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Montreal and the climate crisis: A blueprint for the future

“The CAQ hasn’t the slightest clue what Montreal’s current transit needs are, let alone what they might be in a city that could easily be car-free within a decade.”

I write regularly on environmental issues for DeSmog, and much of my reporting  focuses on the oil industry (and their political enablers), and how neither of these groups have the slightest idea what a post-fossil fuel world is going to look like.

This is more than a little peculiar for a few reasons, not least of which is that Big Oil has a lot of capital and has already taken care of rebranding themselves as ‘energy’ suppliers, rather than oil companies. If anyone could make the switch, it’s them. 

I find it odd as well given how much science fiction and speculative fiction is either based on the idea of a dystopian future without fossil fuels, or an ideal future in which we’ve overcome our dependency on fossil fuels and are better off for it. It is as though we’ve already identified the problem, and we’ve also imagined a better future, but are still apparently stuck in a rut.

Perhaps because of this lack of imagination, I often find myself thinking about what Montreal might be like in the not so distant future, if Montrealers forced their city to commit to being as climate-change resilient as possible. Though the collective political  inaction of the last few decades likely means our planet is already well past the point of no return in terms of avoiding serious disruptions caused by anthropogenic climate change, this obviously doesn’t mean there’s not still going to be a hell of a lot of work to do to minimize the coming disaster. 

Cities will be put in a unique position because of this: being centres of industrial activity and emissions, they have an important responsibility to lead on emissions reductions. Because they’re population centres — and usually densely populated centres at that — they can lead on emissions reductions with improvements to public transit, as an example.

On the other side of the equation, cities are disadvantaged in a few important ways. Lacking agricultural lands, cities have an important food security vulnerability — a key concern given how climate-change-related droughts, storms and bad harvests will seriously impact global supply chains as much as the ports needed to support trade. Moreover, cities like Montreal lack the means to generate the funds they need to support the services their populations depend on, as much as develop the infrastructure they need to mitigate the effects of climate change. Compounding this fact are provincial governments, much like our own, that have essentially leveraged political divisions in cities — as much as provincialist, populist, retrograde, anti-city, anti-tax rhetoric — into an effective campaign platform. This is as true of Montreal as Toronto, Vancouver or Edmonton as it is of New York City, Chicago or San Francisco.

First things first

Montreal already has a few things going for it that might give us a leg up when it comes to mitigating the climate crisis. For one, we have access to cheap, renewable, plentiful hydroelectricity. Second, we have a comparatively well-developed public transit system and have aggressively pursued the development of bike lanes, further driving down car dependence. Third, we have desirable inner suburbs, and, at least until recently, strong protections for renters that have kept housing comparatively inexpensive. 

This is a great foundation to work off of.

If the city were to focus on mitigating the effects of climate change, this foundation has to be protected and expanded upon. Our first set of priorities would have to focus on these items more than anything else.

This means fighting back against newly-minted Hydro-Québec CEO (and well-known privateer) Michael Sabia’s plan to raise rates on hydropower. Rather than selling that comparatively cheap energy to the Americans or for battery factories (or, god forbid, crypto mining), Montreal’s going to have to stake its claim to inexpensive renewable energy as part of our own plan to fully electrify transport, home heating and industrial applications. 

That said, if Sabia’s willing to work with us to increase our own energy security and independence—such as by building and expanding wind farms throughout the Lower Saint Lawrence River Valley, and retrofitting Montreal buildings with solar power panels — we would then require less energy from the James Bay hydro dams, which could then be sold for both a tidy profit as much as the decarbonization of other places’ energy needs.

What’s the city doing right on this file? 

Banning the use of heating oil, natural gas and propane in new buildings, as was announced recently, is a good step forward. That said, eliminating fossil fuels from existing buildings will be the bigger and more meaningful challenge, and replacing these energy systems with renewable electricity (or other energy sources) is crucial to taking a big bite out of the city’s emissions.

While Montreal needs to push hard on the means to generate its own revenue (outside of property tax increases) to pay for what Quebec City won’t, one area to focus on will be transit funding. As Geneviève Guilbault has amply demonstrated, the CAQ hasn’t the slightest clue what Montreal’s current transit needs are, let alone what they might be in a city that could easily be car-free within a decade. Montreal will simply not work with a metro that closes at 11 p.m., nor with fewer bus lines, buses to operate on them or bus drivers. I don’t know what planet Guilbault lives on, but it increasingly doesn’t seem like Earth, especially not an Earth threatened by climate change. That Guilbault thinks Quebec City should play any further role in administering how we spend money on transit is all the more reason to reject them entirely. Guilbault seems to be coming from the vantage point that transit needs to turn a profit, which any transit planner will tell you is a recipe for defeat and disaster. Transit is a public service, and profit shouldn’t even enter into the conversation.

So Montreal is going to have to pull out all the stops to secure far more funding for public transit. It’s ironic that Mayor Plante brought up Habs games and the Grand Prix when talking about the need for public transit; not only are these terrible examples given how many Montrealers depend on transit to get to and from work and everywhere else their lives take them, but it’s precisely the municipal subsidies to these events that would have to go in order to fully fund public transit.

And as much as we’ll need to expand our transit system to fully replace cars, transit expansion can’t reasonably occur if we’re unable to run the systems we have. Playing hardball with the province might be the only option: suspending municipal participation in the REM, which is supposed to provide Quebec City with an annual return on its investment, might need to be considered. 

It might seem like a drastic measure, but we need to consider just how much of our city’s CO2 emissions (as well as the national carbon footprint related to oil production consumed by its second largest metropolis) come from the continued use of combustion engines. If we’re operating from the perspective of reducing our carbon footprint as quickly as possible, as much as making as big of a contribution to cutting emissions nationally, it’s clear fossil-fuelled cars need to go as soon as possible. And while there’s been great progress made with EVs in recent years, the transition isn’t happening fast enough. 

