Photo by J-F Savaria

How Montreal can weather the coming storm of the climate emergency

“We have foolishly relied on other levels of government to handle the climate change dossier, but cities are the root cause of the climate crisis, and so it’s up to cities to fix the problem.”

So it’s been 2.5 weeks of Valérie Plante still being the mayor and Montreal has become an uninhabitable wasteland. All businesses and families have left, leaving downtown to the control of eco-vegan anarcho-syndicalist street gangs. The police have been completely defunded, leading to a record-breaking number of applications to join the Hell’s Angels. All parking spots have been ripped up to make space for artisanal craft pop-up stores (where the only accepted currency is love), and the Montreal Canadiens, lacking the support of their fanbase of enthusiastic downtown condo dwellers, have decided to move to Mississauga. Inconsolable, Denis “La Menace” Coderre — dressed head to toe in black (for mourning — his political career is DEAD, you ingrates!) — has decided to quit municipal politics forever, and in all likelihood return to the private sector, where he can work for a company well-known for the renovictions that are taking the Montrealers right out of Montreal.

The elimination of Coderre is just about the only good news in an election where none of the parties shone (and where Montrealers made it abundantly clear they weren’t impressed with anyone). Few Montrealers felt this was an election worth participating in, and that’s ultimately the fault of the parties — never forget, it’s their responsibility to fire you up about voting.

Despite the record-low turnout, those who did vote gave their support to Projet Montréal and Valérie Plante (and by extension dealt the coup de grace not only to Coderre but his loyal lieutenant, Lionel Perez, formerly the mayor of Montreal’s most populous borough). I’m not sure this was Projet’s win as much as it was Coderre’s loss — Projet got their own troops out, but it doesn’t look like they won many converts. Coderre didn’t inspire his base or win over any converts, but also didn’t inspire the undecideds out there to get off their asses. Evidently, the fear-mongering of his campaign, coupled with Coderre’s uninspired vision and his undeserved overconfidence, led to a shockingly embarrassing loss.

That said, Projet should keep the following in mind: despite trouncing Coderre and his party, they evidently didn’t drive Montrealers to the polls in droves, nor sell an inspiring vision to the public. Yes, they have a mandate to govern, but it isn’t that strong given how few people voted. 

The lesson here, however, is not to proceed cautiously. With Coderre out of the way and his party left without much in the way of executive leadership, Projet no longer needs to pitch for the middle of the road. They can — and should — think big and bold, setting in motion a program for our city for the next 30 years, not four.

There is really only one over-riding concern, one primary consideration, a single goal that the party must throw all their efforts into for the next four years: the environment, and how Montreal is going to weather the coming storm of the climate emergency. Everything else is secondary.

Evidently, Montreal’s not going to solve the climate crisis — humanity is probably already well past the point of no return of completely avoiding catastrophe and there’s a strong likelihood the rest of this century is going to be spent dealing with storms and other climatological catastrophes of ever-greater intensity, and then all the subsequent trickle-down effects of the climate emergency: mass displacement, conflict, disease, climate refugees, vast swathes of land (or even entire countries) rendered completely uninhabitable etc. As this happens, the global economy will go through multiple recessions, depressions and panics until we’re eventually all forced to the conclusion that unfettered free market capitalism truly lies at the heart of our species’ endemic dysfunction, and whoever’s left standing after all that will be the ones to rebuild society.

Montreal — and Montrealers more specifically — are pretty great, so maybe we should try our hardest to be those people who get to rebuild a better planet. We won’t avert the global disaster, but if we act now there’s a chance we might mitigate its effects at a local level. 

We have absolutely nothing to lose, as everything we do today will benefit us tomorrow. If the governments of the world are somehow smart enough to work hard over the next decade and do all they can to keep warming down to 1.5 degrees Celsius, then at worst Montreal will be the greenest, most ecologically sustainable city, serving as a model for all others. Our expertise and experience in green retrofitting and climate change proofing will lead to products and services we can sell all over the world.

If you think I’m being melodramatic, all I can say is look up what actual climate scientists and activists are saying, because unlike the political class who took private jets to get drunk with fossil fuel lobbyists at COP26, the activists and scientists aren’t nearly as optimistic about our future.

How Montreal can weather the coming storm of the climate emergency
Greta Thunberg and Valérie Plante (How Montreal can weather the coming storm of the climate emergency)

And if you’re concerned about how much this might cost our city, or about the economic ramifications of deficit spending our way to becoming a bulwark against a rapidly changing climate, I can only ask you how well you think the economy will work when we’re all under water. 

Just because we can’t solve the global problem doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power at a local level to protect against the very real dangers that are already manifesting. And just because we have heretofore foolishly relied on other levels of government to handle the environment and climate change dossier doesn’t mean we should continue doing so. Cities are the root cause of the climate crisis, and so it’s up to cities to fix the problem. 

