A tale of two neighbors: the United States’ and Canada’s distinct but intertwined paths to sustainability

By Genevieve Metson The U.S. and Canada are the largest trading partners in the world. According to the U.S. Department of State, the total trade between these two countries exceeded $610 billion in 2008. Seventy-five percent of Canada’s exports go to the U.S., and 20% of U.S. exports go to Canada. They also share the longest non-militarized border between any two nations and a vast continent with a multitude of natural resources. Their close geographic, economic and political ties make them strong partners but also leave each vulnerable to decisions across the border. As a citizen and resident of both nations, I can attest to these close ties and to the double-edged sword of such an intimate relationship.

The close relationship between these two nations intertwines their futures as well. If either nation strives for a more sustainable society, it should not expect to succeed by acting in isolation. However, their distinct histories, political systems and geographic realities mean that the path toward sustainability will be different for Canada and the U.S. These nations must coordinate their dissimilar strategies toward sustainability.

The government’s role in sustainability

The U.S.’s and Canada’s strategies toward sustainability are, and will continue to be, heavily informed by their different histories and social norms. In all likelihood, the role of the U.S. government in regulating strategies for sustainability will be limited, reflecting its colonial history, which has resulted in institutionalized governmental checks and balances, clear limitations on federal control, and core values of personal freedom. For example, carbon trading will probably be preferred over carbon taxes as it is more in line with the free-market ideals of the U.S.  On the other hand, Canadian citizens expect the government to provide services and regulate sectors of the economy, culture and research to maximize benefits to society as a whole rather than to individuals. And in terms of sustainability, the importance of natural resource extraction in Canada has led it to acknowledge that a healthy environment is essential for its citizens and economy.

The U.S.’s focus on national security dominates many of its strategies for achieving sustainability. The link between defense and sustainability is most apparent in the energy sector. Energy security and independence are the basis for most political discussions about mitigating climate change and reducing the size of the country’s ecological footprint. PricewaterhouseCoopers identifies energy security as the key motivation for the U.S. to participate in any carbon trading ("cap-and-trade" in the U.S. Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009). In contrast, Canada has taken steps toward domestic sustainable development with new government regulation and taxation. Canada has adopted a number of environmental sustainability indicators including air quality, water quality, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The case of energy

The U.S. and Canada have a symbiotic energy network, which is an important consideration for both counties’ paths toward sustainability. Not only does Canada export resources such as uranium for fuel production to the U.S. but its infrastructure and electricity grids are also linked to the U.S.’s. Canada’s exports may only account for 9% of U.S. energy consumption, but Canada is the largest supplier of oil (19%), natural gas (90%), and electricity to the U.S. This energy relationship benefits the U.S. because importing from Canada, a political ally, does not pose a substantial security threat. Canadian resources are a reliable energy source for the future, and thus U.S. investment in Canada for both physical (for example, pipelines) and political infrastructure to meet American energy needs is desirable. For Canada, continuing the exploitation of energy resources for the U.S. is beneficial because it ensures that the U.S. continues to act as the largest market for Canadian goods.


The U.S. and Canada must coordinate their efforts towards sustainability although their approaches must be different. They have successfully maintained a profitable relationship for decades and this partnership needs to be an integral part of both neighbors’ plans toward more public and private sustainable enterprise.

Canada and the U.S. can work together to solve common environmental problems. For example, after studies revealed that pollution from Canada decreased water quality downstream in the U.S., the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972 was implemented.  And after studies  revealed that acid rain resulting from emissions from U.S. east-coast cities negatively affected cities and protected ecosystems in Canada, the Air Quality Agreement of 1991 was implemented. These are two examples of successful binational efforts to reduce pollution, where the approaches to control pollution differed on both sides of the border. Although sustainability is not as well-defined a problem as these point-source pollution examples, we can still apply some of the lessons learned from solving them. Sustainability is multifaceted, and solutions are only realizable on a long timescale, but, like the examples above, sustainability must be a binational goal.

Contributor's Biography:

Genevieve Metson is a second year Master's of Science student at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. She studies sustainability issues related to biogeochemistry (especially phosphorus), food systems, and urban environments. As a Canadian citizen who moved to the United States in 2005, she has a special interest in how these two countries can collaborate on sustainable solutions.