Joe Biden motorcade Rome political class

The political class sees no problem with unnecessary mass pollution and police ops

“Politicians — a group of people well known for the near constant presence of their heads up their own asses — are exactly the kinds of people who would tell you to take the bus and turn down the thermostat to lower your carbon footprint, all while their motorcades and jumbo jets spew pollution and emissions far in excess of what most people will produce in their entire lifetimes.”

On Oct. 28, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to town and seemed to have brought the calvary with him. Videos circulated on social media showing a deserted street near the Jean Talon Market and an excessive police presence accompanying Blinken. 

This video shows Blinken’s SPVM-assisted motorcade as it passed by Square Victoria. There are more than 30 vehicles in the motorcade, including police cruisers and minivans, motorcycles, assorted light trucks, pickups and the black SUVs that presumably travel with the secretary wherever he goes. Traffic is blocked seemingly everywhere to clear the way.

Not only is it a massive police operation, it’s massively polluting, too. It isn’t just the fact that dozens of already carbon intensive vehicles are committed to these operations, it’s that they disrupt the normal flow of traffic everywhere they go, forcing cars to jam up and sit idling. Moreover, those armoured SUVs are extra heavy, meaning they’re even more carbon intensive than an ordinary large SUV. And if Blinken travels with his own caravan of specialized, Secret Service approved armoured SUVs, then they would have to be flown in to wherever they’re being used, on military transport planes that are typically exempt from any kind of ecological consideration.

Antony Blinken Montreal 2022
A fraction of the Antony Blinken motorcade in Montreal, Oct. 28, 2022.

Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden toured Rome in an 85-vehicle motorcade, on a trip that also involved five of the largest airplanes ever built, as well as helicopters. Biden’s European trip involved visiting several nations, and attending a climate change conference. One estimate suggests that the planes alone generated over two million pounds of carbon.

Now while Blinken doesn’t quite have the security detail of the American president, the fundamental problem remains the same: his presence in our city leaves a carbon footprint we have to pay for. And if he’s not covering the cost of his own security, that’s more money spent on his polluting, carbon-intensive security detail, a tab picked up by Canadian taxpayers that isn’t going to fighting the war on climate change.

I reached out to the RCMP to try to find out more information about who is covering these security costs and, after two weeks of “we’re working on it” email replies, I’m left without an answer. I also asked them if they have any idea how much carbon these security operations produce, and to that it also looks like they have no answer. Until they say otherwise, we might presume we have to pay these costs.

It is very nice to have important people from other countries come and visit, but there ought to be limits if these events require us to foot the bill for excess security operations and carbon emissions. Politicians — a group of people well known for the near constant presence of their heads up their own asses and talking out of both sides of their mouths — are exactly the kinds of people who would tell you to take the bus and turn down the thermostat to lower your carbon footprint, all while their motorcades and jumbo jets spew pollution and emissions far in excess of what most people will produce in their entire lifetimes.

Antony Blinken Mélanie Joly Montreal
Antony Blinken & Mélanie Joly in the Biosphere

Mairesse Plante is another one of those politicians who’s adept at saying all the right things while policy decisions point in the other direction. While I am sure she was thrilled to have Blinken in town, the problem is that she wasn’t telling him to take the bus or the metro while he’s here. I don’t think this is an absurd request either: it is absurd for another country’s foreign secretary to come here, dump a load of carbon, use our police force and leave us to pay any part of that bill.

Besides, we’re three years into the pandemic: he can’t meet with Mélanie Joly on some secure version of Zoom? He didn’t have to come here at all, and it’s not like he and his entourage are stimulating the tourism sector. We’d get more bang for our buck inviting the Rolling Stones to play the Olympic Stadium. It would leave less of a carbon footprint and cost less in policing.

The COP15 conference was another excellent example of the massive and growing cognitive dissonance of the capitalist political class when it comes to minimizing our carbon footprint. What they say and what they do are two very different things.

