En Route to Paris: Quebec commits to reducing its GHG emissions by 80%. Should we be thrilled or skeptical?

Guest post by Sidney Ribaux, Équiterre Cofounder, executive director and spokesperson
Disclaimer: the views expressed in the following blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Foundation.
Last month, at the Climate Summit of the Americas in Toronto, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard committed to an 80 to 95% reduction in the province’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. In my opinion, this represents the largest commitment ever made by Quebec regarding climate change.
Several people are skeptical, however. They wonder how the Premier can set such an ambitious target while also investing in oil exploration on Anticosti Island and spending $500 million to expand Highway 19. Besides, these skeptics think, Couillard won’t be Premier in 2050 anyway.

I tend to believe in the Premier’s sincerity on this point. Here’s why.

Consistency will be essential in order to overcome climate change and reach Quebec’s target for 2050, but consistency is not the norm in politics. In reality, politicians are a reflection of their society. Their actions are therefore limited by the will of the citizens who have elected them. At the moment, Quebeckers want to be climate change leaders while also continuing to work for polluting companies and to drive SUVs, snowmobiles and jet skis. Such people represent a dwindling minority, but their voice can still be heard clearly.
In sum, just because consistency is not the operative word, doesn’t mean the commitment is not genuine and sincere. A commitment to act on climate change is not undone by an authorization to build a new highway. We can help Quebec move forward even if some people are going against the grain; it just means we have to work even harder!
In 2003, the Parti Québécois committed to reducing Quebec’s greenhouse gas emissions by 6% by the year 2012. The Quebec Liberal Party endorsed this commitment and adopted a climate change action plan in 2006. This target was met and even exceeded. In 2009, Quebec targeted a GHG emission reduction of 20% below the levels of 1990 by the year 2020. Any serious observer will tell you that the 2020 goal will also be reached thanks to the carbon emission cap and trade system implemented by Quebec and California (Ontario will also join the program soon). What remains to be seen is how many credits we will need to buy from California in order to reach our target.
In short, when we set a GHG emission reduction target, we tend to reach it. One thing is for sure: if we don’t set any target, we run the risk of not taking any action whatsoever!
All in all, there was absolutely no need for Mr. Couillard to make such a commitment. He did so voluntarily. Incidentally, only 2 out of 10 provinces signed this commitment for 2050, and the federal government made every effort to prevent the G7 (and therefore Canada) from following suit—instead, the G7 postponed the deadline to 2100!
Mr. Couillard may have made this commitment for political reasons. No doubt, he wants history to put him on the “good side” of this fight. He wants his picture to appear next to Ban Ki-moon and Al Gore instead of George W. Bush and Mr. Harper. However, I suspect the real reason behind it is that he understands the importance of the climate change issue. He is a man of science and he believes the issue is real (unlike other elected officials). It also may have to do with the fact that he has three children and two step-children, and, in 2050 at age 93, he will also likely be a grandfather!
Regardless of his motivations, the important thing is that he has made the commitment. In doing so, Mr. Couillard has just given organizations like Équiterre one of the most powerful tools to fight against polluting projects on its territory. From now on, we can ask the following question: will this project still be emitting GHG in 2050? If the answer is yes, the project will not be approved.
Does this mean we can rest on our laurels? Of course not! We still need an ambitious commitment for 2030. We need to stop Anticosti, shale gas, Old Harry, Highway 19, etc. Most importantly, we need to give Mr. Couillard and the federal government the political space to make this type of commitment and also ensure its consistency through the machinery of government.
This blog is part of the En Route to Paris series. In preparation for the Conference of the Parties (COP-21) taking place in Paris this December, we created a series that showcases Canada-wide initiatives promoting a low-carbon economy. The En Route to Paris posts will expose the views of experts who collaborate with us in our initiatives focused on ‘Energy and the Economy.’ Our goal is to support initiatives geared towards transforming the discourse on climate to illustrate all the benefits of sustainable development. Click here to view other posts in the series.