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2001 October Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Main Points

5.1 Sustainable development not only involves protecting the environment; it also involves improving and maintaining the quality of life for people in Canada and in other parts of the world, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

5.2 Sustainable development is a concept based on the integration of economic, environmental, and social concerns. Environmental protection responds to the single goal of trying to preserve environmental quality. Sustainable development, however, is more complex. It recognizes that social and cultural factors play an important role in sustainable development, in addition to economic and environmental factors. As well, it seeks to ensure quality of life over the long term.

5.3 Our study noted five areas of consensus:

  • First, while there is debate about how to define the social dimension of sustainable development, the focus should be on the interconnectedness of the three dimensions of sustainable development—economic, environmental, and social.
  • Second, integrated decision making is essential. Decision makers need to consider the three dimensions of sustainable development when they make policy and enact law.
  • Third, social learning and behavioural change are fundamental to achieving sustainability.
  • Fourth, addressing the social dimension of sustainable development is a critical part of achieving sustainability, and incorporating the social dimension into the next round of sustainable development strategies is a priority.
  • Fifth, developing measures and indicators for the social dimension of sustainable development is a challenge that needs to be addressed in the near future.

In our future work, we will use these areas of consensus as starting points for audits that include the social dimension of sustainable development.

Background

5.4 This study outlines current thinking about the social dimension of sustainable development and identifies areas of consensus. We conducted a review of the literature and two consultative workshops—one with consultants and academics and one with federal government departments. To provide context, we also reviewed the first and second generations of sustainable development strategies and relevant international and domestic commitments to see if the social dimension had been addressed. In addition, we reviewed some emerging national and international indicators and performance measures for the social dimension of sustainable development.  

Introduction

5.5 Sustainable development is not just about protecting the environment; it is about improving and maintaining the quality of life for people both in Canada and in other parts of the world, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

5.6 The concept of sustainable development gained prominence in the landmark document Our Common Future, prepared by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. It is based on the integration of economic, environmental, and social concerns. Environmental protection responds to the single goal of trying to preserve environmental quality. Sustainable development, however, is more complex. It operates from the perspective of development, with a focus on meeting people's needs, and it seeks to ensure quality of life over the long term.

5.7 While the social sciences have a long history and are well documented through a large body of literature, the meaning of the social dimension within the context of sustainable development is less understood. However, there is increasing recognition that social and cultural factors play an important role in sustainable development. Quality of life and well-being are determined by many factors—income, the state of people's health, their level of education, cultural diversity, the vibrancy of communities, and environmental quality—and all are potentially part of the sustainable development equation. The social well-being of the human population is integral in making sustainable development a reality.

5.8 In 1995 the federal government released a document entitled A Guide to Green Government. It provided initial objectives for sustainable development and a common approach to developing sustainable development strategies. The government's approach to sustainable development recognizes basic social values such as equity and the right to an adequate quality of life. Two examples that illustrate this approach are included in Exhibit 5.1.

Focus of the study

5.9 The objective of this study was to outline current thinking about the social dimension of sustainable development and determine if there were areas of consensus.

5.10 We reviewed the literature that discusses current thinking about the social dimension. We held two consultative workshops. One was with consultants and academics working in the fields of social policy, sustainability, and environmental management; the other was with staff from federal government departments who are involved in preparing and implementing sustainable development strategies. To provide context, we reviewed the 1997 and 2000 sustainable development strategies to see if federal departments had addressed the social dimension in their strategies. In addition, we reviewed a number of policies, international conventions, and bilateral and multilateral agreements to see whether the federal government had included the social dimension of sustainable development in its international and domestic commitments. We also looked at emerging national and international indicators and performance measures for the social dimension of sustainable development.

