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Sustainable Development Strategy, 1997-2001
Safeguarding our Assets, Securing our Future

Sustainable Development and Natural Resources

Making Better Decisions

The World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) in its 1987 report, "Our Common Future", described sustainable development as:

"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Canadians are coming to understand that the national environmental agenda can no longer be separated from the national economic agenda. Sustainable development, therefore, demands that we integrate social, economic and environmental considerations into decision-making in a way that enhances productivity and prosperity without compromising the integrity of the environment.

Sustainable development provides a framework for managing economic development and human growth while maintaining the life support systems of the planet. None of these objectives can be achieved in isolation. Canadians' health and economic prospects depend on the health of the environment. At the same time, human development and social needs must be met; the elimination of poverty and development of sound economies strengthen our ability to protect the environment.

1, which came into force in January 1995, established sustainable development as a responsibility of the department. The challenge is to make that legislated requirement a reality - moving from concept to action, identifying and developing practical methods to implement sustainable development.

This section examines some of the key concepts and issues related to applying sustainable development to natural resources.

Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

Canada's minerals and metals, energy resources, forests and landmass epitomize the sustainable development challenge. They provide important economic, environmental and social benefits to all Canadians (Table 1).

Today, 38 per cent of our exports and the livelihood of 0.75 million Canadians and 500 communities, from coast to coast to coast, depend on our energy, mineral and forest resources. Yet, Canada's natural resources are equally important environmental assets. Canada's landmass harbours almost 10 per cent of the world's fresh water, 10 per cent of the world's forests and an estimated 300,000 species of wildlife. Canadians have a strong attachment to the lakes, forests, mountains, oceans and open spaces that form our physical and psychological landscape. How we manage these resources today will determine our quality of life, both now and in the future.

Table 1
Sustainable Development Benefits from Canada's Natural Resources
Social Economic Environmental
  • 0.75 million jobs
  • Livelihood for over 500 communities coast to coast
  • 30 million visits annually to national and provincial parks
  • Aboriginal cultural and spiritual ties to the land
  • Safe, dependable and affordable supply of energy, forest and mineral products
  • 19 million Canadians involved in wildlife activities
  • 38 per cent of all Canadian exports ($97 billion)
  • 22 per cent of all capital investment ($29 billion)
  • $95 billion contribution to Canada's economy (14 per cent)
  • Canada is the world's:
    - largest exporter of forest products
    - largest exporter of minerals
  • Backdrop for Canada's $26 billion tourism industry and $9 billion spent on wildlife activities
  • 10 per cent of world's forests
  • Estimated 300,000 species of wildlife
  • Almost 10 per cent of world's fresh water
  • 12 per cent of the world's protected area
  • Estimated 20 per cent of the world's remaining wilderness areas
  • The world's largest coastline at 250,000 kilometers
* Source: NRCan, Based on 1996 figures, wildlife figures from 1991

Go to: The Economics of Sustainable Development

Renewable and non-renewable resources

The concept of sustainable development is perhaps more easily understood in the case of renewable resources such as forests, fisheries or some forms of energy such as wind, solar and hydro. Development of a renewable resource is sustainable if it remains within the capacity of the resource to renew itself and maintains the overall health of the ecosystem on which the resource depends.

In the case of forests, this has traditionally meant harvesting timber at a level that does not exceed the annual growth of the forest, taking into account losses from natural causes such as fires, insects and disease (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Allowable Annual Cut and Actual Harvest of Canada's Forests

In this way, the "interest" is harvested while leaving the natural "capital" intact. However, sustainable development is far more complex. It requires that we manage forests to sustain a broad range of different values and products that forests provide. These include not only timber, but ensuring viable habitat for wildlife, protecting the quality of soil and water, maintaining the ecological functions of forest ecosystems, and providing for other uses of the forest such as parks, recreation and wilderness.

This notion of harvesting only the growth without depleting the capital is more difficult to apply in the case of non-renewable resources such as minerals, oil, gas and coal. Concerns are often expressed about the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources and their long-term availability for future generations. Applying the concept of sustainable development takes on different dimensions when dealing with non-renewable resources.

