Electric cars are among many needed solutions to Canada’s environmental problems, but they are far from a panacea, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday at a public transportation conference in Montreal.
“We need to stop thinking that electric cars will solve all our problems,” said Guilbeault, who was the keynote speaker at a fundraising luncheon at the Westin Montreal via live video from Ottawa. The event was organized by public transportation advocacy group Trajectoire Québec and brought together some 250 key players in the fields of public transportation, municipal policy, energy and the environment.
Guilbeault said that overestimating the ability of electric transportation to solve climate change and other environmental crises would be “a mistake, a false utopia that will disappoint us in the long term.”
Guilbeault noted that about a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. While his government supports vehicle electrification, he has also been investing heavily in other programs and plans to get Canadians out of private cars and onto public transportation or active forms of transportation.
He said the Liberal government has committed $30 billion to developing public transportation since 2016, and has announced the country’s first recurring financing program for public transportation projects, which will provide $3 billion per year for projects starting in 2026. The Liberal government also introduced an Active Fund Transportation Fund in 2021, investing $400 million in projects that encourage walking, cycling and the use of wheelchairs, scooters, electric bikes, skates, snowshoes and cross-country skiing. Funded projects include multi-use pathways, bike lanes, pedestrian bridges across highways, new lighting, signage and communication that encourage active transportation.
In addition to financing these types of projects, all levels of government must make the difficult decision to stop expanding the road network, he said. Adding more roads and new lanes on existing roads has been shown to encourage more car use, which means more congestion and more calls for road expansion, he said.
“Our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure. Of course, we will still be there for cities, provinces and territories to maintain the existing network, but there will be no more funding from the federal government to expand the highway network. The analysis we have done is that the network is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have. And thanks to a combination of investment in active and public transport, and in territorial planning and densification, we can very well achieve our economic, social and human development objectives without further expansion of the road network.”
He said money that in the past was regularly invested in asphalt and concrete for the ever-expanding road network is better spent on projects that will help combat climate change and adapt to its impacts.
Eve Riopel agrees with Guilbeault on the need to go beyond the idea that electric cars will solve all environmental problems. Riopel is an applied doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of a paper published last week by the Quebec Association of Physicians for the Environment, which calls on Quebec to update its air pollution standards to reflect scientific knowledge current.
For example, the article points out that small particle pollution, or PM 2.5, is a pollutant that harms human health much more than previously thought. Small particles, which are emitted by industry, wood-burning vehicles and gas, among other sources, cause cancer and increase the risk of premature death due to cardiovascular and respiratory events and stroke. A Health Canada study published last year estimated that this type of pollution was associated with around 2,300 premature deaths in Quebec in 2015.
Riopel’s report was published last week with the support of the Collège des médecins du Québec and 13 other associations representing health professionals in Quebec. He noted that tightening anti-pollution rules for vehicles and new requirements for cleaner gas have reduced the amount of small particulate pollutants emitted by newer vehicles. However, about 60 percent of small particle pollution from gasoline-powered vehicles does not actually come from their exhaust pipes, but from brake friction, tire friction, and road dust. the road surface that rises as vehicles travel. And that source of emissions will be even worse with electric vehicles, he notes, because their batteries make them heavier than gasoline vehicles.
“We think that if we switch to electric cars, everything will be fine, but it won’t be like that,” Riopel said in an interview. “That is something we have to be aware of, as it could be a very important tool to justify decisions to promote active and public transportation.”
Guilbeault, for his part, said he is impressed by the Quebec municipal sector’s passion for public transportation projects. “Sometimes it’s at the provincial government level where things go a little bit wrong, but in Quebec things are going pretty well,” he said, mentioning his support for the REM, as well as the planned expansion of the Metro’s Blue Line and the trolley car. project in Quebec City.
He said it is crucial that urban and regional planners take into account the necessary shift towards public and active transport, rather than simply planning charging stations for electric cars.
“The solution to mobility will not only be through electrification. Electrification is a component but it is not the only one. There is the question of urban planning which is very important. …If you are a decision maker and you decide to build a government institution away from public transportation systems, then by default you are encouraging people to use their cars to access that public service. “All our planning practices must be consistent with these mobility objectives, to reduce the ecological footprint of transportation and greenhouse gas emissions.”
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