So with all that in mind, here’s my top 8 policy recommendations for Projet Montréal’s next four years:

1. Transit autonomy: Negotiate with the Quebec government to secure for Montreal full autonomous authority to plan and build new transit infrastructure throughout the city and metropolitan region. In addition, Montreal needs to regain control of transit planning, which has been taken over by the for-profit CDPQ. Secure $5-billion in annual funding, split between the province and federal government, for transit development, with an end goal being 24-hour a day service throughout the entire metropolitan region, where origin and destination points are never more than a 15-minute walk from a station, or wait for a bus, metro, tram or train. Irrespective of the developments related to electric vehicles, we have to consider the emissions that are released in the manufacturing of said vehicles, to say nothing of the amount of oil that goes into manufacturing the tires. Moreover, though we happen to have access to cheap, plentiful and renewable hydroelectricity, there is still a limit in terms of how much power can be generated per hour. In sum, even if the city quickly transitions to using electric vehicles, we still need to have fewer vehicles on the roads, and so a lot of effort will have to go into developing mass transit — both on island and throughout the metropolitan region — over the next several decades. The goal the city needs to aim for should be a public transit system that is always more efficient, more convenient and less expensive than using one’s own vehicle.

2. Mirabel: Begin the process of returning all passenger, cargo and general aviation back to Mirabel, with a planned de-activation of airport operations at Dorval within a decade. Convenient though it may be to have an international airport located so close to the city centre, it’s also a massive source of our on-island emissions and pollution in general. Trudeau airport is as hazardous to our health as it is to our environment. Unlike the now densely urbanized city that surrounds Trudeau airport, Mirabel is still mostly surrounded by farmland and forest. There’s no question moving the airport back to Mirabel would be a big costly endeavour, but as long as we’re going to use fossil fuel powered airplanes (and this will be the case for a while yet), we need to get them away from the city. The added advantage of re-locating airport operations to Mirabel is that it would free up an absolutely massive amount of land for new housing (conveniently located close to the city and already well connected to major transit hubs), allowing the city to increase the housing supply without increasing sprawl or building on heretofore undeveloped land. Such a plan would be predicated on the need for a comprehensive public transit network to connect the airport with the metropolitan region, the original Mirabel’s Achilles heel. High-speed rail, such as the original plan demanded, could then connect Mirabel to Quebec City and Ottawa, which would essentially negate their need for international airports.

3. Shinkansen: On a related note, the city needs to push the federal government on the development of true, Japanese-style high-speed rail. The Liberal Party’s campaign promise of higher-frequency service isn’t going to cut it: we need completely electric Shinkansen service between Montreal and the nearby major cities. The reason why we should go all in on high-speed electric rail is because the Montreal-Toronto air corridor is the busiest in Canada, and providing a green alternative that can move more people between the downtowns of Canada’s two largest cities at a comparable speed would quickly eliminate the emissions caused by 100 or so daily flights between the cities. We’d probably find natural allies in the municipal administrations of Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City, Hamilton and Windsor, the other major cities within the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, which is the most densely populated part of Canada. Montreal could get the ball rolling on cross-border service improvement negotiations, given increasing American interest in high speed rail. Either way, this is the kind of project that municipalities need to lead on, and Montreal’s long history as a nexus for rail transport gives it a strong foundation to begin planning and coordination. 

4. Trees: Projet proposed a goal of planting 500,000 trees as part of this year’s platform, and while this may sound like an ambitious goal, it’s worth considering that half a million mature trees will only absorb about 12,000 tons of CO2 annually, but that Montreal produces about 14 million tons of CO2 per year. In other words, planting half a million trees over the next four years won’t amount to much other than making the city a little bit prettier (and raising property values). Tree planting in and of itself isn’t going to take care of our emissions problem — it needs to be done in concert with a number of other emissions-reduction tools — but it’s also a relatively simple and inexpensive way to start fixing the problem. A goal of two million new trees planted each year for the next two decades would result in just the new trees sucking about a million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere annually. As you can imagine, this is going to require hiring a hell of a lot of people to plant trees at breakneck speed, and will further require the city essentially telling homeowners to fork over part of their lawns to support the effort (as well as essentially planting whole new forests throughout the metropolitan region). It’s important to remember that this isn’t just about reducing our carbon footprint and achieving carbon neutrality either — we further need all these trees to eliminate heat islands and stabilize the water table as well.

5. Energy autonomy: Retrofitting our local power grid to increase self-sufficiency is another area Projet needs to move forward on, though in this case there’s an important advantage for Hydro Quebec and the Quebec government (something that may encourage them to help us out). In sum, the more we generate our own power, the more electricity Hydro can sell to neighbouring provinces and states, which means the greater number of people can benefit from the hydro power already generated in Quebec (negating the necessity of environmentally destructive expansions to our hydroelectric power generating system). There are other advantages to pursuing a program of installing solar panels and other types of renewable power generation just about everywhere we can in Montreal. With much of our local electrical infrastructure left exposed to the elements, Montrealers have to contend with major power outages with seemingly every storm and blizzard. Outages are costly. The increased likelihood of inclement weather that comes with climate change means the chances of being cut off from the James Bay hydro barrages also increases, and this is a problem we can largely avoid by requiring solar panel retrofitting on every residential building in the city. 