In the case of energy, sustainable development does not necessarily imply the preservation of one particular form of energy or another. Figure 2 shows how Canada's energy supply has changed over time, moving from a reliance on wood, to coal, to today's reliance on oil and gas, hydro electricity, nuclear power and other sources. The challenge of sustainable development is not to provide future generations with ample reserves of any one form of energy, but with a secure, safe, efficient and increasingly environmentally clean mix of energy options.

Figure 2: Primary Energy by Source, Canada (% of Energy Consumption) 1871-1992

Similarly, the concern is often expressed that the world may use up its remaining reserves of precious mineral resources such as copper, zinc or nickel. However, known mineral reserves are only a fraction of the earth's mineral inventory. The quantity of known reserves at any given time is a function of both the demand and price for a given mineral, as well as the costs and technology associated with its extraction and processing (Figure 3). In addition, the development of alternative materials can reduce the future value and demand for certain minerals. Increasingly many minerals and metals, such as nickel and copper, are being recycled and reused, thereby reducing the need for new extraction. These recycled minerals and metals, along with known and undiscovered mineral deposits, form the natural capital we pass onto future generations.

Figure 3: Canadian Gold, Nickel and Copper Reserves to Production Ratio

Sustainable development does not imply preserving existing resources for the future, nor does it imply that the planet's resources are limitless, to be used at ever increasing rates. All resource extraction and use has an impact on the environment. Sustainable development requires that we limit resource development to a level that remains within the capacity of natural ecosystems, reduce the environmental impacts of resource development and use, continually develop cleaner and more environmentally efficient alternatives, recycle and re-use resources to reduce the need for new extraction, and reduce our consumption of products that deplete the planet's environment and resources.

Sustainable development challenges come to life

These concepts of sustainable development present a very real challenge for Canadians. We rely on resources for a high standard of living and quality of life but, at the same time, want to ensure that they are used efficiently and that our natural environment is protected. Sustainable development does not come down to a simple either/or equation. It does, however, demand a greater scientific understanding of our environment.

There are few "easy" answers. Some recent high-profile examples across Canada illustrate the complex decisions we face. These situations are not readily resolved and often result in considerable public debate, or, in some cases, protests and legal challenges.

The massive nickel, copper and cobalt deposit discovered at Voisey's Bay, Newfoundland characterizes the challenge facing a community when confronted with balancing the need for job creation, economic growth, wildlife protection and traditional lifestyle preservation. One of the largest known nickel reserves in the world, the $4.3 billion Inco mine site at Voisey's Bay has the potential to increase the province's personal income levels by 3 per cent and its GDP by 11 per cent. The mine and refinery will create 3,700 jobs during construction and could provide an eventual 2,000 jobs during operation, thereby reducing unemployment by 2-3 per cent in a province with chronic high unemployment. A further $2 billion may be spent before the proposed mine/mill and smelter/refinery projects are fully operational, creating spin-off economic opportunities throughout the province.

On the other side of the equation are the social and environmental considerations related to the mine's development. Seven Aboriginal communities in Labrador want to conclude land claims and other agreements prior to the development proceeding. These negotiations address questions such as future land and surface rights, economic benefits and environmental safeguards. There are fears that acid drainage from mine tailings may destroy several local lakes and some fisheries habitat. Concerns have also been raised that caribou herds which range throughout Labrador and Quebec will be adversely affected by the mine's development. At the time of writing, an environmental assessment was underway to address these potential problems.

