Sustainable Development | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sustainable Development

Sustainable development has been defined by the United Nations (UN) as development that “meets the needs of the present” while ensuring the future sustainability of the planet, its people and its resources. Meeting these needs often requires balancing three key features of sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth and social inclusion. The goals of sustainable development are interconnected. The most successful sustainable development projects will include environmental, economic and social considerations in their final plan. These considerations must include the free, prior and informed consent of any Indigenous groups impacted by a sustainable development project.


The idea of sustainable development gained popularity in the late 1980s with the United Nations’ publication of Our Common Future. This report examined how environmental issues could guide economic development around the world. Around that time, humans were becoming more interested in how their activities were negatively impacting the planet. Issues such as environmental pollution (e.g., airborne toxins that were creating a hole in the ozone layer) and the conservation of forests, oceans and wildlife had come to the fore. People who previously had no say on how and where development should take place — including Indigenous groups — asserted their views in discussions.

Not everyone believes the goals of sustainable development are possible. Early critics suggested the goals of economic development were too often opposed to environmental needs. Others worried that the wishes of powerful governments and corporations would override the interests and needs of people in less developed nations. In many respects, these critics were correct — protecting the environment and ensuring healthy habitats for wildlife and people while creating economic opportunities has been challenging.

Ideas for achieving sustainable development were updated in 2015 when all UN Member States adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs present all nations with 17 broad goals to help guide the environmental, economic and social projects undertaken by governments, institutions and private companies around the world. Some Sustainable Development Goals include: poverty reduction, affordable and clean energy, water conservation, and building sustainable cities. (See Sustainability in Canada.) UN Member States like Canada cannot be forced to meet the targets set out by the SDGs; they are voluntary targets. However, the widespread adoption of the SDGs by governments, private companies and public institutions like colleges and universities will help ensure their aim of creating a more sustainable future is realized.

Sustainable Development in Canada

The federal government’s sustainable development strategy guides many large-scale sustainable development projects across Canada — within and outside of government. This strategy outlines actions the government can take to minimize the impact of development. It also sets targets on everything from reducing greenhouse gas emissions from government property and supporting sustainable agriculture to creating resilient ocean ecosystems.

In Prince Edward Island, many potato farmers have agreed to work with the provincial government to ensure their farming activity minimizes risks that could hurt local waterways and surrounding ecosystems. This includes managing pesticide and fertilizer use, preventing soil erosion (see Soil Conservation) and using water sustainably. Many PEI farmers have also signed up to work with the federal government on a living laboratory initiative. This project connects farmers with environmental NGOs and government researchers to test sustainable agriculture ideas. The long-term goal of this project is to implement the ideas that best demonstrate effective environmental stewardship.

Canada has become a world leader in sustainable forest management and the reduction of illegal harvesting. Unlike with woodlots on public land, ensuring that Canada’s 450,000 private woodlots are managed and harvested in sustainable ways is challenging (see Lumber and Wood Industries). Private woodlots are on average 40 hectares in size. Many are maintained to ensure conservation of forested lands, to promote hunting and fishing or to make food items like maple syrup (see Maple Syrup Industry). Many also produce wood for harvest. These private woodlots produce an estimated 14 percent of all timber harvested in Canada.

Ensuring the sustainable development of natural resource industries takes many forms and is not always easy. In 1992, Newfoundland and Labrador’s northern cod fishery collapsed. A combination of foreign overfishing, a dramatic drop in food supplies for northern cod and a lack of effective long-term management were all to blame. A moratorium was placed on northern cod fishing in 1992 (see Cod Moratorium of 1992). And while the population of northern cod has grown slowly since then, it remains well below its historic population levels.

Since 2004, mineral extraction in Canada has been guided by the Towards Sustainable Mining initiative. This global sustainability standard applies to 44 of the largest mining companies in the country that mine for cobalt, gold, uranium and nickel. It encourages mining companies to work hand in hand with local communities and promote sustainable development of mining operations. Adopting new technologies and forming deeper relationships with communities impacted by mining are two important ways in which this industry can become more sustainable. However, the federal sustainable mining program does not apply to mining projects that Canadian companies operate outside of Canada. Some Canadian mining companies are now facing allegations of human rights violations in the developing world.

Inco Smelter

The failure to undertake appropriate sustainable development can disproportionately impact Indigenous nations in Canada, given the location of many Indigenous lands near natural resources. In Southwestern Ontario, the development of petrochemicals and refined oil near Sarnia has led to reports of unsafe air quality near Aamjiwnaang First Nation (see Anishinaabe) from high sulfur dioxide and benzene levels in the air.(See Air Pollution; Petrochemical Industry.) In Northern Alberta, the oil sand industry has a mixed record. Members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation have acknowledged the economic gains that may come from the oil sands. Community members have also highlighted the damages such development has had on the region’s sacred lands and waters, but also on treaty agreements and Indigenous rights across the country. (See also Environmental Racism.)

Further Reading