6. Food security: One of the signs we’re already dealing with the effects of a major climate disaster is that we’re experiencing supply issues, shortages and price fluctuations, all of which were happening before the pandemic exacerbated these problems. Food security isn’t usually thought of as a domain for cities to lead in, though it’s cities where food is produced and consumed, typically in excess of the caloric requirements of the local population. Despite this, and despite a long history of food processing, ours is not a food secure city. The city needs to come up with a plan and program for increasing local food security, and for a goal it can start by developing the urban agricultural infrastructure necessary to supply 100% of the food requirements of our food banks, shelters and any other program or service intended to help those among us who experience hunger. The idea here is to have the city make the initial investments in a large scale urban agriculture project, and once the needs of the most needy are met, then expand the operation to meet the needs of institutions (hospitals, schools boards, universities etc) before then providing surplus food to the general public. As the operation scales up in size, the theory is that this eventually drives costs down. That said, this can only be one part of a much larger strategy: to get to the point of meeting or exceeding Montreal’s daily caloric requirements, we’ll have to pursue every available opportunity for rooftop garden retrofitting, a massive expansion in community gardening, and potentially going as far as renting sections of people’s yards. We have a lot of large grass lawns in this city, all of which could be transformed for agricultural purposes. Urban shepherding programs, municipal chicken wranglers, urban apiarists—in sum, all manner of urban farmers would eventually be a necessary component of a broader food security initiative. We literally have an agricultural sciences college located on the island: the intellectual capital is already here, all we need is to make the space to transform the city into a massive agricultural project.

7. Flood mitigation: As residents of the West Island boroughs recently discovered, our flood maps are woefully out of date and a not insignificant chunk of suburbia may actually be located in flood zones. As far as I see it, there are two ways to deal with this problem, neither of which are cheap. One solution is to buy out every homeowner and give them a fair, pre-flood, market value for their homes, as well as the right of first refusal on a comparable home located nearby (though outside the flood zone) should they wish to remain. In turn, their former homes would be destroyed and the land they occupy would be re-engineered as swamps and/or forests, such that they could form natural flood management systems. The other solution it to build a massive levee around the edge of the island, coupled with a whole new system of pumps and something approximating the Tokyo Flood Control System. If we were to pursue this option, the rock and soil removed from building the gigantic subterranean flood control tanks could be recycled to build the levees. No matter what we do, this is an expensive undertaking, but the likelihood of ever more destructive floods destroying ever larger sections of the city is unfortunately growing with every year. The new administration can begin by updating all the island flood maps by itself (because we already know that the federal government seriously dropped the ball on this one) and figuring out what intervention will be the most effective. This isn’t the kind of project that’s going to elicit much enthusiasm, and we can expect even those people such a project would aim to protect may be opposed to it, but the necessity should nonetheless be evident: our city is built on an island prone to flooding, and climate change is going to make the likelihood of flooding and the severity of those floods much greater. Much like with all other types of infrastructure, we’ve historically done little more than the absolute bare minimum, and we’re very far behind in terms of what’s needed to catch up to present and anticipated future conditions.

8. Recycling: A story that fell off the radar from right before the pandemic was the closure of two recycling sorting facilities in Montreal, which was seemingly part of a larger crisis related to tectonic shifts in the global recycling economy. In sum, the countries we used to export recyclable materials to no longer want it. This news then led to the realization that Montreal wasn’t getting much recycling bang for its buck: the facilities we have aren’t quite up to the task of fully recycling all the apparently recyclable goods we send them, and citizens aren’t really doing a very good job doing their part in the process. The solution here is threefold: 1. Citizens must be compelled by whatever means necessary to properly sort recyclables and ensure against any kind of contamination (taxing garbage, issuing fines for contaminated recyclables and possibly even offering financial incentives to the households that issue the least amount of waste should all be implemented immediately); 2. The city needs to acquire the most advanced technologies necessary to ensure it can fully recycle all recyclable materials independently (we still can’t fully recycle glass) — the goal should be to have all the infrastructure necessary to complete the recycling cycle within our own city limits; 3. The city needs to incorporate junk, scrap and unwanted goods collection into its general recycling program, recuperating and fixing still usable goods and redistributing them to secondhand stores, charitable organizations etc. This all essentially leads to the same place: essentially the world’s largest recycling plant, a kind of reverse Amazon fulfillment centre.

Those are some of the bigger ideas I think the mairesse and her team need to start working on ASAP. Again, I can’t reiterate enough how they have absolutely nothing to lose. I won’t count this as a policy recommendation, but they absolutely should do all they can to bring Luc Ferrandez back into the fold, possibly as the city’s own climate change tzar. He was one of the very few who seemed to genuinely understand how dire the situation actually is, and he resigned on a matter of clear-eyed principle, standing down so that no one would assume Projet was leading on environmental and climate change issues. I strongly encourage you to read his resignation letter to get an idea of where his head was at back in the spring of 2019, well before the epic wildfires that have destroyed so much of the world over the last two years.

Again, just because we can’t fix the whole problem doesn’t mean we can’t do something meaningful to protect ourselves, and possibly mitigate the effects of the calamity at a local level. This is the job Projet Montréal must commit to. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.