Quebec emits fewer greenhouse gases on a per person basis than any other province in Canada. This is largely because most of our electricity is hydro-generated, whereas other provinces depend more heavily on coal and natural gas.
While our low emission rate has made us the envy of many developed economies, whether it is attributable to good fortune or our ability in the 1970s to foresee today's climate problems is open to some debate.
But the consequence is that, whereas the whole of Canada now produces 25 per cent more greenhouse gases than in the Kyoto Protocol base year of 1990, Quebec's emissions have changed not at all. Environment Canada indicates we produced 90 megatonnes of carbon dioxide then, and we produce the same amount today.
In essence, the growth in our gross provincial product since 1990 without a corresponding growth in greenhouse gases means our energy efficiency has improved. At the other extreme, Alberta's surge in oil and gas production now sees it producing more greenhouse gases than Ontario, with only one-third of the latter's population.
We now are now a few days away before a crucial meeting of the world's nations in Copenhagen, whose objective is to set feasible targets for greenhouse gas reductions. The occasion was used by Premier Jean Charest to announce Quebec would adopt an ambitious program of greenhouse gas reduction between now and 2020; his target is a 20-per-cent decline in such emissions.
The principal components of this plan appear to be a gasoline tax in the neighbourhood of 12 cents per litre, coupled with extensive investment in public transit.
Quebec cannot rely on such a program alone to achieve a 20-per-cent reduction, however. An array of market-based measures will be required if such an ambitious goal is to be attained. Here's why:
The macro reason: Transportation is responsible for less than one-quarter of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, and this includes commercial transportation. Environment Canada data indicate that private vehicle transportation accounts for 20 megatonnes of Quebec's total of 90 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per annum.
So, the arithmetic is simple: a 20-per-cent reduction in the total of 90 megatonnes requires a cut of 18 megatonnes. Clearly, this cannot be achieved by concentrating on private vehicles and public transportation investment. It would require a 90-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gases in this sector!
It should be borne in mind that even optimistic projections on electric vehicle usage envisage a very small market share for them by 2020.
The micro reason: Suppose a public transport infrastructure investment program is implemented. What percentage of private traffic might we reasonably get off the road? The answer: not a lot, and the reason is well known to transportation experts.
Should an improved public transit system induce some drivers to forsake their private vehicles, the reduction in congestion will invite other people to use their vehicles, because the time costs of private transportation are reduced - unless, that is, we further increase the costs of using a private vehicle.
An additional 12 cents per litre might cost a commuter 50 cents per day, but these costs are heavily dominated by commuting time costs. And as soon as time costs fall, private vehicles will take to the road.
In sum, while many environmentalists view a successful foray against private vehicles as an answer to high greenhouse gas emissions, the reality is that such private modes of transportation are but one component of total emissions.
If we deem it desirable to attain a reduction of 18 megatonnes of CO2 by 2020, such a goal will be attained only by reducing emissions across the board with the use of market-based carbon taxes or cap-and-trade permit systems.
Across the board means the manufacturing sector, the service sector, the real estate sector, the government sector and, yes, even agriculture (responsible for about nine per cent of our greenhouse gases) will have to play a role.
There is no simple solution to be found in pumping money into public transit unless it is part of a broad-based plan that includes a cost-benefit analysis and a serious financing component.
Ian Irvine is a professor of economics at Concordia University and a fellow of the Montreal Economics Institute.