Canada 2030: Scan of Emerging Issues - Sustainability
Canada 2030 Series
Canada is experiencing significant social and technological changes that could disrupt many aspects of society. In this context, the next 10 to 15 years could be a transformative period for the relationship between Canada’s government and broader society. This Scan is part of a series developed by Policy Horizons Canada on a variety of topics.
Over centuries humans have attempted to manipulate their environment to meet their own needs without consideration of potential environmental costs. This was particularly true during the industrial era and has resulted in unsustainable forms of production, consumption, business practice, waste disposal and a host of other economic, social and governance practices. These practices have resulted in a range of issues (including climate change, pollution, environmental degradation and food insecurity, among others) that exceed the carrying capacity of the planet and are threatening the survival of humanity.
Significant efforts have been underway over the past three decades that aim to address some of these issues through “sustainable development”, defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The discipline opposes traditional paradigms such as “economic growth at all costs” and seeks to strike a reasonable balance between economic, environmental and social dimensions.
What is Changing?
Sustainability is increasingly on the radar for new and influential actors. Sustainability has historically been limited to international debates, but is now gaining the attention of new actors taking action against an unsustainable path to development. Important financial actors, including banks, insurance companies and fund managers (pension, wealth funds), are increasingly requesting more transparency and disclosure from businesses and standards to help them evaluate the risks associated with sustainability issues. A transition towards mandatory disclosure and reporting may force private businesses to align with the best sustainability practices to remain attractive for investors. Cities facing the consequences of unsustainable development practices over the last few decades are multiplying their actions to help improve and protect the wellbeing of their citizens by adopting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets, investing in public mass transit and reviewing land management strategies.
Advancement of science and technology is enabling the “smart” implementation of sustainability. Lack of data is no longer an excuse for ignoring the impacts of socio-economic development strategies on the carrying capacity of the planet. Emerging technologies like the Internet of Things, sensors and satellite imaging contribute to big data analysis, making real-time monitoring of different environmental issues possible (deforestation, melting ice, pollution levels in urban areas, etc.). The integration of these technologies in buildings, vehicles, oceans, soils and space may improve the responsiveness, as well as the reaction time of governments with regards to unsustainable actions. It may also contribute to the development of new metrics and instruments that assess the footprint of products/services, and that monitor the health of natural ecosystems.
The development of social and environmental tools and metrics are contributing to a re-definition of prosperity. Social life-cycle assessment tools can currently be used to measure and evaluate the social impact of goods, services and policies on different stakeholders, including employees, local communities, society, consumers and all the actors across the value chain. At the same time, a “sharing economy” is emerging that may transform our consumption-oriented society. For decades, GDP has been the measure of wellbeing, but emerging metrics such as the Gross Ecosystem Product and Genuine Progress Indicators are being developed that may ensure a more equitable balance between the three dimensions of sustainability: economy, society and environment. Anemic economic growth could also put pressure on governments to adopt new metrics that better reflect progress and prosperity compared to GDP alone.
Environmental crises will have system-level impacts resulting in both challenges and opportunities. Extreme drought, rising food insecurity, and water scarcity in some regions of the world may have important impacts over the next 10 to 15 years, including regional conflicts, spread of disease and viruses, and rising commodity prices. Even companies are evaluating their exposure to the rise in extreme weather events and are searching for “climate-proof” regions for their production facilities. Canada has the opportunity to become a preferred destination for climate refugees as well as companies trying to reduce their supply chain exposure to the risks of climate change. Canada may also have an opportunity to become an important producer of water intensive goods in the future.