5.11 Additional details can be found in About the Study at the end of the chapter.  

Observations

Sustainable development dimensions interconnected

5.12 Five broad areas of consensus emerged from the two workshops and our literature review. These included the following:

  • The social dimension cannot be considered in isolation; it must be linked to the other two dimensions of sustainable development—economic and environmental.
  • Integrated decision making is key. Decision makers need to consider the three dimensions of sustainable development when they make policy or enact law.
  • Social learning and behavioural change are fundamental to achieving sustainability.
  • Addressing the social dimension of sustainable development is a critical part of achieving sustainability, and incorporating the social dimension into the next round of sustainable development strategies is a priority.
  • The challenge of developing indicators for the social dimension of sustainable development needs to be addressed in the near future.
The three dimensions are linked

5.13 Sustainable development is about more than environmental protection. It also includes equity and quality-of-life issues. Our Common Future noted, "The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs...the 'environment' is where we all live; and 'development' is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable."

5.14 Broad range of terms. The range of terms associated with the social dimension is broad, and it is possible to stretch the range to include all social aspects. The challenge is how to define the social dimension of sustainable development so that it does not become so broad that it loses all utility or meaning. The debate in the literature and among academics centres on where to draw the line.

5.15 Both our literature review and workshops revealed that one of the difficulties faced by governments and organizations is that no single definition of the social dimension's scope exists. The literature indicates that the social dimension can encompass many aspects—for example, health, education, ethics, equity, beliefs, diversity, indigenous people, safety, community building, intergenerational equity, intragenerational equity, and poverty.

5.16 The panelists at the workshop held with consultants and academics strongly urged that, instead of trying to isolate the social dimension, we think about human well-being and environmental quality and the linkages between them. They advised that we focus on the interconnectedness of the three dimensions of sustainable development.

5.17 A number of models were presented at the workshop. All the models we reviewed show the interconnectedness of the three dimensions of sustainable development. None confine their attention only to the economy or to the environment, and several give the three dimensions equal importance. Appendix A contains a description of the various models and summarizes the workshop.

Integrated decision making is key

5.18 Our study showed a broad consensus that integrated decision making is essential—that is, the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, environmental, and social) need to be integrated into policy, planning, and decision making. A Guide to Green Government also states that an integrated approach to planning and decision making is needed. The three dimensions are linked, and government policy cannot focus on one component without regard to its impact on the others. The Guide outlines a range of techniques available to assist in understanding and integrating economic, environmental, and social considerations. (See Greening Policies and Programs: Supporting Sustainable Development Decisions, Chapter 9 of the Commissioner's 1999 Report for a further discussion of integrated decision making.)

5.19 Our study also found a consensus that sustainable development can be fully realized only if social issues are addressed in conjunction with environmental and economic ones. Decision makers need to consider the three dimensions of sustainable development when they make policy and enact law.

5.20 The collapse of the Atlantic groundfish fishery, described in Exhibit 5.2, illustrates the interconnectedness of the three dimensions of sustainable development and the importance of integrated decision making. As the exhibit demonstrates, the collapse of the Atlantic groundfish fishery was the result of failing to develop a resource in a sustainable manner. In this case, an environmental problem—depletion of fish stocks—had severe economic and social consequences.

Social learning and behavioural change are fundamental

5.21 The literature, the workshops, and the Atlantic groundfish case all stress that social learning and behavioural change are fundamental in achieving sustainability. This is the third area where we found broad consensus.

5.22 Social learning refers to the understanding and learning that individuals and societies need to make the changes required for moving toward sustainability. This includes a better understanding of the future consequences of actions taken today. The 1999 United States National Research Council report, Our Common Journey: A Transition to Sustainability, states:

. . . the pathways of a transition to sustainability cannot be charted fully in advance. Instead, they will have to be navigated adaptively at many scales and in many places. Intelligent adjustments . . . can be made through the process of social learning. Such learning requires some clearly articulated goals for the journey toward sustainability, better understanding of the past and persistent trends of social and environmental change, improved tools for looking along alternative pathways, and clearer understanding of the possible environmental, and social threats and opportunities ahead.

5.23 The greening of the government's physical operations provides a tangible example of the need to understand and employ the concept of social learning. In A Guide to Green Government, the federal government states that it will lead by example in greening government operations. To achieve this result, the government faces an enormous challenge in social learning. It must change the behaviour of hundreds of thousands of public servants across the country. As government departments struggle with greening their operations, it becomes apparent that, like turning an ocean liner, there is more involved than just deciding to change direction. (See Chapter 2 of the Commissioner's 2000 Report for our audit report on greening government operations.)

