On Highway Emissions, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Mitchell Beer
road bridge - abdallahh/wikimedia commons

A better headline for this might be "EVs, Highways, and Pre-Election Squabbling" - Gene McGuckin

Feb. 18, 2024

Canada's environment minister stepped into an essential conversation on traffic, congestion, climate pollution, and highway funding. He got political theatre and sacrificial sound bites in return.

It’s going to be that much harder to get climate solutions done when no good deed goes unpunished.

That’s the harsh reality that Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault slammed up against on Monday when he had the temerity to utter a set of basic, provable facts.

That electrifying car travel is one tool in the toolbox but not a one-stop solution to get transportation emissions under control.

That highway expansions only fuel more traffic, congestion, and climate pollution, ultimately producing demands for the next new road or extra lane.

And that local urban planning is “hyper important” to the national effort to get energy and emissions under control.

The reaction was as fast, furious, and fact-free as you would expect, with opposition leader Pierre Poilievre preposterously claiming Wednesday that Guilbeault was “launching a war on cars”. Lost in the political theatre and sacrificial sound bites was something a lot bigger than the original remarks and Guilbeault’s hasty efforts to walk them back.

When you read the original Montreal Gazette account of his remarks, not the condensed and sensationalized versions that followed, you can glimpse a kind of evolution in Canada’s environmental politics. You see a senior cabinet minister making a serious, substantive case that urban sprawl and induced demand are big problems for sustainability and climate pollution—and that the federal government’s spending decisions can either ease those problems or make them worse.

Even if we haven’t quite reached a point where it was politically safe for that minister to say it out loud, some of the follow-up media analysis shows we may be closer than we think. But the prospects for honest dialogue and debate look slim as we endure a period of over-the-top partisanship leading into the next federal election.


No ‘False Utopias’

In the Gazette’s original story on Guilbeault’s spot at a Trajéctoire Québec event in Montreal, his comments on new highway construction were almost an afterthought. The headline news was his common sense caution that electric vehicles aren’t a panacea, that shifting transportation from internal combustion to EVs will only meet the country’s climate targets if it’s combined with transit and active transportation.

Relying too heavily on electrified transportation would be “an error, a false utopia that will let us down over the long term,” the minister warned.

As The Energy Mix reported earlier this week, that comment launched Guilbeault into an inventory of Ottawa’s investments in transit, walking, biking, and e-mobility, followed by a call for all levels of government to make the “hard decision” to stop expanding the road network.

“Our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure,” Guilbeault said. “Of course we will continue to be there for cities, provinces, and territories to maintain the existing network, but there will be no more envelopes from the federal government to enlarge the road network. The analysis we have done is that the network is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have. And thanks to a mix of investment in active and public transit, and in [land use] planning and densification, we can very well achieve our goals of economic, social, and human development without more enlargement of the road network.”

Guilbeault’s next words were a lifeline for anyone who’s ever fought the frustrating fight against needless urban sprawl that drives up the cost of municipal services, forces too many of us to spend too many hours each week in gridlocked traffic, increases emissions, and destroys precious natural spaces and arable land, even though “missing middle” development is well accepted as a practical alternative.

“There is the question of urban planning that is hyper important,” he told the conference. “If you are a decision-maker and you decide to build a government institution far from public transit systems, then by default you are inciting people to use their cars to access that public service. All of our planning practices have to be coherent with these mobility objectives, for the reduction of the ecological footprint of transportation and of greenhouse emissions.”

Context Is Everything

By Wednesday, Guilbeault was putting some guardrails around his original remarks and bringing them back to their original context. The Troisième Lien/Third Link project between Quebec City and Lévis has been generating local controversy for years, and Ottawa had declared it incompatible with national climate goals before the province’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government scaled it back to a transit-only tunnel, provoking tears and resignation threats from area cabinet ministers.

“Of course we’re funding roads. We have programs to fund roads,” Guilbeault told a mid-week media scrum. “We don’t have funds for large projects like the Troisième Lien that the CAQ has been trying to do for many years.”

