Climate Action in Quebec: A New Transportation Leader Rising?

If you are looking for leadership on climate change in Canada or the United States, much of the action comes from provinces and states.

California's auto emissions standards jump to mind, but so do Ontario's smart grid roll-out and New York's leadership on carbon trading.  Recently in Canada, the province of Quebec has been elbowing out some room among that leading group. In the process it has positioned itself to be a key centre for transportation innovation on the continent and angered and confused the federal government.

More news this week shows that Canada continues to be stuck under a science-phobic government.  In the U.S., climate legislation is still stalled in the Senate.  In that context, Quebec's increasingly vocal political stance is a welcome break.

Along with Ontario, Quebec was an outspoken presence at last year's ill fated Copenhagen negotiations.  Just prior to the conference Quebec had announced ambitious emissions reduction targets that put it in league with objectives set by the EU.  During and after the summit, the provincial Premier Jean Charest didn't mince words either when stating clearly that provinces would not be bound to a weak treaty and lashing out at the Canadian federal government for having undermined the negotiations.

Easy Promises?
Now all this may seem a bit facile when you take into account that Quebec already gets nearly all of its electricity from hydro power. Some commentators criticized the province for making a big deal out of shallow promises; they argue that hydro power makes it much easier to reduce emissions in Quebec than elsewhere. But hydro is a double edged sword -- it also means that emission cutting measures used elsewhere will have no effect in Quebec.

Put up all the windmills you want, insulate every home and subsidize residential solar panels – none of that has any impact because Quebec's power supply is already clean. The sector generates a little less than 2% of Quebec's emissions, compared to say 20% in New York, or 17% in Ontario.
That unique situation means other sectors, particularly transportation, have acquired more importance when it comes to climate change plans.

Transportation & Innovation
All told, transportation is the single biggest source of GHGs in Quebec and is the source of 40% of the province's annual emissions. Transportation was a center-piece of the provinces' 2006 Climate Change Action Plan, and in 2007 it passed Canada's first carbon tax to raise revenues for public transit improvements. In 2008 it pledged a further  $4.5billion over five years.

None of that got nearly as much attention as the January announcement that Quebec would adopt California's strict auto emissions standards. Canadian's will remember the amusing Federal reaction where the government first attacking the plan as “absolutely counter-productive and utterly pointless” and then announced days later that they planned to do exactly the same thing.

At the municipal level Montreal, the province's largest city and the second largest city in Canada, has just completed two long awaited extensions to its metro system.  (Montreal has the second highest per capita transit ridership in North America after New York.) The metro transit authority has also just appointed former environmentalist AndrĂ© Porlier as its new deputy president. Future expansions are already on the books and the city has become an international model for how to support transit oriented cycling.

Innovative companies large (Bombardier) and small (ZENN and Nemo) also make their home in Quebec. To support this market, it has become one of only two provinces to legalize low speed urban electric vehicles (EVs), and recently announced the first large scale test of how different EV technologies deal with the Canadian climate. Communauto, one of the world's largest carsharing networks, is also partly funded by the province. And it's services are now being integrated into the larger regional public transportation systems.

The final piece of the puzzle would be high speed rail, and there as well that the province is hoping to push ahead -- or at least talk about it. During a February meeting in Washington, Charest and American Transport Secretary Ray LaHood announced the creation of a working group to study high-speed rail links between Montreal, New York and Boston.

The Big Lever
So while the province's green political bluster might be new (potentially linked to the Premier's aspirations to Federal leadership) it is rooted in a half decade of impressive work on the transportation front. But much still has to happen for Quebec to truly lead transportation innovation in North America.  In a province where existing transportation lines are already very popular, new lines will have to succeed in winning over large numbers of new users far more accustomed to taking their cars than riding the bus.  Economically, the province will also have to expand its fledgling green automotive sector by attracting investment and supporting R&D.  This will be no small challenge.

Transportation is a big lever when it comes to changing the way we live and use energy.  Shift transportation models and you affect everything from land use planning to housing design. Beyond immediate emissions reductions, making changes in this sector influences the shape of development for decades to come.  North America has painted itself into a corner of inefficient and congested auto-centric development.  Here's hoping that Quebec's mixture of political bombast, innovative thinking and financial support will help us all find our way out.


4 Responses to "Climate Action in Quebec: A New Transportation Leader Rising?"

Pat Sunter said... 21 March 2010 at 18:41

Interesting & encouraging article Alex.

One other thing I note about Canada's planning/transport situation is the various regional govt's are making efforts to model integrated land use and transport planning, e.g. ILUTE

The integration of car-sharing programs with public transport sounds great too. To me this seems an important element of transport-retrofitting car-oriented cities, e.g. those here in Australia.

Alex Aylett said... 22 March 2010 at 08:57

ILUTE is a good example Pat, it's true. You might also like MetroQuest, which combines that kind of microsimulation with vizualizations that show the impacts of landuse choices. It's a great way of doing collaborative community planning.

You might like this interview I did with one of the creators of MetroQuest earlier in the year:

It seems like you are pretty involved in the Aussie bike scene. What can you tell me about how things look from there? Have you had the same growth in commuter-oriented cycling infrastructure?

Pat Sunter said... 25 March 2010 at 20:48

Thanks for the reply Alex ... yes I did read your interview with the Metroquest guys, very interesting, I think I found the link to it from the WC website. I'm looking at doing a PhD about how that sort of (participative & democratic) modelling could benefit Australian cities.

As to the bike scene here ... at the moment the community enthusiasm is generally leading any institutional support by a long way. Cycling has become 'hip', but in the struggle to become genuine transport again we need the kind of infrastructure & leadership talked about in this article. Governments say the right things, but as yet are only _slowly_ moving from the car-oriented perspective on all transport.

Nevertheless there are a few encouraging signs. In certain areas of inner-city Melbourne where I now live, there are now far more decent bike lanes than 2 years ago when I was last here, and people are using them well. The cycling lobby also headed off a govt plan to ban bikes on peak-hour trains and we are now allowed to take folding bikes on trams (though much more needs doing here, with good design I reckon we avoid disadvantaging PT commuters as well).

And this weekend in Adelaide there's an "Earth Ride" - much more fun than sitting at home in the dark for Earth Hour ;)

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