The decision on logging in Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia presents another illustration of the varied interests involved in sustainable development. The 260,000 hectare region harbours the largest intact watershed on Vancouver Island. It contains 29 rare plant species and areas of old-growth temperate rain forest, with trees up to 1,000 years old, that are important habitat for wildlife and a mainstay for forestry and tourism - both important contributors to the local economy. The area has a long history of residence, cultural and resource use by First Nations. The provincial government has opted to protect 34 per cent of the area and to implement more restricted logging on the remaining lands, based on the advice of an international scientific panel. The panel included Nuu-Chah-Nulth elders and experts in their traditional knowledge. Forestry companies in the region will try alternative logging practices, which will increase their costs but better protect aesthetic, tourism and environmental values. The implementation team's plan is to involve the Nuu-Chah-Nulth elders in forest management activities. To satisfy all parties, the compromises arrived at must be economically and environmentally viable, and socially acceptable.

Canada's nuclear industry represents another example of the complexity of sustainable development. Nuclear energy offers some significant economic and environmental benefits. For example, nuclear power does not produce carbon dioxide (CO2) , which contributes to global warming, or other air pollutants. Since 1971, nuclear power in Canada has avoided the release of more than one billion tonnes of CO2. If all of Canada's nuclear power were replaced with power from fossil fuels, Canada's CO2 emissions from electricity generation would double and total greenhouse gas emissions would be 15 per cent higher. The nuclear power sector also makes a major contribution to the economy; it is a $6 billion a year industry, employing 30,000 people directly, and 10,000 in indirect jobs in supplies and services.

Nonetheless, nuclear power faces economic, social and environmental challenges. Recently, it was announced that seven of the 19 nuclear reactors in Ontario will be taken out of service temporarily as part of a comprehensive plan by Ontario Hydro to revise its management practices and focus its resources on restoring the operation of its reactors to world-class standards. This decision has raised questions about the management of Hydro's nuclear plants and the ability of nuclear power to compete in the deregulated electricity market which is to be introduced in Ontario in the year 2000.

As well, while the nuclear industry is closely regulated by the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) to protect the health and safety of the public, Canadians remain concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants. Unlike other energy sources, all wastes associated with nuclear power plants are designed to be captured and contained on site. However, the public continues to be apprehensive about the environmental and health impacts of radioactive waste, particularly used nuclear fuel.

A permanent solution to waste disposal is key to the long-term viability of the industry. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) has developed a concept for the deep underground disposal of spent nuclear fuel. An environmental assessment panel is reviewing this proposal and its report is expected to be completed in 1998.

Sustainable development issues: the public view

In establishing our sustainable development priorities, Canadians must decide - as a society - just what it is we want from our natural resources and what we are willing to do to ensure their sustainability. The following are what we believe to be the public's key issues and concerns regarding the sustainable development of natural resources. The issues are described in more detail in Appendix A.

Maintaining a healthy environment:
Canadians increasingly understand the relationship between the environment and human health, and recognize that ecosystems that support life must be safeguarded.

Creating jobs and building stable communities:
Canadians want to maintain the contribution of the resource sectors to the economy, employment and livelihood of 500 communities.

Balancing demands for land use:
Communities are struggling to reconcile often competing demands on the land base for development, wilderness, recreation or urbanization. In some areas, Aboriginal title to the land is still being determined.

Changing consumption:
The buying public must adopt more sustainable patterns of consumption (i.e. reducing consumption, recycling and reusing products).

Meeting our global responsibilities:
As a steward of a significant part of the earth's environment and resources, Canada has a responsibility to develop its natural resources in a sustainable manner.

Climate change:
Emissions of greenhouse gases, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, are having an impact on the world's climate (see The Climate Change Challenge).

Conserving biodiversity:
Maintaining diversity in our natural environment helps keep the planet's ecological systems strong and healthy enough to withstand stresses and changes from human intervention and nature.

Assuring a role for Aboriginal people:
The sustainable development of Canada's resources is closely linked to issues including Aboriginal self-government, land claims, Aboriginal and treaty rights in traditional territories, and the responsibility of the Crown for Indian lands.

Leaving a legacy for the future:
Canadians want the assurance that the country's physical beauty is being safeguarded, their continued access to natural areas is assured, and that they will leave a legacy to their children and grand-children.

Playing a part in sustainable development:
Communities want to be directly involved in decision-making about development, and want greater cooperation among different government agencies.

Go to: The Climate Change Challenge