The Sustainable Development Goals & Canada: Are We on Track?

This article focuses on Canada’s progress on the Sustainable Development Goals pre-pandemic.

In 2015 when the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were first established and agreed upon by many world leaders, the decided deadline was the year 2030. This timeline allowed for 15 years worth of dedicated action by the number of governments involved, to achieve the ideal sustainable and equitable outcomes for all countries. The aim was for the world to experience the following in 2030:

  • No poverty or hunger;
  • Good health & well-being;
  • Access to quality education;
  • True equity within & among countries & between all genders; 
  • Access to clean water & sanitation & clean, affordable energy; 
  • Availability of decent work & opportunities for economic growth; 
  • The promotion of innovative, resilient, infrastructure; 
  • Sustainable cities & communities; 
  • Responsible production & consumption processes & patterns; 
  • Proactive climate action; 
  • Conservation, sustainable management, & use of water & land resources; 
  • The promotion of peace, justice, & strong, equitable institutions; and
  • Strong partnerships between Member States. 

However, with forceful drivers like climate change accelerating faster than we seem to be capable of – or willing to – mitigate and adapt to them, Canada’s ability to meet these targets by 2030 is highly improbable.

Canada’s Progress

In 2019, the SDG Global Index included results specific to Canada, where the country’s progress on each of the 17 Goals was analyzed, and the following data was presented:

Table 1- SDG Global Index Results, Canada 2019 & Legend

According to this data, in 2019, Canada continued to face significant and/or major challenges in a number of areas, having only succeeded at the achievement of 2 of the 17 Goals – SDG #4 Quality Education and SDG #7 Affordable & Clean Energy. With a Global Index Score of 77.9, Canada is considered to be about 77.9% of the way to achieving the ideal sustainable and equitable scenario for the country.

However, before exploring the Goals in which Canada continues to face significant and major challenges, I would like to discuss our achievements. While we have officially met these Goals, there are still sizeable issues that remain in Canada for certain vulnerable groups and populations – especially when it comes to SDG #4 Quality Education.

SDG #4 Quality Education

In 2019, Canada continued to lead the world in providing equitable access to education for all genders, from childhood education to continuing education, with 91% of the population aged 25 to 64 having completed secondary education (e.g. high school, GED). In addition, almost 2/3 of adults – 67% of women, and 63% of men – in Canada have completed post secondary education (BCCIC, 2019).

There is no doubt that Canada’s education system is of good quality – especially in comparison with many other countries. However, like most issues in Canada, certain communities or groups tend to impacted more heavily than others. The areas that I believe are the most impacted in Canada include Indigenous Peoples, Rural/ Remote Communities, and Impoverished Individuals & Communities. In addition to these impacted groups, there has been insufficient implementation of Sustainability & Climate Change in Canadian public school curriculums (BCCIC, 2019).


Indigenous Peoples

First Nations students are 15% more likely to drop out of high school than non-Indigenous students, and Indigenous Peoples face significant barriers to post-secondary education. As a result, significantly fewer First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people obtain university degrees than non-Indigenous Canadians. Only 12% of Indigenous Peoples in Canada have completed a university education, while 30% have no diploma or degree whatsoever. Indigenous youths are 25% less likely to go into a tertiary education institution compared to the Canadian average.


Rural/Remote Communities

Children in urban centres are found to enjoy better educational outcomes than those in rural and remote areas. Due to logistical challenges commonly present in more remote and rural areas, it is difficult to establish K-12 facilities when there isn’t a sufficient student population. This results in many students having to commute or live in another city/region in order to complete their secondary school education.


Impoverished Individuals & Communities

Parents & students living in poverty are being left behind in Canada. Although public education is free, it is not only about whether or not students have access to education, but also whether or not they can get the various opportunities in life through their education. This also highly impacts those wishing to pursue post-secondary or tertiary education, as they may not have the time or the resources to support their effective learning in such an institution. Any meaningful change must address poverty as the root cause of education inequality.


Sustainability & Climate Change

Education is crucial in helping to build capacity for everyday citizens to overcome some of the most difficult issues facing the human race, including raising awareness of climate change and biodiversity degradation. By raising awareness of these issues through the public education system can foster the next generation of environmental stewards. It is integral that knowledge necessary for a sustainable future is integrated into educational curriculums from K-12.


So, we must keep in mind that just because we have officially reached a specific Goal, does not mean that the work is done. This is illustrated in SDG #4, as we have officially met the targets involved, yet the continued existence of major barriers to access, and a lack of implementation of necessary topics (e.g. climate change and sustainability) should raise concerns. Considering our nation is deeply entrenched in an unavoidable climate catastrophe, we must ensure that our younger generations have the tools to succeed where we have been unable to.

Canada’s Progress Indicators

The 2019 SDG Global Index included a breakdown of the SDG targets by each performance indicator – identifying which specific indicators aren’t being met by the country for each Goal. According to the Index, 2 Goals have been achieved, 5 have remaining challenges, 8 face significant challenges, and 2 face major challenges.

Challenges Remain

One example of a goal that has remaining challenges is SDG #1 End Poverty. As you can see below in Figure 1, the country has successfully met 2 out of 3 of the necessary targets. Due to this, the Goal has been labelled as “challenges remain” to indicate that the nation is close to meeting the requirement, but is not quite there.

