Quebec Premier François Legault just issued the latest wake-up call to his counterparts across the country, concerning how seriously they take the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Within his own province, Mr. Legault’s announcement on Monday of his government’s green plan – highlighted by a commitment to ban sales of new gasoline-powered passenger vehicles by 2035 – got a mixed reaction from climate advocates.
To Quebec-based environmental groups such as Équiterre, the promised $6.7-billion in government spending over the next five years (primarily to speed the transition to zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs) is too unambitious to meet the province’s target of reducing total greenhouse gas output 37.5 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.
Most anywhere else in Canada, this announcement would have qualified as revolutionary. Other than in British Columbia, no current provincial government is taking anywhere near this degree of responsibility in the fight against climate change.
That’s particularly the case regarding transportation emissions, which are the biggest component of most provinces’ carbon footprint. Among the promises made on Monday are that Quebec will scale up its existing ZEV mandate, which requires a growing share of vehicles sold to be electric. It said it will also accelerate deployment of rapid charging stations while continuing with generous electric-vehicle purchase incentives, and that more than half of the province’s buses and virtually all of the passenger and light-duty vehicles used by the government and its agencies will be electric by 2030.
It also includes $768-million to help reduce industrial pollution, and many hundreds of millions more to reduce emissions from heating buildings and develop clean-technology sectors.
Other premiers might point out that Quebec has unique circumstances that make clean-energy transition more inviting there than elsewhere. The province’s excess of hydroelectricity has long served to both negate the need for fossil fuels in its power grid, and help instill a sense of pride in environmental leadership. Mr. Legault has been playing to that sensibility by promising to make Quebec the “battery of North America,” meaning to simultaneously electrify its own economy and increase hydroelectricity exports to other jurisdictions.
But that doesn’t change that this announcement should put pressure on other Canadian premiers to start introducing similar policies of their own. And if they prove unwilling to do so, the prospect of a growing national imbalance will strengthen the case for some new forms of federal intervention by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
That sort of dynamic will be most pronounced with the centrepiece of Monday’s announcement – the ramped-up ZEV mandate, culminating in all of Quebec’s new vehicle sales being electric by 2035.
Even to this point, there have been concerns that only having ZEV mandates in two provinces (B.C. is the other) incentivizes automakers to disproportionately send their Canadian supply to those places to meet their sales quotas. So the raising of Quebec’s quota could make it even more difficult for Canadians elsewhere to find electric vehicles for purchase. That in turn could strengthen the case for a national ZEV mandate, which Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have already been considering.
It’s less of a zero-sum game when it comes to some other potential consequences of Quebec’s plan for provinces that don’t match Mr. Legault’s efforts. Support for reducing building emissions, for instance, could help expand a retrofit industry better able to take on projects nationwide.
But provinces can also be in competition with each other for clean-technology investment. And that should mean some imperative for other governments to match the enthusiasm and urgency that Quebec is signaling.
In neighbouring Ontario, notably, Premier Doug Ford has mostly been resistant to investment in clean-economy transition. Although his government has recently shifted that mentality somewhat by providing funding for electric-vehicle assembly by major automakers, it has still done little to either encourage electrification within the province or develop sophisticated strategies to expand domestic clean-technology companies. If it doesn’t step up its game, Quebec’s more aggressive approach could cause Ontario to see a fragmenting of its historic auto-sector dominance as that industry changes, and lose other advanced-manufacturing business that it might otherwise attract.
But if Mr. Legault’s approach could in some ways cause consternation elsewhere, it should also offer hope for climate policy in Canada – and not just because of emissions-reductions or clean-tech advances it directly produces.
What sets Quebec’s plans apart even from B.C.’s is that they were delivered by a premier who is in most other regards a conservative populist. That suggests Quebec has achieved cross-partisan consensus on the importance of climate policy that is increasingly common overseas (evidenced for instance by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson setting the same 2035 target date for stopping gas-powered car sales), but has eluded North America.
Quebec’s plan may not be the total pinnacle of ambition; as environmentalists argued, the dollar figure is perhaps modest relative to the scale of the challenge, and there’s probably a need for more regulatory sticks to hasten the shift to electric vehicles.
And, yes, Quebec is a somewhat different political universe from the rest of this continent.
But for fellow travellers in this country, Mr. Legault has at least served reminder that refusing to take climate change seriously needn’t be an article of faith. And if they choose not to follow his lead, in other provinces, he has given Mr. Trudeau some additional cover to do so in their stead.
The Globe and Mail, November 16, 2020