5.24 Social learning also involves building co-operative, collaborative relationships. To integrate the social dimension, there is a need to overcome resistance to change and to develop positive responses to change. This can be accomplished by carrying out education and research to raise awareness, building relationships, developing new skills, and embracing and adapting to change. With regard to greening government operations, the government is pursuing many of these avenues, such as interdepartmental working groups, training in the concepts of environmental management systems, and the use of performance measurement.

Social dimension emerging in strategies

5.25 A Guide to Green Government sets out an approach for departments to follow in preparing sustainable development strategies. One critical requirement of this approach is that departments carry out an issue scan, assessing their activities for the impact on sustainable development. The Guide also lists five primary objectives for sustainable development; each has a social component, as shown in Exhibit 5.3.

5.26 By December 1997, 28 federal departments and agencies had tabled their first sustainable development strategies outlining their objectives and plans for furthering sustainable development. In February 2001, these organizations tabled their second strategies in the House of Commons; in addition, the Parks Canada Agency, created as a separate entity in 1998, tabled its strategy.

5.27 In our review of the sustainable development strategies, we found that some departments had started to address the social dimension of sustainable development in their first strategies. Some had also identified social or cultural goals and activities as integral to their mandates. The social dimension continued to emerge in the second sustainable development strategies. For example, some departments identified social goals and objectives such as the following: to contribute to a better understanding of the social and cultural dimensions of sustainable development; to maintain and enhance sustainable communities; to develop a sustainable development strategy for the North; and to promote and support population health and safety. As well, some departments are working toward developing performance measures and targets. Appendix B provides some examples of social themes and targets that departments included in their second strategies.

Social and cultural sustainable development working group formed

5.28 Federal departments with social mandates or activities have formed a Social and Cultural Sustainable Development Working Group. Human Resources Development Canada is leading this group. In its second strategy, the Department states that its efforts, along with other social departments, will ensure that critical research and thinking on the social and cultural dimensions will be undertaken in advance of the next round of sustainable development strategies. Participating departments include Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Department of Canadian Heritage, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Environment Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Health Canada, Human Resources Development Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Department of Justice, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Solicitor General Canada.

Workshop held with departments

5.29 In November 2000, the Commissioner hosted a workshop on the social dimension of sustainable development with staff from federal departments involved in preparing and implementing sustainable development strategies. The workshop focussed on how departments are approaching the social dimension and identifying any constraints that prevent the social dimension from being fully integrated into their strategies. Appendix C presents a summary of the workshop.

Incorporating the social dimension is a priority

5.30 In addition to other areas of consensus, a fourth area of consensus emerged at the workshop with departments. Participants recognized that addressing the social dimension is a critical part of achieving sustainability and that incorporating the social dimension into the next round of sustainable development strategies, due in 2003, is a priority. Departments are at different stages of the journey toward sustainable development. Many are at an early stage; others appear better positioned to respond to the challenges of integrating the social dimension of sustainable development. Some participants felt that there should be a shared understanding of the boundaries around the social dimension; others did not see the need. However, participants did not identify constraints that would stop them from moving ahead and integrating the social dimension on a department-by-department basis.

5.31 In our future audit work, we expect to see that departments, especially those whose issue scan identifies major social impacts of their mandates and activities, have included the social dimension in the goals, objectives, and targets of their next strategies, focussing on areas where they can have the greatest impact.

Measuring progress of social dimension

5.32 Sustainable development is a complex and global issue that requires a multidisciplinary approach and co-ordinated resources to tackle. For the government to track, assess, and communicate its progress toward a sustainable society, it needs to be able to measure its progress on implementing national and international commitments and toward sustainable development. As the keynote speaker at the March 2001 National Conference on Sustainable Development Indicators, Minister of the Environment the Honourable David Anderson stated, "We can only manage what we can measure."

Promises to Canadians and the world

5.33 For over a decade, the federal government has made commitments to sustainable development an integral part of its goals and values. In order to understand whether the social dimension is an integral part of these commitments, we looked at some of the government's commitments to Canadians and to the world, including a number of domestic and international policies, international conventions, and bilateral and multilateral agreements.