The goal in this respect is relatively simple: transit has to be developed such that it provides the most efficient means of getting between any two points in the metro region, at any time of day during the week. Policy makers and our leaders at City Hall need to be working backwards from that goal.

Sustainability, self-sufficiency, security  

Montreal future climate crisis
Montreal and the climate crisis: A blueprint for the future

There are many other things that need to be done to best prepare our city for a potentially rocky future of climate chaos, but exactly what we need to do is essentially shaped by three considerations: sustainability, self-sufficiency and security.

Considering the issue of security, the first and most important thing to do will be to buttress Montreal against flooding, which could happen due to rising ocean levels as much as increased river water levels due to high winter snow accumulation. Add to that torrential rains from freak storms in the summer months, something we’re seeing more and more frequently. This points to a set of potential solutions, including everything from building berms along the rivers and lakes that surround the island in flood-prone areas, to building “swampland parks” in the same areas, the latter of which would increase groundwater retention.

The city is already moving in this direction, with planned and promised sponge parks and sponge sidewalks specifically designed to mitigate these problems. While that’s the good news, the bad news is that this isn’t quite happening on the scale that will be needed — only 30 parks and 400 sidewalks are currently on the books — and is further largely limited to the city proper. Climate change doesn’t care about municipal boundaries, so a water management strategy for the metro region needs to be developed.

Moreover, it seems the city isn’t developing this from the vantage point of an overall flood mitigation strategy. Speaking to CBC Montreal, mechanical engineering professor Amar Sabih said the city ought to be prioritizing areas with histories of flooding, and that sponge parks and sidewalks must go hand in hand with revamped sewer systems. This contradicted the city’s position, which seemed to be that the sponge parks are more effective and efficient than underground infrastructure. 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to get municipal politicians to get serious about sewers and large underground water retention systems. It’s not ‘sexy,’ and most people don’t really understand how it impacts their lives, irrespective of the fact that most of us would prefer to not live in a city of shit-soaked streets every time it rains.

I don’t think it will be possible to properly secure our city against rising water levels and a greater frequency of torrential rainstorms without developing some rather sophisticated and expansive underground infrastructure, including massive stormwater collection reservoirs. That said, it’s not without potential uses. All the earth and rock removed from such systems could be re-used elsewhere, whether it’s to build berms, extend the shoreline with new parks, or create new island parks in the river.

Maintaining our current quality of life will be difficult in a future where the supply chains we depend on are either no longer available or seriously compromised. To address this problem, we’re going to have to become far more self-sufficient. I already mentioned retrofitting with new solar panels and wind farms to increase our energy security, but it’s food security that will pose the greater problem. While Montreal is in the midst of a large agricultural region, most of what’s grown locally isn’t going directly to our plates. The city will have little option but to get into the business of growing our food if we can’t orchestrate a re-orientation of local agriculture to primarily support local food consumption. Some combination of the two will likely be needed.

Fortunately, with ample water resources and plentiful cheap renewable energy, Montreal could work towards a degree of food security relatively quickly. Urban agriculture makes a lot of sense here, and we’ve already got a toehold of sorts, with both private enterprises already in business, as well as a premier agricultural college out in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. The city is moving in the right direction, having issued an urban agriculture strategy earlier this year. But to get it to the point of providing full food security, this will have to be extended with just about as many rooftop gardens and backyard chicken coops as we have space for. Crucially, there’s a lot more land for urban agriculture out in the suburbs (most of which was built on what was once farmland). Meeting our city’s daily caloric requirements from hyperlocal sources will require a whole new level of cooperation with the suburbs, but on the plus side it may mean the end of boring grass lawns.

Along the same lines of sustainability and self-sufficiency, we’re basically going to have to get recycling and composting down to an exact science, minimizing the amount of trash we generate as much as maximizing the re-use of whatever we once considered waste. If the city takes a leading role in urban agriculture, it should go all in on urban composting as well, ensuring that the average citizen has every opportunity imaginable to compost their biodegradable waste, and further knows all that can biodegrade. A strong public education program would have to be a part of this effort.

Recycling would have to become a wholly new affair as well. I can imagine an absolutely massive facility that wouldn’t simply separate paper from plastic, but would actually be involved in returning recyclables almost to their elemental state. A city that aims to recycle absolutely everything that can be recycled would necessarily seek to reduce consumption of new goods as well, so refurbishing, repairing, and re-using would have to be integrated into the broader strategy. Imagine a revived schmatte sector making new clothes from old, carpenters refurbishing old furniture, electricians repairing old toasters and microwaves. If you’ve walked through the student ghettoes at the end of the school year, you’ve seen just how much still-usable junk gets left on the sidewalk. Imagine city workers carting that off to be recycled — and lowering our carbon footprint as a consequence of lower consumption. It would be a gigantic operation for a city our size, but well worth the cost if it lowers emissions while simultaneously providing insurance against disruptions to global supply chains caused by climate change.

This is all just the tip of the proverbial (and rapidly melting) iceberg. Actually, I think there’s a book in here: a blueprint for a future Montreal. But it’s not fiction, or even speculation at this point. Climate change is happening now, and the cities of the future won’t be livable unless bold actions are taken. The question is only whether Montrealers think their city is worth saving, and what they’re willing to do to ensure it survives even if other cities don’t. The future might be rough, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a dystopia. We’re already ahead of the curve in certain important respects. Let’s make sure all we’ve accomplished isn’t wasted. ■

This article was originally published in the November issue of Cult MTL.

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.