On September 25th Canada joined 192 other UN members to adopt the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. How we respond will shape our future. Universal in their application, the Goals set a fifteen-year plan for human, environmental and economic well-being. From sustainable cities to poverty eradication to modern energy, the Goals are nothing short of a transformative global social compact.
How can Canada best meet these Goals?
Public and private sectors alone cannot accomplish the enormous task ahead. The “third” sector – civil society – and the many non-profits, registered charities and individuals in communities large and small across Canada must play an instrumental role if Canada is to meet its commitments.
A staggering 2.1 million Canadians work in some 85,000 charitable organizations across the country. A vibrant civil society is vital to our democracy – it reflects the values, priorities, and voice of Canadians and is the glue that binds us together. Although rarely acknowledged, civil society deserves greater recognition and respect.
Protecting the natural environment gets significant billing in the Goals. UN members have agreed that urgent action is needed to combat impacts of climate change, oceans and marine resources must be conserved, and biodiversity loss must be halted.
The focus upon environment is deliberate. Most Canadians would agree that environmental problems have become more chronic and severe. With greater complexity comes the need to work together like never before - no single sector, no one agency, has all the answers. And it is only by working in partnership, where different perspectives are brought together and reconciled, that the best decisions and lasting solutions can be found.
Registered environmental charities comprise a scant 1.5% of the total charitable organizations in Canada - they have punched well above their weight. But if Canada is going to successfully address the United Nation Goals, more, not fewer, environmental charities are needed to help address the urgent environmental problems facing Canadians.
When civil society participates and environmental NGOs (“non-government organizations”) bring their values and expertise to the table, better decisions and more informed policy directions emerge. Three examples suffice. If Ottawa accepts the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's call to increase protection of Canadian coastal waters from a mere 1.3% to 10%, the reported declines in marine productivity may be reversed. Secondly, if Canadian governments respond to the concrete actions recommended by the Climate Action Network, we will benefit from the enormous economic opportunities offered by new alternative technologies. Thirdly, the adoption of the directions urged by NGOs Sierra Club and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative would restore wildlife habitats along the spine of the Rocky Mountains – a significant North American corridor for wildlife, providing greater security for animals that need these extensive habitats for their very survival.
To meet these sustainability goals, concrete steps must be taken to promote a more robust civil society in Canada. If it is true that the current government is targeting certain environmental charities with which it disagrees, this is not only undemocratic, it will also severely undermine Canada’s ability to meet the United Nations Goals. Rather than erecting barriers to NGOs, governments should create opportunities that help to tear down the walls separating environment and economic interests.
Now is the time to provide tools and incentives so NGOs can build their capacity and engage in a meaningful way – like a “Canada Conservation Fund” to underwrite environmental programs. We need bridges that connect graduating students with job opportunities in non-profits so the nascent conservation economy can thrive – like a “Career First Start for Young Canadians”.
Canadians will only be enriched when environmental organizations are woven into the very fabric of our society. NGOs are essential if Canada is to meet the UN Goals and we are to transition to a truly sustainable society. Let's work together to promote, not stifle, environmental organizations in Canada. It’s not only in our national interest, it is vital for the planet.
Written by Linda Hannah, Kinross Chair in Environmental Governance