• Man walking through landfill with seagulls overhead

    According to a UN sustainability report released this month, on average, each Canadian produces 1.9 kilograms of non-recyclable solid waste per day, which ends up in landfills. (Photo: Anastasia Nielsen/Can Geo Photo Club)

Canada ranks 20th globally among countries striving to hit the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, according to a report released this month. The SDG index tracks countries’ progress towards achieving the UN’s 17 targets, which aim to conquer world poverty, hunger, and other inequalities by 2030.

Sitting between South Korea and Croatia in the overall rankings, Canada is improving with regards to healthcare and gender equality goals. However, the country still faces “major challenges” in environment-related categories like climate action and responsible consumption and production.

Climate challenges

For Amelia Clarke, associate dean of research with the University of Waterloo’s faculty of environment, the fact that Canada’s climate action rating is poor is not surprising. “It’s on our radar as a country and efforts are underway,” she says, “but we know that not enough is happening.”

Though Canada has been monitoring its greenhouse gas emissions for decades and has pledged in four international agreements over the past 25 years to reduce emissions, the country hasn’t made a concerted effort to hit its own deadlines.

According to a 2017 audit by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, with each subsequent commitment, “the timeline for the federal government to meet its emission target was pushed further into the future.” Meanwhile, Canada’s emissions continued to increase between 1990 and 2015.  

While steps are being taken to lower greenhouse gas emissions — though not yet at a pace needed to meet targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement — Clarke also points to SDG 12, “responsible consumption and production,” as a particularly weak point for Canada.

The report shows that on average, each Canadian produces 1.9 kilograms of non-recyclable solid waste every day, landing the country below other major economic powers like the USA, Japan, Australia and China in terms of waste production. In fact, the SDG index reported that out of the 15 countries accounting for the greatest gaps in achieving goal 12, 11 are G20 countries.

Read more: Canadian Geographic investigates Canada’s trash problem 

To curb trash accumulation, Clarke says a shift is needed from looking at how to improve recycling programs to how to improve packaging. “Right now, we have packaging being produced that’s not recyclable and it ends up in waste streams,” she says. “Perhaps what we can do is look upstream and say, ‘could that packaging be modified in such a way that it would be recyclable?’”

Local action needed for global impact

While Clarke was pleased to see Canada introduce a national strategy this spring that directly addresses the UN goals, she sees a need for better coordination on a local level.

In a spring 2018 audit, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Julie Gelfand reported that “we found no communication plan and no engagement strategy on how to include other levels of government and Canadians in a national dialogue on the 2030 agenda.”

For Clarke, that national strategy is key to engaging all Canadians in finding ways to meet the SDGs.

“Whether you’re thinking of waste, or whether you’re thinking of water or hunger or poverty, there’s a local element to that,” Clarke says. “Local sustainability strategies are going to be core to implementing the global agenda. Really what we need is collective action.”