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Green Québec: a whiter shade of pale

The electric car remains the route to climate salvation for most of the political class—François Legault’s CAQ is no exception

Canadian PoliticsEnvironmentQuebec

Québec Premier François Legault announces funding support for a $7 billion gigafactory for electric vehicle batteries in Montérégie. The facility will be built by Swedish manufacturer Northvolt AB. Photo from X.

And although my eyes were open
They might as well have been closed

—Procol Harem

The Québec state is currently presided over by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and piloted by former airline boss François Legault who won the last provincial election in a landslide and holds 90 seats in a 125-member house. A steamroller majority—yet rooted in only slightly over 40 percent of the vote. Legault’s style of rule could kindly be called paternalistic nationalism. He is very much Papa Legault—a kind of updated secular version of Maurice Duplessis. His two most vigorously stated goals are defence of the French language and positioning Québec in the forefront of the struggle to save the planet from climate collapse. This takes the form of a xenophobic populism easily bent to the “us and them” polarizations so popular with the right. To underpin this form of “green” nationalism, he aspires to build a prosperous green growth economy where Québecers can lead lives of sustainable well-being in the midst of accelerating ecological collapse almost everywhere else.

In a land of climate criminals like Alberta’s Danielle Smith, who defends the tar sands, one of the most polluting energy projects on the planet, it isn’t hard to position yourself as the lesser of evils. The UK-based newspaper the Guardian, reporting on an investigation in Science magazine, noted that: “damaging reactive pollutants from the oil sands are equivalent to those from all other human made sources across Canada with severe health implications.”

But Legault’s green-cloaked economic formulations also invite challenge. They raise a set of difficult questions about how green a green economy actually is. Québec sees itself as the centrepiece of a green economic transition in North America, especially with its cap-and-trade agreement with California. Internationally Québec has been working with other sub-national governments—Scotland and Sao São Paulo—in pushing forward a program of carbon emission restraint. At the annual UN climate change negotiations held in Dubai in 2023, Québec was promoted to the leadership team of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA)—a coalition of countries and sub-national governments (most notably Costa Rica and Denmark) that have committed to banning new oil and gas exploration and development. To its credit, Québec is the first jurisdiction to ban oil and gas exploration and development on its territory.

Québec generally and the city of Montréal in particular are proud (with some justification) of their green reputations. Legault likes to dine out on this with exaggerated claims that simply doing business in or with Québec will enhance another jurisdiction’s own environmental credentials. He pops up in New York to trumpet Québec’s greenness while shilling for the local economy. While not a market-worshipper of Smith’s ilk, Legault has a vision of Québec that still revolves around a profit-driven market economy with growth-oriented goals. For an increasingly large body of environmental opinion, the very nature of such an economy undermines efforts to ‘save the planet.’ Legault’s approach to governing is very much committed to the private sector and is marked by both centralization and bringing high-priced talent with hardnosed business expertise into government—a common neoliberal strategy. Service centres are set to replace elected school boards and the troubled health care system will be further centralized and overseen by a new director (almost certainly from the private sector) who will earn over $650,000 a year. Those doing the work and affected by the decisions will be disempowered in favour of centralized administrative authoritarianism. There are clear signs that these kinds of ‘efficiencies’ (some would call them a diseconomy of scale) will also be applied to environmental decision-making.

The crown jewel of the province is the massive public energy monopoly, Hydro Québec. Selling hydro power to other jurisdictions in the heavily industrialized northeastern United States is a major part of the Québec economy. The current plan is for Québec to spend up to $185 billion to modernize and expand hydro production in the next 12 years. But leaving aside the ecological and Indigenous rights issues related to major dam construction there is the question of the end use of this precious non-carbon source of energy. In Québec itself investment priorities are far from green—with new technologies, the computer gaming industries and virtual currency mills looming large in soaking up hydroelectric power. But the big corporate players in Québec’s economy remain the mining and, to a lesser extent, the pulp and paper industries. These are massive users of both hydro energy and especially the province’s water supply. The international mining giant Rio Tinto alone used enough Québec water to fill 29,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools in 2022. While some of this was certainly recycled, during the same period a number of communities in southern Québec had to deal with water rationing.

A recent official tabulation of end users of Québec’s mineral wealth includes the production of computer technologies, flashlights, power tools such as lawn mowers and leaf blowers, sports equipment, cosmetics etc. Exactly how much of this consumer cornucopia a sustainable society can afford to produce in the future is a salient question seldom asked. Instead we are swamped with projections of an expansion of mining activities for a range of materials such cobalt, graphite and lithium all considered essential for a transition to the vaunted green economy (particularly for use in heavy electric vehicle batteries). There was a massive increase in new mining claims in the desirable cottage country of southern Québec in the 18 months before August 2022. According to MiningWatch Canada, there was, “an average increase of 129%, which is 4.9 times higher than the 26.2% increase observed throughout Québec during the same period.”

Much to the surprise of some Québec landowners, claims over sub-surface mineral rights in the province are separate from surface property ownership. According to Louis St-Hilaire of the group for the protection of the lakes of the Petite-Nation:

What our map shows is much worse than we could imagine. We are currently witnessing the appropriation of vast swaths of southern Québec by the mining exploration industry. This is happening without the citizens knowing about it and having a say. At this rate, we will soon be faced with a fait accompli. Québec will become the Alberta of minerals.