5.34 We found that nationally, the federal government has focussed its efforts toward sustainable development through a number of policies, programs, and commitments. The social dimension is an integral part of these commitments. Exhibit 5.4 illustrates some federal commitments that highlight the social dimension.

5.35 Internationally, Canada has made commitments to a number of important conventions and agreements, as well as attended meetings and conferences that include the social dimension of sustainable development. Exhibit 5.5 lists a selection of international conventions and agreements, as well as meetings and conferences attended in the last two decades that include the social dimension.

5.36 Some of these agreements—for example, Agenda 21—are landmark documents. The Agenda addresses the complex social problems that face humanity and defines ways to deal with them. Problems addressed in the Agenda relate to the following subjects: poverty, demographic dynamics and sustainability, human health, human settlements, integration of environment and development in decision making, women, children and youth, and indigenous people. The Agenda stresses that these social concerns are key to sustainable development and are as important as economic and environmental issues.

Global efforts to measure progress

5.37 There have been worldwide efforts to develop indicators to measure progress toward integrating the social dimension of sustainable development at the local, national, and international levels. The literature concludes that indicators should be relevant to a situation and culture, accessible, timely, and well accepted. Appendix D identifies some contributors to the work being undertaken to develop social indicators, the criteria for developing indicators, and some of the major indicators. Some of the initiatives are described below.

5.38 International initiatives. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) developed the Human Development Index (HDI). It is a measure of the development of a country in economic and social terms. This index incorporates measures of life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living. These factors are combined to rank a country on a scale between zero and one, with one being the highest. Each year since 1990, the UNDP issues a Human Development Report, which includes a ranking of the world's nations.

5.39 The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is developing a set of core indicators for use at the global level. These indicators are being developed with the United Nations and the World Bank to track progress on sustainable development issues. They will be used to adjust programs and initiatives to make them more effective. The indicators themselves will also be adjusted to meet changing needs and to incorporate new sources of data.

5.40 National initiatives. The Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators (SDI Group) in the United States was given the task of developing indicators for sustainable development. The Group collaborates with non-government organizations and the private sector to develop indicators to guide the government's progress. It has developed a proposed list of economic, environmental, and social indicators.

5.41 In 1999 the government of the United Kingdom published a sustainable development strategy, including a set of 15 headline indicators that give a broad overview of trends. It also published a national set of about 150 detailed indicators that focus on specific issues and identify areas for action. This set of indicators covers the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainable development and is central to monitoring and reporting on progress toward sustainable development.

Canadian efforts to measure progress

5.42 There have been numerous approaches to developing indicators in Canada. The need for indicators has been recognized at many levels. For example, GPI Atlantic is a non-profit research group that is developing an index of sustainable development and well-being—the Genuine Progress Index for Atlantic Canada. Other projects to develop indicators include efforts by the Pembina Institute to develop the Alberta Genuine Progress Indicators and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities project on Quality of Life Indicators. The Canadian Policy Research Networks has also developed quality-of-life indicators. In addition, the Fraser Basin Council has developed a draft set of sustainability indicators for the Fraser Basin.

5.43 The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy has undertaken a three-year project to develop a set of environment and sustainable development indicators for Canada. The project stemmed from the observation that traditional indicators, such as the gross domestic product, do not reflect the long-term sustainability of an economy, and newer, more comprehensive ones are needed.

5.44 At the federal government-wide level, the President of the Treasury Board tables an annual report Managing for Results, which includes a set of 16 societal indicators. The report states that they could serve as a foundation for building an overview of Canada's performance from the perspective of quality of life of Canadians. As well, departments are required to report annually on an individual basis to Parliament on indicators or measures they use to gauge progress toward the commitments set out in their sustainable development strategies. Chapter 3 of this Report deals with departmental performance reporting on sustainable development.

Developing performance indicators remains a challenge

5.45 At the workshop with government departments, officials told us that developing performance measures and indicators to gauge progress on the social dimension of sustainable development is challenging. However, a fifth area of consensus emerged. Departments largely agreed that this is a challenge that needs to be addressed in the near future. They also acknowledged that the responsibility to develop performance measures rests with individual departments and each department needs to develop its own approach.

