Montreal

Why aren't Quebec's political leaders talking more about climate change?

Despite Quebec having just gone through one of the hottest summers on record, climate change hasn't been a priority so far for the province's campaigning politicians.

Environmental groups decry lack of focus on climate issues, despite their importance for young voters

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and his rivals should be putting the environment at the forefront of the campaign, activists say. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

A summer of record-setting, sweltering temperatures in Montreal was capped off this week with yet another heat warning from Environment Canada and climatologists say hotter, more extreme weather can be expected in the years to come.

But as Quebec's political leaders campaign in sticky, uncomfortable conditions, there has been little emphasis on environmental issues, or the policies necessary to meet emissions targets set out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

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"We haven't seen environmental issues — climate change — at the forefront of the campaign," said Karel Mayrand, executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation in Quebec.

"That's really worrying when you had over 70 people die in the heat wave this summer in Quebec. Can you imagine if you had 70 people being bit by dogs, or dying from a new disease? The entire campaign would be focused on these issues."

The Suzuki Foundation was part of a coalition of environmental groups that issued a list of detailed demands to the political parties earlier this year.

The wish-list is broken into six major themes: climate change, transport, development, agriculture, biodiversity and forests.

It includes 23 specific policies for the next government to adopt — things like a promise not to authorize new fossil fuel infrastructure, penalties for people who buy gas-guzzling vehicles and a 50 per cent cut in the use of pesticides in agriculture.

Transportation key to curbing emissions

One of the coalition's most pressing demands is for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions generated by transportation.

Quebec introduced a cap-and-trade system in 2013, making it an early leader in the North American effort to cut emissions. 

But emissions generated from transportation — such as cars and trucks — have continued to rise in Quebec, and now account for nearly half of the province's total output.

"We need to improve public transportation in Quebec and move away from building new roads," said Patrick Bonin, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, which also signed the list of demands for Quebec's parties.

Between 40,000 and 100,000 additional vehicles hit the road every year in Quebec, according to a 2017 study by the Suzuki Foundation.

That's part of the reason Quebec isn't on track to meet the levels it committed to under the Paris agreement, which established global emission targets in the hopes of preventing a 2 C rise in temperatures.

By 2030, Quebec's emissions are supposed to be 37.5 per cent lower than they were in 1990. They are currently only 9 per cent below the 1990 level. 

Policies lack 'coherence'

In Bonin's view, some of the proposals being put forward "lack coherence" if Quebec is serious about reducing emissions.

The incumbent Liberal government, for instance, was widely praised by environmentalists in April for its long-term sustainable mobility plan.

According to the Ministry of Transport, around 154,000 vehicles travel on the Pont de Québec and the Pont Pierre-Laporte every day. Some experts doubt the necessity of a third link. (Radio-Canada)

As part of the plan, Couillard promised to spend an additional $2.9 billion by 2023 in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut commuting time by 20 per cent by 2030.  

Later the same week, however, the premier announced his government was spending as much as $600 million to extend Highway 19 north from Laval, a proposal environmentalists say would only encourage sprawl and put more cars on the road.

During the campaign, moreover, both the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec have come out in favour of building another tunnel or bridge in Quebec City. The CAQ has also said it is opposed to Montreal's desired Metro expansion, known as the Pink line.

Missed opportunity, politically?

So far, many of the campaign announcements from the province's three largest parties — the Liberals, CAQ and Parti Québécois — have centred around education, health care and the economy.

All are key issues for voters, according to CBC's Vote Compass survey. Environment, though, was the top issue for youth (aged 18-34) in the survey.

When questioned on the campaign trail by CBC News, all three party leaders said they aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Legault, though, wouldn't commit to meeting Quebec's targets set out in the Paris agreement, saying he would need to study the issue.

Couillard insisted Quebec would still be able to meet the Paris agreement targets. All the leaders promised to reveal more details about their environmental plans later in the campaign.

Québec Solidaire co-spokespeople Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Manon Massé are seen here greeting their supporters. Unlike other parties, it has emphasized the environment early in the campaign. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Québec Solidaire, a smaller party that pollsters believe could make strides in the Oct. 1 election, has made the environment its focus so far, in contrast to the others.

The party committed to banning the sale of gas-powered consumer vehicles in Quebec by 2030. It also wants to spend billions on public transit infrastructure, reduce transit fares by half and ban new highway construction.

"It is not by building more highways or taking more oil out of our soils that we are going to save the planet," co-spokesperson Manon Massé said on the first day of the campaign.

The Green Party of Quebec and the provincial NDP have also prioritized environmental policy.

The environmental coalition boasts a total membership base of 250,000 people, which it hopes will push the parties to take its demands seriously. It will evaluate the party platforms later in the campaign.


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About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Cathy Senay, Simon Nakonechny and Elias Aboud

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