By week’s end, Ottawa had announced $21.4 million for four roadway projects in Prince Edward Island, and Northwest Territories MP Michael McLeod had reaffirmed the government’s commitment to highway development in the Mackenzie Valley. That wider context made it pretty clear that no one was seriously suggesting a one-size-fits-all policy for every part of the country. Once the sound bites had been harvested and the alt-right media rage machine had been fed, we were left with the strangely practical notion that new highways can be both things: a real-world necessity for more spread-out, less densely-populated regions, and an unhealthy, carbon-heavy, needlessly expensive blight for the metropolitan areas where roughly 85% of Canadians live.

Guilbeault “would have been on firmer ground if he had limited his comments to specific construction proposals,” observes CBC senior writer Aaron Wherry. But the federal environment minister is “not the first person to question the wisdom of major new road construction at a time when reducing greenhouse gas emissions is supposed to be a pre-eminent priority.”

The Conversation We Needed to Have

Wherry’s post Saturday morning is an example of the conversation this conversation could have been. It sums up the problems with induced demand and details Canada’s history of funding transportation infrastructure of all kinds—from the 673 items on a map of federally-funded roads, bridges, and trade infrastructure, to a public transit tax credit introduced by the Stephen Harper government, which Poilievre somehow did not deem “anti-car” when it rolled out in 2008.

Another line of argument, this one from Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne, shows just how topsy-turvy the politics of the moment have become, with Conservatives essentially arguing for socialized federal highway spending while a Liberal government muses about ratcheting it back. Coyne focuses in on tolling and other forms of road pricing as an option to drive down congestion, ultimately concluding that “the starting point for more efficient use of existing roads is for governments to stop building new ones.”

And by no means is this conversation limited to Canada. In the United States, after decades of building and expanding a 220,000-mile/350,000-kilometre network of state and interstate highways, “some activists are fighting back—citing the future emissions of adding lanes and the devastation faced by communities razed to make way for them,” writes Shannon Osaka, a Grist magazine alumna now working from the Washington Post climate desk. A coalition of nearly 200 U.S. groups is calling for a national moratorium on highway expansions, she adds, “citing their environmental harm and the forced relocation of nearby low-income communities of colour.”

In direct contrast to the narratives we’ve seen in Canada this week, the Biden administration is under fire—not for trying to rein in its highway network, but for devoting only about three-quarters of the US$350 billion in highway funding under its 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to maintenance and repair of existing roads, with the remainer still earmarked for new highways and expansions.

“We continue to spend significant amounts of money at the federal level and at the state level expanding our highway networks,” Frontier Group senior policy analyst Tony Dutzik told the Post. “Given the climate issues that we are already facing—and the fact that we are already building out a massive highway network around the country—I think it’s legitimate to ask whether that’s the right set of priorities.”

Back in Quebec, the Troisième Lien/Third Link, which was originally meant to have four lanes for cars and two for buses, keeps sounding like a poster child for everything wrong with big highway projects. Even after the CAQ scaled it back, it continues to raise concerns about uncontrolled development, impacts on established neighbourhoods, the fate of a protected heritage site, and an imbalance between government investments in transit and highways. The Non au Troisième Lien coalition says the original C$9.45-billion price tag attached to the project—which it estimated at $200,000 per eventual user—could have paid for 108 years of free transit across the region, 84,000 community housing spaces, 978 new schools across the province, or 39 new hospitals.

Stop and Imagine

So let’s pause for a minute and imagine some alternate universe where critics and supporters of Steven Guilbeault’s original statement had piled in with facts and evidence, pro and con, rather than fanciful interpretations meant to polarize the conversation and shut down debate.

What if we had spent the week having a grown-up conversation about one of the more promising but challenging aspects of a national decarbonization plan, rather than scoring a few political points and calling it a day?

I know it’s naïve—okay, fine, deliberately naïve—to expect anything better from a political arena tainted by years of polarization, trolling, and online algorithms built to drive fear and outrage, rather than hope and common ground.

But if elected officials (some more than others) aren’t prepared to dial it back, that means it’s up to the rest of us to bring the conversation back to the things we hold in common. We know we all want our communities to be healthy and safe, to be prosperous and function well—whether that means building transit in Quebec City, adding walking and bike paths in Montreal, or making sure Fort McMurray, Alberta, has more than one exit route the next time a wildfire forces the community to evacuate.

That shift in focus will do more than tone down a level of rhetoric and rage that is bringing the country to the brink of political violence. It’s also far better ground for discussing the practical, front-line climate and energy solutions that will help us all build the communities we need and want, faster and better.

[Top photo: abdallahh/wikimedia commons]