Montreal

Legault says he's ready to get serious about the environment, but critics doubt his 'courage'

Quebec Premier François Legault emerged from a caucus retreat last week in Saint-Sauveur and declared that "the year 2020 will be the year of the environment." But is he really ready to take the tough steps necessary to limit climate change?

Environmentalists and experts say the government is sending mixed messages about climate change

Premier François Legault emerged from a caucus retreat last week in Saint-Sauveur and declared: "The year 2020 will be the year of the environment." (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

After having shrugged off environmental concerns in its first 18 months in office, the Coalition Avenir Québec government is promising that will all change when the National Assembly resumes today.

Premier François Legault emerged from a caucus retreat last week in Saint-Sauveur declaring that "the year 2020 will be the year of the environment."

One day earlier, Legault's government announced it will gradually expand the province's bottle-recycling system — a move cheered by environmental groups.

"It's a strong start," Environment Minister Benoit Charette said. 

Government sources have let it be known that more green-friendly funding announcements are coming soon. There will be money for tramways in Montreal and Gatineau, and further incentives to buy electric vehicles.

"The money will do the talking," an unnamed source told Radio-Canada's Hugo Lavallée, who reported the government is also mulling a ban on single-use plastic bags and doing more to protect forests.

But Legault and his party still have a long way to go to earn the respect of environmental experts and activists.

The party, after all, made scant mention of the environment in its electoral platform. And since it took office in 2018, its commitment to environmental protection has been, at best, less than consistent.

Premier François Legaut, left, and Environment Minister Benoit Charette speak to reporters following a caucus retreat in Saint-Sauveur, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Last year, Forestry Minister Pierre Dufour claimed that cutting down trees would reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), a claim contested by scientists. His ministry later opened 46,000 hectares of protected old-growth forest in the Saguenay region to logging activities.

Legault has also repeatedly signalled his support for Énergie Saguenay, a liquid natural gas (LNG) project that would include a $14-billion pipeline and a refinery in northern Quebec. Both academics and environmental activists have stated their opposition to the proposal.

And then there is the CAQ government's pet project — building a third road link between Quebec City and Lévis, which critics have derided as unnecessary, costly and bad for the environment.

'A welcome change of narrative'

The CAQ government's new-found interest in environmental issues is a "welcome change of narrative," said Caroline Brouillette, a climate change researcher with the environmental lobby group Équiterre.

The government's challenge going forward will be ensuring all its policy initiatives align with its professed commitment to taking climate change seriously, she said — and a new link in Quebec City and the LNG pipeline don't do that, Brouillette said. 

"In a time of climate crisis, every decision they take needs to be aligned with reducing or adapting to climate change," she said.

"We can't on one hand take measures to reduce our emissions and on the other hand approve infrastructure projects ... that will increase our emissions."

The next big test of the government's credibility on climate change will be Bill 44, a proposal to give the environment minister more power and reform public funding of green projects.

An estimated 500,000 people attended a march in Montreal in September, demanding swifter action on climate change. The Quebec government promised it will make the environment a priority in the coming months. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Équiterre will testify later today before legislators studying the bill's merits and will ask the government to increase its GHG reduction targets to be in line with United Nations' guidelines.

Quebec's current goal is a 37.5 per cent reduction from 1990 GHG levels by 2030. Brouillette said the province should be aiming for a 50 per cent reduction from 2010 levels by 2030, in order to help prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 C.

A report released last month indicated Quebec's emissions had only decreased 9 per cent compared to 1990 levels. That means even meeting the more modest 2030 goal will take an intensive series of additional measures.

Track record leaves skeptics 

But given the government's track record so far on the environment, observers are skeptical it will be willing to take the necessary steps.  

"We're far from having a plan that will allow us to meet those goals," said Patrick Bonin of the Quebec wing of Greenpeace.

"The government hasn't shown it's willing to draft measures that respond to the urgency of the situation."

Around 44 per cent of Quebec's GHG emissions come from the transport sector, especially fossil fuel-burning cars and trucks. 

Bonnin pointed out that despite its willingness to reinvest in public transit, the government has ruled out implementing tolls or taxing gas-guzzlers as a way of reducing emissions. 

"It takes political courage to implement those things. And the government brushed those suggestions aside, based on what was clearly an electoral calculation," Bonin said.

Quebec's premier has indicated he's interested in offering more financial incentives to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles, but even that holds limited appeal to policy experts. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Legault has indicated he's more interested in offering financial incentives to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles. But even that holds only limited appeal to policy experts. 

Electric cars don't address urban sprawl, a major contributor to GHG emissions by virtue of the materials and energy needed to build further and further away from city centres, not to mention higher heating costs associated with the larger buildings found in the suburbs.

Nor do the tax incentives do much to encourage more people to take public transit, which is the kind of lifestyle change needed to significantly reduce emissions, said Pierre-Olivier Pineau, chair of energy sector management at the Université de Montréal business school.

"All the money we put intro electric vehicles is nonsense," he said. "It's giving money to rich people to buy electric cars without changing anything about the transportation system." 

That money would be better spent, Pineau said, on car-share programs and inter-city rail links in the province.

"I'm sure the government has good intentions," he said. "But based on what I'm hearing from the political sphere, I don't think they have enough courage yet to take the steps required to meet our targets."  

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