentary by Julia Sanchez, President-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) and Scott Vaughan, President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development

The clock is ticking to meet the ambitious global goals set in 2015 to ensure a better future for people and the planet. While many challenges remain, there are optimistic signs of progress.

Markets and communities are increasingly embracing low-carbon and sustainability actions. On the front lines of climate policy, global investors are looking more at renewable energy investments, and less at conventional, fossil fuel investments. In 2017, almost $280 billion was invested in renewable energy, according to a recent report by Bloomberg.

Apple recently announced a new partnership, moving beyond making its supply chains 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy to finding new ways of sourcing aluminum in zero-carbon ways. And this push to link sustainability with innovation isn’t just happening with high-technology actors. Key resource players are adopting more stringent sustainability standards covering a wide range of commodities, from forestry and coffee to garments and tea.

One driver that is increasingly pushing this transition to sustainability is the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These 17 goals apply to all countries, and require all of society to play their part.

Accordingly, a growing number of companies are adopting efforts to reach the SDGs. So too are cities: New York City will become the first city to report on how it is advancing the SDGs, at a high-level meeting of countries in July. In Germany, the Chancellor’s office is tracking the update of different SDGs across their federal and provincial levels of government. In Finland, the Prime Minister chairs a special commission to track implementation of the goals by companies, volunteer groups and governments. Kenya has taken steps to incorporate the SDGs into national policies and has developed a road map for implementation. Sweden has pursued measures to integrate equitable and sustainable development into all dimensions of its work. Guatemala, Jordan and Malaysia have launched a variety of efforts to build national ownership over the SDG framework.

Against this momentum, Canada is largely stalling. Last year, the Brookings Institute concluded that Canada lagged behind other countries in implementing the SDGs. Last month, Canada’s Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development issued an audit report on Canada’s preparedness to implement the SDGs. Her report concluded that the government was far from ready to implement the SDGs or to provide leadership in helping other countries to make progress.

In her report, the Commissioner determined that the Government of Canada has, as yet, no governance structure for SDG implementation; no system to measure, monitor and report on national progress; and only limited national consultation and engagement. While Canada has developed a data framework to measure results on the 232 global SDG indicators, the data have not yet been compiled.

As both of these reports acknowledged, even countries with a very high standard of living for most of its population, such as Canada, face unacceptably high rates of poverty, health issues and environmental challenges. Canada’s indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by poor housing, schooling, drinking water advisories and a long list of other pressing matters. The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission require urgent action, and overlap with the spirit of ‘leaving no one behind’ — one of the elements central to the SDGs.    

There is no doubt Canada has a long way to go. Even with plans, action is hard to take. The SDGs challenge us to break out of our silos, to coordinate and connect across different government departments and different levels of government — and to find the spaces in between where issues intersect and collaboration is essential for success. It requires political will to be successful.

To its credit, the Canadian government is beginning to recognize its shortfalls. In Budget 2018, as the Commissioner was finalizing her report for publication, the government announced new funding to support whole-of-government coordination, monitoring and reporting of the SDGs. And just one week before the Commissioner’s highly critical report was issued, the government put out a press release signalling that plans are finally underway to develop a strategy to implement the SDGs.

In July, the world’s leaders will convene for the UN’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. In preparing for the session, Canada has an opportunity to further redress its lack of performance thus far. In fact, when Canada rises alongside 46 other countries to present its ‘voluntary national review’ — its own account of how it is implementing the SDGs nationally and internationally — the government still has an opportunity to distinguish itself.

Instead of using the platform to exaggerate successes and ignore shortcomings, as many member states have done in previous years, the government should show that it can learn from recent publications such as last month’s auditor’s report. Realistically, little progress can be achieved before the UN meeting, but the government can at least signal it has a solid grasp of the challenges it has faced and is facing, the gaps that remain, and the directions it is planning to take — including how it will engage more Canadians in realizing the task of ‘transforming our world’ by 2030.

This would prove true what the Prime Minister’s told the UN General Assembly in a speech last year:

Canada remains a work in progress. … The good news is that Canadians get it. They see the inequities. They’re fed up with the excuses. And that impatience gives us a rare and precious opportunity to act.

Taking action to achieve the SDGs is part of that opportunity. While all governments are struggling with the challenging global agenda framed by the SDGs, few are acknowledging and undertaking the truly transformative changes required to realize its full ambition. By being honest, modest and candid about the work ahead, by recognizing the political will and direction it will require to be successful, Canada may not yet be ready, but it can demonstrate its genuine commitment to the SDGs, and do its part to ensure that no one is left behind – in Canada or around the world.

Photo by Jonathan Denney on Unsplash