5.46 Parliament needs information to fulfil its oversight responsibilities. Parliamentarians need an overall picture of how well the federal government is meeting its national and international obligations and its sustainable development commitments: where it has been successful; what gaps remain; and what lessons have been learned. To allow Parliament to fulfil its oversight responsibilities in this area, federal departments need to provide Parliament with adequate information on the implementation of national and international commitments, and all the dimensions of sustainable development—economic, environmental, and social—and the interplay among them.

5.47 Worldwide efforts have shown that social phenomena can be measured. To measure its progress toward sustainable development, the federal government needs accessible, relevant, timely, and well-accepted indicators. Without them, its ability to track, assess, and communicate progress toward sustainable development—a crucial part of its accountability—will be hindered.

5.48 In our future audit work, we expect to see that departments with implementing responsibilities are reporting to Parliament on the implementation of, and compliance with, domestic and international environmental and sustainable development commitments.

5.49 We also expect to see that departments have described their approach for measuring the social dimension of sustainable development, and have developed indicators that are relevant, complete, time-bound, and linked to targets and to departmental and government-wide commitments. As well, we expect to see that departments are reporting results, using these indicators.  

Conclusion

5.50 We concluded that there were five areas of consensus concerning the social dimension of sustainable development.

  • First, while there is debate about how to define the social dimension of sustainable development, the focus should be on the interconnectedness of the three dimensions of sustainable development—economic, environmental, and social.
  • Second, integrated decision-making is essential. Decision makers need to consider the three areas of sustainable development when they make policy and enact law.
  • Third, social learning and behavioural change are fundamental to achieving sustainability.
  • Fourth, addressing the social dimension of sustainable development is a critical part of achieving sustainability, and incorporating the social dimension into the next round of sustainable development strategies is a priority.
  • Fifth, developing measures and indicators for the social dimension of sustainable development is a challenge that needs to be addressed in the near future.

In our future work, we will use these areas of consensus as starting points for audits that include the social dimension of sustainable development.

5.51 In our view, the management of the social dimension of sustainable development is an essential, complex, and enduring component of the broader challenge of managing for sustainable development. It requires all departments and agencies to develop co-operative and collaborative relationships that allow them to work together to make progress toward sustainable development.  

About the Study

Objective

The objective of this study was to outline current thinking about the social dimension of sustainable development and determine if there were areas of consensus.

Scope and approach

We reviewed the literature that discusses current thinking about the social dimension, including definitions, emerging models, and the importance of social learning. We also held two consultative workshops. One was with consultants and academics working in the fields of social policy, sustainability, and environmental management; the other was with staff from federal government departments who are involved in preparing and implementing sustainable development strategies. We did not attempt to define the social dimension of sustainable development or favour one definition or model over another. Nor did we draw conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of the various models.

To provide context, we looked at the 1997 and 2000 sustainable development strategies to see if federal departments are addressing the social dimension in their strategies. We did not do audit work or any qualitative assessment of the strategies. This may form part of our work in upcoming years.

We also reviewed whether the federal government had included the social dimension of sustainable development in its international and domestic commitments. We reviewed a number of policies, international conventions, and bilateral and multilateral agreements. Chapter 2 of the Commissioner's 1998 Report reported on Canada's international environmental commitments. As part of that study, the Commissioner's group created a database of Canada's international environmental agreements. From that database, we reviewed a number of international conventions and bilateral and multilateral agreements and identified some that included a social component. We made this identification by drawing from the broad range of terms associated with the social dimension (described in paragraph 5.15 of this chapter). We also looked at the emerging indicators and performance measures for the social dimension of sustainable development. We offer a sampling of approaches and initiatives to develop social indicators but do not comment on the full extent of efforts to measure progress.

Study team

Principal: Dan Rubenstein

Lewis Auerbach
Suzanne Beaudry
Ann Gamey-Wesch
Janet Jones
Jamy-Ellen Proud
Ivy-Ann Ruiz
Michael Stendzis

For information, please contact Dan Rubenstein.