Figure 1 – SDG 1 Indicators 2019 (Canada)

Significant Challenges

Alternatively, a Goal that has been labelled as facing “significant challenges”, like SDG #6 Clean Water & Sanitation, continues to face challenges in more than one indicator (see Figure 2). While SDG 1 only has 3 indicators to meet in order to achieve the target of ending poverty, SDG 6 has 7 – 4 of which are being met by the country, 2 of which continue to face significant or major challenges, and 1 that cannot be determined due to insufficient information available.

Figure 2 – SDG 6 Indicators 2019 (Canada)

The indicator with insufficient information (see Figure 2), relates to the percentage of Canadians with access to safely managed water services. One reason for this may be the long-standing issues relating to access to clean water in Indigenous communities. Throughout Canada, there have been a number of communities that have voiced complaints throughout history and still today, regarding their inability to drink from their taps, boiler plate notices, and issues of disease and illnesses relating to unsanitary water drinking and usage.*

*Note: this topic will be further explained and explored in a separate document coming soon

Major Challenges

Lastly, a Goal that has been labelled as facing “major challenges”, like SDG #13 Climate Action, has much more progress to be made on a number of indicators (see Figure 3). As you can see in Figure 3, Canada faces major challenges in meeting a number of indicators for SDG 13, with only 1 indicator being met.

Figure 3 – SDG 13 Indicators 2019 (Canada)

However, we also have to consider that the reason that we have managed to achieve this one target (see Figure 3), is because of our geography. The number of individuals impacted by climate-related disasters in the country has been minimal to date, as the occurrence of large scale natural disasters in Canada is uncommon. However, as climate change worsens, we are likely to experience more of its effects, including more common and more severe weather events.

While all of these Goals are important, and as a country, we continue to face barriers in a number of them, the remainder of this article will focus on those with which we face major challenges – SDG #12 Responsible Production & Consumption, and SDG #13 Climate Action.

SDG #12 Responsible Production & Consumption

In 2019, as part of the Global Index, updated values were added for SDG 12 on the responsible production and consumption processes in Canada (see Table 2). What this data has highlighted, is that Canada is exceptionally far from meeting Goal 12 by the year 2030, at the current trajectory the country is on.

IndicatorUnitsCanada’s 2019 ValueGoal Achievement Value
Municipal solid wastekg/day/capita2.331
E-Waste generatedkg/capita205
Production-based SO2 emissionskg/capita55.8610
Imported SO2 emissionskg/capita-15.351
Nitrogren production footprintkg/capita61.698
Net imported emissions of reactive nitrogenkg/capita-35.651.5
Non-recycled municipal solid wastekg/capitaN/A0.8
Table 2 – SDG 12 Global Index 2019 Data (Canada)

This is especially true for the last indicator – non-recycled municipal waste, as there is insufficient data available to allow Canada to succeed. As well, it is difficult to determine where Canada is in terms of progress on Goal 12, considering the lack of overall reported data for the Goal to the United Nations and its partners. Part of the 2019 Global Index includes a downloadable document containing the raw data trends for each Member State, where there is data from 2000 to 2019 for each indicator provided. However, not all indicators are present in this data, including any indicators for Goal 12. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to ascertain our history of progress with the Goal, and to know where we stand now.

SDG #13 Climate Action

Similarly to Goal 12, Goal 13 does not have sufficient data reporting capacity, with only 1 indicator being included in the 2019 Global Index raw data trends. The only indicator included is the energy-related CO2 emissions per capita (tCO2/capita), which in 2019 was reported at 14.8 (see Figure 3); this is relative to the Goal achievement value of 2. However, when I looked at the raw data trends, I realized that the last time this number was reported for Canada was in 2016. This means that the current number could be much lower, higher, or the same. This highlights significant problems in our national reporting and data collection on our SDG progress, and a lack of awareness for the processes occurring in and impacting our country.

This lack of reporting also highlights Canada’s likely lack of progress on its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target by 2030. Canada’s national commitment to reduce total emissions by 30%, from 738 megatons in 2005, to 523 megatons in 2030. However, when last reported in 2015, emissions had only declined a total of 2% since 2015 – a rate not nearly fast enough to achieve the target by 2030 (Brookings, 2017).

Conclusion

While Canada’s progress to date may be considered successful in comparison to our history or to the current progress being made by other participating countries, with the increasing dangers of climate change and its impacts, it is pertinent that we, as a nation, come together to make larger, more immediate progress on the Goals. If we can achieve these targets, and we can partner with other countries to do the same, we have a chance of avoiding the dire impacts that the entirety of the human race will face sooner rather than later if we continue at our current pace.

In order to achieve a sustainable future, not only will Canada have to achieve these Goals, but will have to encourage and aid other countries in their progress as well. Climate change does not adhere to borders or politics, and neither will its impacts. We must come together as a global community to be successful in this endeavour.

References

British Columbia Council for International Cooperation. (2019). Where Canada Stands: A Sustainable Development Report, Volume 3. Retrieved from https://www.bccic.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/bccic-2019-WhereCanadaStands-updated.pdf

Brookings. (2017). Who and What Gets Left Behind? Assessing Canada’s Domestic Status on the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/working-paper_assessing-canadas-domestic-status-on-the-sdgs1.pdf

United Nations. (2019). Global Index Canada Dashboard. Retrieved from https://github.com/sdsna/2019GlobalIndex/blob/master/country_profiles/Canada_SDR_2019.pdf

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