Quebec promises to ban sale of gas cars -- but first, will spend $6.7 billion on five-year green recovery plan

Quebec authorities were expected to announce Monday that they will ban the sale of gas cars in 15 years, but the full plan is much more complicated -- and it's tied to COVID-19 and the economic hit it's brought.

Premier François Legault said his party's long-awaited climate plan is also now a green economic recovery plan. It will be funded to the tune of $6.7 billion over the next five years.

"I can't look my two sons in the eyes if I haven't made the best effort I can" to fight climate change, Legault said.

But he also spoke extensively about the Quebec's financial position and its window of opportunity to become the "green battery of northeast America," a phrase he's used other times since Joe Biden's election last week.

For years, Hydro-Quebec has been aiming to strike a series of major export deals in the northeastern U.S. to supply a permanent, pre-set amount of energy to various states -- deals that would provide significant long-term financial security to Quebec if they go through.

"The heart of our project is the electrification of our economy," Legault was quoted as saying in a press release published Monday.

"This invaluable asset of hydroelectricity, combined with wind power and other forms of clean energy, will allow us to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions while creating more wealth."

CLIMATE VERSUS COVID-19

Some say the two goals, economy and climate, are at odds. 

Climate activists have been urging governments to design "green recoveries" that weave low-carbon infrastructure into COVID-19 economic recovery plans. They didn't necessarily expect those plans to replace bigger climate plans, though.

Legault made clear that this plan is both. The province estimates the new series of measures will add $2.2 billion to Quebec's GDP over the next decade and create more than 15,500 new jobs.

When the CAQ came to power in 2018, it had no climate strategy whatsoever, said one climate policy expert -- meaning today's announcement was anticipated long before COVID-19 hit.

"There were great expectations that it would be an overarching strategy to combat climate change," said Colleen Thorpe, the executive direct of the group Équiterre.

Monday's announcement keeps Quebec among an upper tier of ambitious provinces and states, such as British Columbia and California, when it comes to climate.

But Thorpe said it's still a very different kind of plan than what most climate experts would design if they were purely trying to drive down emissions.

"I would say it's a green recovery response, an economic recovery response, but you cannot bill it as the response to the climate emergency," said Thorpe.

The province's last effort to meet climate goals failed, Legault noted in a press conference Monday. Quebec goal for 2020 was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 per cent below 1990 levels, which didn't happen. 

The province's new goal is to achieve a reduction of 37.5 per cent over 1990 levels by 2030, Legault said -- but while boosting various economic interests along the way, and avoiding most financial penalties for carbon-intensive behaviour.

WHAT'S IN THE PLAN

At home, the plan revolves around a major electrification of Quebec transit of all kinds -- cars, trucks, transit -- while also making Quebec buildings and industry much more energy-efficient.

As promised this weekend, the announcement includes a ban on the sale of gas cars as of 2035.

In the meantime, Quebec will be renewing its consumer rebate on electric cars and building up its network of charging stations in order to entice more buyers.

On top of the new green funding pool, the province had already announced it was putting $15.8 billion into public transit under the 2020-2030 infrastructure plan, much of which is already geared towards electrification.

"Light trains, city and school buses, taxis, cars and trucks will all be gradually electrified," said the release.

The plan also includes money for a push into new sources of green energy aside from hydropower, said the province.

That includes $213 million for Quebec's "emerging renewable natural gas industry" -- a term for the gas created by the decomposition of compost and other natural materials -- and $15 million for research and development into "green hydrogen," which is hydrogen created from water using a new, high-tech molecular process that's taken off in some regions around the world. 

Quebec will come up with its first green hydrogen and bioenergy strategy next year, the province said in its release.

"The government's ambition is for Quebec to be recognized around the world for its green hydrogen, as it already is for its clean electricity," it said.

The plan also relies on making Quebec buildings and industries more energy-efficient, with an especially big push on upgrading buildings to make sure they lose less heat.

Various initiatives around this will be extended, and another $113 million will be put into "energy conversion and efficiency projects" in commercial and institutional buildings, plus $75 million for heat recovery and heat recycling projects.

MIXED REVIEWS

The head of the Quebec Chamber of Commerce said he welcomed this news, though he warned that a proselytizing push should accompany it, to get neighbouring provinces and states on board.

Supporting electric vehicles of all kinds could be a win for Quebec, considering the province is home to some leading entrepreneurs in the field, said Charles Milliard, the head of the Quebec Chamber of Commerce, citing Lion Electric, a St-Jerome-based producer of electric school buses, and Ste-Eustache-based Nova Bus.

"Quebec companies like Lion Electric are also making a name for themselves... this know-how deserves to be highlighted," Milliard said.

However, he said in a release, Quebec "must not go it alone in prohibiting the sale of vehicles to gasoline," so that the policies make environmental progress without also "penalizing" Quebec's economic prospects.

“It will be necessary to convince neighbouring states to follow suit," he said. "If Quebec goes it alone, we will not be advancing environmentally and we could be at a major economic disadvantage."

Thorpe, of Equiterre, said "there's definitely good things in this plan," but that she would have liked to see more urgency and a willingness to crack down on those who aren't transitioning.

"We need to transition quickly," she said. "We have very little time -- the climate is not just another issue. It's an existential threat."

Norway, for example, is also banning gas cars, but five years earlier.

2035 "may seem too soon for some people," Thorpe said. "But if you consider that Quebec has a head start because of its hydroelectric power, you could be more ambitious."

Likewise, she said, economists and Quebec's auditor general have pointed to the value of creating financial penalties to help fund electric car incentives -- meaning people who drive the worst gas-guzzlers would pay a price for that choice, which would help make Quebec's EV rebate cost-neutral.

Without doing that, Thorpe said, "you're shoveling the costs onto the backs of young people who are completey penalized [in the future]... because they're shouldering the costs of all of these problems."

She said the ambitious plans to switch to electric school buses are "very positive" and the energy-efficiency measures, such as making buildings more heat-capturing, are good for climate as well as being a long-term investment for Quebec -- since this will free up more Hydro-Quebec power that may ultimately be exported.

HYDRO EXPORT HOPES

When asked about how much he's pinning economic hopes on exporting hydropower, Legault said there's been a lot of action on the subject, and he has reason to feel optimistic after Biden's election.

Hydro-Quebec already has one long-term hydropower export deal, with Massachusetts, to supply 18 per cent of the state's energy over 20 years.

Hydro-Quebec has said the deal could generate as much as $10 billion over its lifetime.

"I spoke to Charlie Baker, the governor, and he's open to discuss another project of about the same size," Legault said, pointing out the financial benefit of possibly doubling the project.

"We are also talking to New York, the city, and the state of New York," he said. "And there's an opening to discuss...a new line to export hydroelectricity to New York."

He said that "it's not a dream that is not realistic. I think at this point it's realistic. And of course, the arrival of Mr. Biden, supporting those two Democrat governors... it can only help."

Legault also said he hopes Biden will rejoin the Paris Accord.  

"Obviously, Quebec can't succeed in [beating climate change] just with its own actions," Legault said. "But Quebec needs to do its part."

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