It borders on the absurd: to accommodate the COP15 conference, the police decided it was necessary — for security — to close a metro station (but not the highway running directly underneath the Palais des Congrès, mind you). 

Closing the metro station in turn required re-routing a bunch of bus lines, and the security perimeter around the site blocked normal traffic routes. None of this is great for the environment in and of itself, to say nothing of all the jet travel for all the delegates to get here, or the carbon footprint of these major events once everyone’s in town. It’s not just the traffic to and from the airport, or the hotels, to the convention site and back again. Think of the food, think of the food waste, think of the human waste, the water needs and water waste, the energy requirements to heat, house and feed perhaps as many as 20,000 people for nearly two weeks. A Bell Centre’s worth of people, living first-class lives 24 hours a day, for half a month, in Montreal, in December. 

I reached out to Environment Canada to see if they had made any attempt to determined how much of a carbon footprint COP15 would leave. They provided the following answer:

“In order to ensure COP15 is as green and sustainable as possible, the Government of Canada is working closely with all partners to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from hosting COP15 as much as possible. One of the measures the government is taking is to secure electric vehicles and promote public transportation for the event and associated activities as well as working with the venue, the Palais des Congrès, to reduce food waste and to eliminate single-use plastics. Once COP15 is over, the event will seek green certification from the Conseil québécois des événements écoresponsables (…) Greenhouse gas impacts will also be calculated after the event and Environment and Climate Change Canada will off-set greenhouse gases by purchasing carbon credits.”

Remember when I said politicians have their heads up their asses?

To begin with, any international conference that requires tens of thousands of people to travel internationally on airplanes isn’t reducing any greenhouse gases, but rather is providing a new reason to produce more. Not only that, but the VIP-level dignitaries will have police escorts to and from the airport. Like I mentioned above with regards to Blinken, those escorts aren’t exactly light on their carbon footprint.

Second, it’s hard to believe Environment Canada is promoting the use of public transit when the metro station that connects directly to the Palais des Congrès is closed for the entire duration of the conference. In addition, the conference centre is further closed off from the Underground City, and all the bus routes that have been re-routed as well. Not exactly encouraging, particularly for all the people coming in from out of town who may not know, as an STM spokesperson cheerfully told me, that the Palais des Congrès is close to several other stations. 

COP15 conference biodiversity
The COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal, Dec. 7–19, 2022.

Third, carbon offsets are, as Greenpeace describes it, a scam. It puts a price on nature, incentivizes corporations to commodify nature, and is opposed by major international Indigenous conservation and environmental groups. Irony is basically being brutally murdered when a conference on biodiversity, and one that has paid considerable lip service to Indigenous groups, plans on using carbon offsetting to settle their carbon debt. Once the event has happened, the carbon has already been released into the atmosphere. The damage has already been done, and 10,000 to 20,000 people living first class lifestyles at an international conference for three weeks is going to produce a lot of environmental damage. There’s no incentive for Environment Canada to come up with a thorough accounting of COP15’s carbon footprint — doing so will be another expense — nor is there any incentive to get the aforementioned green certification, because it doesn’t really mean anything.

It begs the question: even with an ostensibly forward-thinking, environmentally conscientious municipal government like Projet Montréal, are we even in control over who uses, and how they use, our streets, transit infrastructure, places and spaces? Does the desire of our city’s ruling class to make Montreal a perennial destination for the global elite outweigh the very real effects that presence has on climate change? Do our citizens have the right to go about their lives unmolested by the excessive security needs of the global elite? Do we have a right to charge them for the inconvenience and pollution they cause?

It’s nice to be a tourism destination, it’s nice to have people from all over the world come here and enjoy what we enjoy. It makes us feel good about ourselves, makes us feel important. Montreal’s elites have put considerable effort into making our city a globally significant destination for 60 years now, ever since we won the right to host the 1967 World’s Fair. We’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. And now, like then, the interests of the people who actually live here take a backseat to the interests of those who want to put on a good show for the people who don’t. 

Whose city is this, really? ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.