Quebec’s ‘Plan vert’ is both an ambitious environmental agenda and an exercise in economic nationalism

Quebec Premier Francois Legault slips on his mask after announcing his government’s green plan flanked by Environment Minister Benoit Charette during a news conference in Montreal on Monday, November 16, 2020. The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault says the province’s new environmental plan will be “a winner for Quebec and a winner for the planet.” 

The Plan vert is almost certainly a winner for Quebec—or, at least, for those Quebec companies who are set to reap the plan’s green-tinged windfall. That’s because, in calling for a petrol-free future, Legault’s CAQ government also says that the pieces of this massive restructuring should be as made-in-Quebec as possible. The government “will support Quebec industries linked to the electrification of the economy and the fight against climate change,” reads the Plan.

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Talking Point

The Quebec government says its ‘Plan vert’ will revolutionize the province’s energy infrastructure so as to meet the goal of a 37.5 per cent reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990s levels. Economically speaking, it is also a profoundly nationalist document, with built-in ‘Made in Quebec’ provisions designed to favour local companies. “We’ve let it be known from the beginning that whether it’s Lion Electric or Bombardier or, say, Novabus, there will be requirements for local content in the request for proposals,” said Quebec environment minister Benoit Charette.

Introduced Monday, the five-year, $6.7-billion ‘Plan vert’ reiterates the goal set by the previous Liberal government in 2015 of reducing the province’s greenhouse gas emissions to 37.5 per cent below its 1990 levels. The government plans to do so with a dizzying raft of measures, from fleet electrification to building retrofits to battery recycling to the production of renewable natural gas.

And it puts into ink a pledge to bar the sale of new gas-powered automobiles by 2035—five years sooner than British Columbia’s 2040 pledge. Quebec’s precedent will nudge other provinces to do the same, said Quebec environment minister Benoit Charette. 

“We didn’t want to be the only ones in the world to institute a 2035 deadline, so we looked to what was happening in Europe, where this deadline is becoming commonplace. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a similar deadline from other Canadian provinces in the coming months,” Charette said in an interview with The Logic.

The Plan vert will benefit the cohort of Quebec firms that have positioned themselves to capitalize on society’s green transformation. Consider the electrification of transportation, which accounts for over half of the Plan’s price tag. A $350-million tranche of this is dedicated to the electrification of school buses. 

Lion Electric is one of the first companies to build fully electric buses, and has sold 300 of its models in the U.S. and Canada since it started doing so in 2016. According to PitchBook data, the privately held St. Jérôme-based company’s last round of funding came in an undisclosed amount from Power Energy Corporation, the renewable and green energy subsidiary of Power Corporation—the holding company controlled by the province’s influential Desmarais family. Lion recently announced the sale of 10 electric delivery trucks to Amazon, its highest-profile success to date. And while several companies offer zero-emissions school buses, Lion Electric is the only Quebec company positioned to fulfill the province’s demand.

“Many people are happy that Joe Biden won over Donald Trump because he’s going to favour the green economy. But a Biden government is going to be protectionist, and it was about time that the Quebec government did the same thing,” said Lion Electric vice-president Patrick Gervais, who notes that 75 per cent of their school bus components are Canadian. 

Other entities will inevitably benefit from the Plan’s Quebec-first mantra. The Legault government wants Hydro-Québec to become the “battery” of the north east; for this, and other programs, the government-owned hydroelectricity utility is at the receiving end of just over $1.1 billion. Énergir, the province’s natural gas distributor owned in part by Calgary-based Enbridge, will receive $212.5 million to develop its renewable natural gas program

While the Plan vert explicitly identifies some of the corporate targets of its investment, in some of its broad promises it leaves room for the imagination. To support its goal of getting 1.5 million electric vehicles on Quebec roads by 2030, the government pledges to “step up efforts to establish electric vehicle charging stations in big cities and in the regions.” EV infrastructure is a sector that could benefit from the desire for made-in-Quebec solutions—and coincidentally, one in which the province has already cultivated a champion. 

Just last month, the provincial public pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and Investissement Québec, the provincial government’s investment arm, participated in a $53-million Series C fundraising round in AddEnergie. With its headquarters in Quebec City and a manufacturing facility in Shawinigan, AddEnergie has built a network of over 30,000 charging stations across North America, including in cities like L.A. and Toronto. The pension and Investissement Quebec have long been in the practice of investing to build the province’s emerging industries, and both had invested in the company’s previous rounds.

 “This investment aligns with our strategic priorities,” said the Caisse’s Kim Thomassin, Executive Vice-President and Head of Investments in Québec and Stewardship Investing, when the Series C was announced. “Not only does it support a Québec company’s international expansion, it allows us to increase our holdings in low-carbon assets, which is a benefit to everyone.”

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The synergy between the government’s ambitions, the Caisse and Investissement Quebec position the province well for a global economy continuing its trend towards protectionism. “We’ve let it be known from the beginning that whether it’s Lion Electric or Bombardier or, say, Nova Bus”—a St. Eustache-based Volvo subsidiary developing electric buses—“there will be requirements for local content in the request for proposals. This benefits all of Canada, not just Quebec, because this applies to the whole country,” Charette said. 

Quebec’s protectionist bent is perhaps surprising, given Legault’s recent criticism of the U.S. government’s Buy American Act. “I don’t think this sort of measure is good, either for American companies or Canadian companies,” Legault said in February while on a trade mission to Washington. 

Yet his government said the economic nationalism inherent in the Plan vert is well within the law. “All these measures are developed and applied in compliance with international trade commitments,” said Caroline Cloutier of the province’s environment ministry.