The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) released its report ranking every country on its action toward urgent economic, social, and environmental challenges facing our planet — known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year, Canada fell from 21st to 29th in the rankings.

The University of Waterloo’s Chair for SDSN Canada and incoming Dean for the Faculty of Environment, professor Bruce Frayne, recently weighed in on what’s slowing Canada down and what needs to change to make real progress in sustainability.

Why are the Sustainable Development Goals important to Canada?

The SDGs were created to set ambitious targets to overcome the world’s biggest sustainability challenges. We, as Canadians, must use the SDGs to go further and faster on our sustainability ambitions, from reconciliation and partnership with Indigenous communities, transitioning our energy systems and economy to renewables, and ensuring safe and accessible housing exists for every Canadian. The SDGs bring all our social, environmental, and economic crises together under the same roof and show us how one challenge is deeply linked to the others.

What worries you the most about Canada’s scorecard on SDGs progress this year?

We are moving backwards in relation to the world on our SDGs progress. We rank 29th this year, down from 21st last year. Other countries, in particular in Europe, are taking more decisive action on the SDGs, and I fear that Canada will start to be left behind if we don’t see more dedication to the SDGs by all levels of government, in particular from provincial governments that are largely absent at the SDGs table.

In my opinion, our biggest SDGs challenges highlighted in the ranking are:

  • SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production– with a focus on electronic waste and our exports of plastic waste.
  • SDG 13: Climate Action – with a focus on our CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production, as well as our emissions embodied in our fossil fuel exports.
  • SDG 14: Life Below Water + SDG 15: Life on Land – with a focus on our limited protected marine, terrestrial, and freshwater sites important to biodiversity.
  • SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals – with a focus on our relatively low Official Development Assistance as a share of gross national income (this includes grants, loans, and the provision of technical assistance to lower-income countries).

Bruce Frayne

Bruce Frayne is a Professor and Director of the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo.

What impact does this slide have on global sustainability?

I’m concerned about Canada’s international spillover index score worsening this year. The spillover index measures how our imports and exports affect other countries’ abilities to make progress on the SDGs, which means that our actions are hindering the global pursuit of achieving the SDGs. In particular, the carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulphur dioxide emissions of our imports are largely to blame on this front.

What’s needed for Canada to do better on the SDGs and see real progress over the coming decade?

It’s clear we have big challenges to overcome for Canada to be a world leader on the SDGs. This year’s ranking spells out many of these areas for improvement (as listed above). These areas are a good start and remind us that the window to make meaningful progress is closing and that greater ambition is needed now in fighting for transformative systems change. We need more action and less rhetoric, especially when it comes to our clean energy transition and putting decolonization and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada at the heart of our SDGs work.

Is there any room for optimism?

The report clearly shows Canada is on track to achieve its commitments to reduce poverty and ensure quality education for all. I’m also encouraged by groups like Together|Ensemble and Alliance 2030, which are working hard to find ways to bring our country together to tackle these SDGs challenges across sectors and segments of society. However, we need to continue to find ways for different voices to be heard and pushed forward. We need to find ways to finance our transformation, and we need to elevate the voices of our students and young leaders to feel empowered today to help shape the future.

Learn more about Canada’s ranking through the 2022 Sustainable Development Report and the interactive country dashboard.


SDSN Canada is hosted by the University of Waterloo and is part of the global SDSN community to advance the SDGs in universities and colleges worldwide. Interview courtesy of Ryon Jones with @uwaterloonews.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock.

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