Quebec's emissions are climbing, putting its climate goals in doubt

Quebec is failing in its effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions, due in large part to the growing number of gas-guzzling cars and trucks on its roads.

Latest figures show province, while rich in hydroelectricity, isn't on track to meet its 2030 targets

In Quebec, transportation accounted for 43 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, the highest of any sector. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

When it comes to the fight against climate change, the province of Quebec is stumbling.

This week, the Coalition Avénir Quebec government confirmed greenhouse gas emissions in the province climbed by 1.5 per cent in 2019, the latest year for which figures are available, putting Quebec further away from its Paris Agreement goals. 

In announcing the setback, Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette sought to lay blame on the policies of those in power before his government took office in 2018, blaming in particular the new McInnis cement plant in the Gaspé region in eastern Quebec.

He also acknowledged the enormity of the task ahead. 

"We have to tell the truth," Charette told a news conference Wednesday. "The challenge is huge."

But environmentalists and experts say the province, which is rich in hydroelectric power, hasn't done enough to curb emissions, especially those produced by cars and trucks.

By 2030, Quebec's emissions are supposed to be 37.5 per cent lower than they were in 1990. At this point, they are only 2.7 per cent below 1990 levels.

"Transportation is really the key sector where we could do better, we should do better," said Pierre-Olivier Pineau, chair of energy sector management at HEC Montréal's business school.

"The reason why emissions grow in Quebec and throughout Canada, it's really because people love their SUVs and they buy more cars. So not only do we have bigger cars, but we have a larger number of them. It's actually growing faster than the population, so people are buying more and more cars."

The federal government released its own figures in April, showing that Canada's overall emissions had gone up 0.2 per cent in 2019.

The CAQ climate plan, released last year, is focused on getting more people to use electric cars and to power more industrial production with hydroelectricity. The government has said it would ban new gas-powered vehicles in 2035.

Those changes will help, Pineau said, but a more ambitious mix of investments in public transit and regulatory changes are needed.

Transportation — including personal vehicles and freight — accounted for 43 per cent of Quebec's emissions in 2019. (Industrial emitters, by comparison, accounted for 29 per cent.)

"In addition to these good initiatives, they should make sure that they don't expand the area where people live. And … because urban sprawl is a problem, we should identify the regions where people live," Pineau said. 

An electric vehicle is seen charging in Montreal. The province wants to put 1.5 million EVs on the road by 2030. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

'Hiding behind previous governments'

The McInnis cement plant, which began production in 2017 and was funded in large part by taxpayer money, is Quebec's biggest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases.

Previous Liberal and Parti Québécois governments supported the project. The CAQ did not, which Charette was quick to highlight during his news conference on Wednesday.

Patrick Bonin, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, said he is not impressed with the CAQ pointing the finger at past decision-makers. The current government has shown a lack of leadership on climate change, he said.

"What we have here is a government who is hiding behind previous governments," said Bonin. "The Legault government has been there for three years and they don't have a credible plan."

The McInnis cement plant in Quebec's Gaspé region is the province's largest industrial emitter. (Isabelle LaRose/Radio-Canada)

The current plan would only get Quebec halfway to its 2030 emissions target, Bonin said, and the CAQ's desire to build more roads — like the proposed $7-billion tunnel linking Quebec City to its south shore — will undercut those efforts.

"They're not working on stopping urban sprawling," he said. "It is the most idiotic project you can imagine."

In a statement, Équiterre, a Quebec-based environmental organization, described the increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 as a "monumental failure""

"It is clear that governments succeed one another but the results remain the same," the group said.

Eight years left

On Wednesday, Charette had touted the CAQ's climate change plan as being more robust than previous governments.

The environment minister said the province was working on several measures that will get it closer to its 2030 goal, including tabling a bill that would put an end to the exploitation of fossil fuels in Quebec.

But there will be challenges, Charette said, including the fact he expects the McInnis cement plan to emit even more greenhouse gases in the coming years.

In a statement, the company told CBC News it is committed to operating in a sustainable way and is looking at alternative carbon fuels and cement in order to pollute less.

Ultimately, the province is running out of time.

"We have eight years, essentially, to fill a gap of nearly 35 per cent," Charette said. "So this is major."

With files from Cathy Senay and Rowan Kennedy


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