Madam Chair, honourable members, it is a pleasure and an honour to have this opportunity to give my views on Canada's Federal Sustainable Development Act.
I'm here today speaking on behalf of the World Future Council, an organization founded in 2007, which endeavours to bring the interests of future generations to the heart of policy-making. We identify and research exemplary policies and work with decision makers and legislators to spread these tried and tested solutions in order to ensure a sustainable future for all. The World Future Council advocates a vision of future justice—common sense, interconnected policy solutions that will benefit society as a whole and provide high quality of life for generations to come.
I'd like to introduce three main observations before this committee.
Let me first turn to the nature of what is understood by the term sustainable development. Its fundament rests on a commitment to equity with future generations. The Brundtland commission report offers one of the original and most widely used definitions of sustainable development. It underlines that the only acceptable form of social and economic development is one that ensures future generations at least as much resources and environmental quality as the present generations enjoy.
The Federal Sustainable Development Act assumes the same definition, yet the concept of sustainable development has had decreasing traction in policy-making over recent years. It has been diluted to such an extent that it no longer holds much meaning, often to the detriment of its original purpose. Sustainable development has been siloed into a purely environmental box. It is no longer seen to transcend disciplines nor to balance with economic priorities; nor does it offer the radical framing of change that is required if we are to meet some complex and unprecedented challenges of our time. Furthermore, to the general public the term sustainable development holds little resonance.
Experience in Wales shows a helpful reframing of the debate. My co-witness today, Mr. Peter Davies, former commissioner for sustainable futures in Wales, can I'm sure help to elaborate. The process of changing the title of their legislation from “sustainable development” to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act offers an interesting context for the committee members.
The legal duty to promote sustainable development remains at the heart of the Welsh well-being act. However, in order for the act to be better understood, more engaging, and therefore better implemented by all, the well-being of future generations was used to frame it. In doing so, the legislation transcends and overcomes the silo, one-dimensional approach. By framing the legislation in terms of well-being, it incorporates health, free time, public space, equality, cultural heritage, and many other integral elements that are often overlooked. It engages across the policy-making sphere.
The Welsh legislation also helps bring to life the global sustainable development goals and brings them closer to a reality of implementation. Because of their universality, the Government of Canada is also expected to implement all 17 goals by 2030. The breadth and interconnected nature of the goals offer a truly transformational agenda, one that cannot remain within the environment silo, marginalized as only an environmental priority.
This would therefore lead to the conclusion that the work and outputs of the Federal Sustainable Development Act cannot be confined to only an environment department or committee, but rather must engage the heart and centre of government.
My second observation turns to applying intergenerational equity, which can help to bring new meaning to the true concept of sustainable development, as the experience from Wales and elsewhere has shown. Despite best intentions, the interests of the here and now often take precedence over future interests, driven by the short-termism of election cycles. Short-term business cycles driven by quarterly earnings reports aggravate the pressure for immediate rather than long-term returns on investment.
The theory of intergenerational equity has a deep basis in international law. Professor Edith Brown Weiss of Georgetown University is one of the leading authorities. She established three principles of intergenerational equity: conservation of options, conservation of quality, and conservation of access for future generations.
These require that we understand the fundamental entitlement among generations correctly, so that we recognize that future generations have an equal claim with the present generation to use and benefit from the natural environment. Once we recognize this equality of entitlement among generations, economic instruments such as discount rates, the use of new indicators, and many other tools can be developed to achieve intergenerational equity efficiently.
Yet future generations are not effectively represented in the marketplace today. By their absence, they are simply without a voice, which leads me to my third and final point on advocacy for future generations.
To secure sustained human environmental well-being, commissioners or guardians for future generations have been shown to help introduce a long-term perspective into policy-making, linking citizens with governments, working as a catalyst for sustainable development implementation, and acting as principal advocates for common interests of present and future generations.
Existing commissioners or guardians for future generations at regional and national levels around the world have been formally recognized by the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon in his 2013 report “Intergenerational solidarity and the needs of future generations”. It's also worth noting at this point that the report sets out a recommendation for a high commissioner for future generations at the international level, which has received significant support from many governments.
Commissioners for future generations are an innovative approach to implementing sustainable development. These independent bodies are dedicated to enhancing governance frameworks and processing, filling institutional gaps by actively advocating for long-term interests, and helping to promote and implement intergenerational justice. Through offering advice and recommendations, and building capacity, such institutions have proven very effective in overcoming short-termism and alleviating the policy incoherence plaguing the decisions of today.
The UN report identifies eight national institutions either present or previous. These include Canada's commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, as well as offices in Finland, Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Germany, and Wales. For the latter, a statutory commissioner for future generations has been introduced as part of the legislation I have just mentioned.
It's important to note that these institutions are all different, reflecting domestic political makeup and context. All of them enjoy different levels of independence and powers. However, they all attempt to break new ground in interpreting sustainable development to the governments they work with and to a public audience, especially since all of them hold very strong connections with civil society while working alongside their parliamentary colleagues.
While we recognize that no one size fits all, in recognizing the contribution of these offices, the World Future Council defines six criteria in order to achieve successful impact. These include being independent and impartial, being proficient in terms of having a multidisciplinary staff, being transparent, being legitimate by democratic standards, being widely accessible to external assessments and citizens' concerns, and giving full access to all relevant information.
The role of the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development here in Canada matches well with our criteria. However, a review of the act should also consider strengthening the role and mandate of the commissioner. There are many means to do this that this committee should consider. If I may, I'd like to offer some initial suggestions.
It may be helpful to remind the committee that the Auditor General Act, which alongside the Federal Sustainable Development Act governs the role of the commissioner, already recognizes the needs of future generations as being part of the commissioner's considerations. This offers a more explicitly long-term perspective within the commissioner's mandate. It could be brought out more fully in the commissioner's day-to-day functions, and this would help to better support the underlying essence of the Sustainable Development Act and to better reflect the overall impact and coherence of this important legislation that reaches beyond just the environment.
Another means may be through providing greater resources to ensure key recommendations are actually followed up. Another may be providing an unbiased forum to gather evidence and input from third parties in order to offer coherent policy recommendations that visualize and interpret long-lasting sustainability for all.
With that, I bring my comments to a close.
Thank you for your attention.