Emissions derived from cobalt, graphite and lithium extraction are improvements on fossil fuel production, though emissions are still very energy intensive. Other ecological damage includes air and water pollution, land degradation, and potential for groundwater contamination.

Much of Québec’s mineral wealth is destined for the batteries essential for electric vehicles. The electric car is a classic example of the limits of greening the economy without rethinking basic economic priorities. Already there is the new electric car battery mega-factory that the Québec government is hosting on precious wetland just east of Montréal. The mega-factory, Northvolt’s first outside of Europe, will span 170 hectares and will be built in the area near Saint-Basile-le-Grand and McMasterville, about 30 kilometres east of Montréal. There has been stiff resistance from local environmentalists particularly upset by the decision to forego the usual round of environmental hearings in order to grant the Swedish corporation its construction licence. Politicians from all levels of government are falling all over themselves as eager hosts for whatever investors in the green economy might fancy, regardless of the ecological consequences.

The electric car is the core of the green growth vision. It is the perfect symbol of how we can ‘go green’ without fundamentally changing anything. We can still own individual automobiles and structure our lives around their use. This is a win-win for the consumer and a means of locomotion that decades of advertising have got us to identify with freedom. It’s a win-win also for producers, who see car manufacturing as the centerpiece of our economy, providing jobs, endless spinoff economic activity, corporate profits and healthy dividends for their investors. After all, hasn’t it made Elon Musk the richest man on the planet? Who will be able to afford this new form of automobility is, like so many other questions that highlight inequality, not worth asking.

Another problem is the infrastructure of this mobility: highways, charging stations, traffic jams, and urban areas planned for cars rather than people. According to a study of Metro Vancouver’s transportation costs by transport engineer George Paulos, for every dollar a driver paid to drive, society paid $9.20 in road infrastructure, pollution, crashes, and noise. While electric cars may tilt the carbon pollution and possibly noise equations, they will do little or nothing to alter these other factors which directly or indirectly contribute massively to our already badly overstressed carbon budget. But the electric car remains the route to climate salvation for most of the political class, and Legault’s CAQ is no exception.

Occasionally a politician slips up and tells it like it is. This was the case in the summer of 2023 when Québec Energy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon stated the obvious: Québec would have to cut its fleet of private automobiles in half if there was to be any hope of meeting climate targets (more recently Canadian Minister of the Environment Steven Guilbeault aired similar views). The car lobby was appalled and Legault quickly walked back this uncomfortable truth with comforting bromides about how the electric car will save the day. The electric car allows the political class to avoid the solid case built by both environmentalists and transportation planners for a collective public transit system that favours equity and environmental responsibility.

A green way of life and a green economy are two different things. While reducing carbon-derived emissions is crucial to an environmentally sustainable way of life it also involves a complete rethink of the disastrous consequences of human attitudes towards the natural world. Ideas for halting, or at least mitigating, climate collapse exist and can be found in a wide range of radical ecological proposals, particularly from the degrowth movement, which has gradually spread beyond Europe. Degrowth is quickly becoming the common sense perspective of any sane environmentalism. The Japanese Marxist environmentalist Kohei Saito has become its most recent bright star; his book Capitalism and the Anthropocene became an unexpected best seller in Japan, with half a million sales by mid-2022. Summarizing his message in the New Yorker, reviewer E. Tammy Kim concludes:

“If we’re serious about surviving our planetary crisis,” Saito argues, then we must abandon capitalism, with its insatiable appetites… we will not be saved by a ‘green’ economy of electric cars or geo-engineered skies. Slowing down—to a carbon footprint on the level of Europe and the US in the nineteen-seventies—would mean less work and less clutter,” he writes. “Our kids may not make it, otherwise.”

According to degrowth advocates, rethinking growth, energy, and material throughput, along with notions of democracy, equity, the commons, work, prosperity, productivity, and needs is essential for the survival of our own and other species. All this demands a rejection of most of the indices that economists use to measure the health of our economy. The bottom line, to use a favourite phrase of economists, is that the constant expansion of the weight of our species on the planet, measured in terms of the activities of production and consumption, needs to stop. If Québec is at all serious about going green, it could embrace a goal not measured in the number of electric cars but rather in the capacity for living well (buen vivir, as ecologically-minded Bolivians would put it) in an equal and democratic way that sustains the natural world indispensable to the survival of our own and other species.

It is highly unlikely that the CAQ will abandon its soothing notion of green growth but the Québécois may yet prove receptive to a more radical environmentalism. Some of the largest demonstrations in Montréal’s turbulent popular history have been held in protest of climate degradation. The most progressive opposition party in the province, Québec Solidaire, might be the likeliest home for such an undertaking. But at present all political parties—not just in Québec but across the country—remain reluctant to take a hard look at what is required for species survival.

Richard Swift is a freelance journalist and activist based in Montréal. He is a founding member of Between the Lines and worked for many years as an editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine. He is the author of a number of books including SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism.


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