Since the beginning of the new year, Quebec's departments of Environment and Transportation have demonstrated that their management of the province's Green Fund is opaque and characterized by improvisation. The ever more apparent lack of economic and environmental vision is striking.
The Green Fund, like the Generations Fund, is a crafty accounting tool. It is meant to ensure that money collected from polluters is reinvested within the same industry to make it greener. For example, duties taken from the operators of landfill sites (26% of the Green Fund) must be reinvested in a related area—the municipal action plan to reduce waste, for instance.
However, since the Green Fund receives 70% of its funding from the carbon exchange and the duty on fossil fuels and other combustibles ($830 million in 2015), it must reinvest in the transportation sector. Since 2013, 66% of that total has typically gone to public transportation.
This might seem like news to those familiar with public transportation in Quebec: services are on a downward slope both in Montreal and in the rest of the province. Indeed, for the time being, the government has been using the money available to sprinkle subsidies throughout various nebulous public-transportation-related programs, without creating a real, concrete policy with the aim to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. But it gets worse: we now know that the department of Transportation uses the Green Fund to pay off its highway investment debts.
Environment Minister David Heurtel can fight like the devil, promising to review the management of the Green Fund, but he has no credibility left on the issue. The government has known about the Green Fund problems since 2014.
At the time, the Sustainable Development Commissioner's very first remark on the Fund stated that the department "has not determined specific objectives for some of the Green Fund’s activity sectors, which makes directing actions and assessing results difficult" (p. 19). He added that "objectives for certain MDDEFP and MTQ [Departments of Environment and Transportation] projects are neither specific nor measurable".
The places where funds end up make absolutely no sense. The government seems to think it's fair to give out $6 million to billionaire oil companies or $800,000 to Air Canada using revenue raised from payments made by drivers and profits from the cap-and-trade system. Why would Green Fund administrators come up with such outrageous decisions? Let's question their motives.
I believe these misguided subsidies are attempts to cajole the Fund's most important donors: car-driven and oil-spending industries. They can argue all they want, claiming that in the short term the subsidies will decrease the amount of pollution they release, and therefore that Quebec will benefit from them: they still won't solve the problem of oil dependency in the transportation sector.
In fact, to truly meet our greenhouse gas emission targets in addition to serving the economic interests of Quebec, we must free ourselves from the greatest polluters in the world instead of offering them money. If that seems hard to imagine, we must remember that funding a truly concerted policy geared towards investing into public transportation, instead of scattering scraps in various projects, would have a incredibly positive impact on Quebec's economy. However, it means alienating car companies and road builders in Quebec, and that requires vision and political courage.
Bertrand Schepper is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.