November 5, 2007

Sustainable development remains a moving target for decision-makers, an embedded concept for the public

Twenty years after Our Common Future, the landmark report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, better known as the Brundtland Commission), introduced sustainable development into the language and articulated the vision it embodies, governments and civil society are still "tinkering at the margins" of its realization.

Nevertheless, there have been some important achievements, not the least of which has been the "embedding" of sustainable development (SD) into virtually all levels of public consciousness.

In Ottawa last month, leading-edge representatives from government, industry, the scientific and academic sectors, and non-governmental organizations evaluated Canada's progress over the past two decades and discussed the direction future SD efforts should take. The "Facing Forward, Looking Back" conference was sponsored and organized by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Carleton University's School of Public Policy and Canada's International Development Research Centre (keeper of the Brundtland Commission archives).

Canada has done better in theory than practice in making SD a practical reality, according to Jim MacNeill, who served as the Brundtland Commission's secretary general and was lead author of Our Common Future. Although Canada's Green Paper was the first and strongest response to the 1987 report, he said, most of its recommendations were not carried out.

Canada did, however, bring the IISD into being, provided strong, substantive support for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as well as the now-defunct Agenda 21, and endorsed most of the Brundtland report's recommendations. As well, MacNeill called Chapter 4 [dealing with the environment] of the Liberal Party's 1993 Red Book "the best plan I've ever read."

Since then, he said Canada's progress on SD has consisted of modest, marginal achievements, with action in this area overtaken by a surging "business as usual" approach, particularly with regard to natural resource development. SD in Canada will require a major overhaul of regulatory, policy and taxation systems, he noted.

MacNeill attributed the current situation largely to leadership-or the lack of it. Our Common Future, he said, called on the most senior levels of government to be responsible for implementing SD principles and practices. The status quo, however, has enormous momentum and the key players have the power to make sure we keep doing what we've always done, he continued.

But today's "third wave" of the environmental movement also has momentum and it is growing, he added. Sustainable development was, and is, a feasible future, and we must hope that this wave will continue to grow.

From a historical perspective, MacNeil described the period following the Commission's report as the "second wave" of the environmental movement, culminating in the 1992 Earth Summit. The "first wave," sparked by Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, saw the introduction of the first environmental legislation and the creation of governmental agencies responsible for environmental protection and enforcement. It peaked with the convening of the Stockholm Conference in 1972.

Gord Lambert, vice-president of sustainable development for Suncor, introduced what became a recurring theme of the conference, i.e. the lack of progress in domestic SD policy, which he said leaves his company (and industry at large) wondering in which direction it should be going.

But Suncor is charting a path nevertheless: Lambert noted that since he joined the company in 1997, Suncor has launched a greenhouse gas emissions plan, issued its first sustainability report [this year marking its tenth], participated in a cross-border carbon trade, and has been diversifying into renewable energy through a series of wind power projects.

He observed that transparency has been one of the leading benefits of SD, with notable examples including the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. The latter, he said, has served to legitimize SD within the corporate sector.

Today's paradigm is shifting from one of abundance to one of scarcity, said Lambert; this applies to water and land as well as energy and the interrelationship between energy and climate change must be recognized. There are opportunities but finding and making the most of them will require a shift from understanding and awareness to a solution-oriented approach. Also needed will be optimism and a positive vision in order to stimulate creativity and increase the pace of technological development and deployment, he added.

SD remains a work in progress, with most implementation to date amounting to "tinkering at the margins," said Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a former Environment Canada assistant deputy minister who also headed the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and was founding president of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, whose board she still serves as a special advisor.

By definition, she said, SD is an inclusive, long-term concept, which completely contradicts established institutions and views. In politics, anticipate-and-prevent is a much more difficult approach than react-and-cure, demanding changes in both world view and behaviour. The promise of SD is as valid today as it was 20 years ago, its essential message being the need for fundamental change.

Yet little really has changed, Dowdeswell observed. Good decisions require an interface between sound science and policy, two elements she said are often at odds. Moreover, societies are increasingly realizing that their institutions are not keeping pace with social developments, and no overarching SD strategy is in place.

What is needed, she said, is a common agenda made up of clear objectives, with responsibility for meeting them assigned to the appropriate agents, and clear measurement of progress. Achieving SD will require uncommon dedication and co-operation, guided by "masters of change," i.e. the right people in the right places at the right time.

The need for political will to implement SD was another recurring theme among conference speakers. Mark Winfield, of York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies, pointed out that federal and provincial electoral cycles (four to five years), together with the typically short terms of most environment ministers (two years on average) are both too short to allow for adequate SD action.

In addition, he said studies have linked the level of public concern for the environment with the level of government activity in this area (reflected, for example, in rising or falling budgets for environment departments). "Troughs," i.e. periods of relatively low public concern, were characterized by periods of slow, incremental progress and issue-by-issue management of environmental concerns.

Dr Winfield noted that governments have tended to view environmental concern as transitory and so allocated funding on a temporary basis through one-time spending programs such as the Green Plan. And policy directions have remained unchanged, as illustrated by continued subsidies for non-renewable resource exploitation.

He recommended several areas for future focus, starting with effective ecological fiscal reforms, moving away from temporary, once-only investments. Governments should not be afraid to use regulatory tools, he said; virtually all improvements have been rooted in regulatory interventions. As well, Dr Winfield said commitments to action should be an integral component of all international agreements.

We need to build institutions to assess and report on environmental progress and act as incubators for new ideas, he added. Greater investment is also needed in science and public education, and ways of making environmental data more accessible and usable.

Addressing the role of Canadian business in meeting the sustainability challenge, Dr David Wheeler, dean of management at Dalhousie University, called attention to the "changing face of green." Early corporate leaders in SD, he noted, were mainly large resource-based companies; this profile has evolved to encompass a wider range of sectors, such as manufacturing, retail and high-tech, and small- to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) along with large firms. Many of the original leaders have become what he termed "desaparacedos," i.e. no longer Canadian-owned, among them Zenon, Dofasco, Inco (now Inco CVRD) and Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan).

Dr Wheeler maintained that there is no single, universal business case for SD, although common elements include cost and risk reduction; enhanced reputation and legitimacy; synergistic value creation; competitive advantage; and profit maximization. The key, he said, is to embrace the paradox of business as both value creator and social actor.

Similarly, there is no single driver for adoption of SD; every organization has its own reasons. The two most salient, however, are external drivers (e.g. regulation) and internal strategic logic.

Annika Tamlyn, of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE), emphasized the importance of engaging SMEs in sustainable development. While the focus has been, and still tends to be, on large companies, SMEs make up over 97% of all Canadian companies and account for 64% of private sector employment, 45% of gross domestic product and 36% of all export value. The vast majority of environment industry firms are SMEs as well, she said, noting that corporate social responsibility (CSR) among SMEs as a whole is driven by owner values. SME owners take a more informal approach, and their motivation for responding to ecological issues is based largely on how well they understand the issue and their own individual concern.

Dr Wheeler called SMEs the "Cinderella" of sustainable development, invited to the ball only when a leadership representative tells them they should become participants (e.g. through ISO14001 certification). With proper incentives, he noted, SMEs could contribute significantly to the implementation of sustainable development.

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