News & Events

Suggestions on how Montreal can reduce its carbon footprint

January 5, 2016

What can Montreal do to lower the amount of planet-warming greenhouse gases it emits?

The island metropolis of 1.9 million people is among thousands that have promised to reduce its carbon emissions for the good of the planet.

Their commitment is crucial, as it’s estimated the world’s densely populated cities consume two-thirds of the energy produced on the planet, and are responsible for 70 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Montreal has pledged to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases it emits to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. It has its work cut out — by 2012, seven years after its initial goals were first set, levels had dropped to only six per cent below 1990 levels.

Starting in late October, Montreal’s independent public consultation bureau organized a series of information sessions and public meetings and canvassed ideas online to collect the public’s input on how to decrease the city’s use of fossil fuels.

To get an idea of what a city like Montreal can do, in its actions and regulations to cut its emissions, the Montreal Gazette spoke to two local experts: McGill professor Catherine Potvin, the Canada research chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests, and member of the Sustainable Canada Dialogues network of researchers, and Concordia professor Peter Stoett, director of the university’s Loyola Sustainability Research Centre.

In addition, C40 Cities, a global network of 80 large cities that consults and researches on addressing climate change, provided examples of what measures are being used in other cities.


In Montreal, 39 per cent of the carbon gas emissions are generated by transportation. Potvin and Stoett see the solution lying not so much in a mass conversion to electric cars, but in the redesign of cities to lessen dependence on vehicles.

“We have to move toward carless cores,” said Stoett. “A lot of cities like London and others have taken great steps to make sure they’re reducing traffic downtown and cutting some streets right off, like Sparks St. in Ottawa. I don’t think closing parts of Ste-Catherine St. would create an economic disaster.”

London’s congestion tax of $24 (CDN) to drive into the central part of the city cut traffic by 20 per cent, the equivalent of 75,000 vehicles, and is credited with helping it cut carbon emissions by 16 per cent over the last decade, even as the city’s population grew by one million. The tax has raised over $2.4 billion, most of which was used to improve the city’s bus system.

“The city has to rethink itself,” Potvin said. “Cities have to be denser, but also with more green spaces and neighbourhood access to everything (like food shopping and recreational facilities) where people can walk or bike to get the shopping.”

Montreal already has a good public transit system, and perhaps the best bicycle lane network and bike sharing system in North America, despite our harsh winters, Potvin notes. To coerce more people to take up cycling and public transit, the biking system needs to be made safer, and buses have to be either more plentiful so people don’t have to wait more than 10 minutes, or be equipped with GPS locating systems so people will know when the next one is arriving at their bus stop, Potvin said. (In mid-December, Montreal pledged to have a GPS system in place by next autumn.) Electric trolley buses, once common in the city, should be reintroduced on busy routes because they run on relatively clean energy, Potvin said.

And fleets of taxis, delivery cars and municipal vehicles should be electric, with the aid of government loans, so the population gets used to the idea. In Oslo, 15 pent cent of people are using electric cars due to government tax incentives. Cities like Montreal could offer free parking for electric cars to spur use.


In Copenhagen, the government has started retrofitting buildings by adding insulation to the outside of structures, to avoid costly and cumbersome interior reconstruction. Residential and commercial buildings in cities account for more than one third of carbon gas emissions in most North American cities, primarily because of the use of fossil fuels used to heat or cool them.

Universities and schools have a large role to play in both promoting and developing new strategies, and in influencing the adults of tomorrow to think green early. Concordia placed photovoltaic solar energy panels within its John Molson School of Business façade downtown to generate heat and electricity. Installed in 2008, it was the largest such panel of its kind in Quebec at the time.

“Leading by example is a key point,” Stoett said.

Stoett suggests school boards be encouraged to install green roofs on their schools to absorb carbon, limit heat island effects and soak up storm water so sewage systems will be less likely to overflow into the St. Lawrence, but also as an example to the young students. But due to the costs involved, there has to be some form of government incentives. The technology is budding in Montreal, slowly. The first-city owned building to have a green roof was the Côte-des-Neiges library, in 2007.

Toronto launched the Eco-Roof Incentive Program in 2009, providing grants for building owners who install green roofs covered with plants, and for cool roofs that reflect solar heat. As of January 2014, Toronto had helped fund 112 projects, saving energy consumption and diverting 106 tonnes of greenhouse gases and 8.7 million litres of storm water from sewers, C40 Cities reported.

In Montreal’s greenhouse gas reduction plan 2013-2020, improving the energy efficiency of buildings, and replacing oil with electric heating in commercial and residential buildings are two of the city’s top priorities.

“There’s been an increase in switching from oil in Montreal, but mostly to natural gas,” Potvin said. “People have to be convinced to switch to electricity, because people don’t switch their heating systems twice.”


Most of these incentives require cash, something municipalities who rely on property taxes for revenues will tell you they’re short on.

“In the large heat islands that cities represent, there are areas where the federal government has an obligation to modernize infrastructure in an environmental way,” Stoett said. He sees great potential in urban agriculture, as well as the practice of “wilding” in which unused industrial spaces are allowed to revert to nature, promoting biodiversity. The Leslie Street Spit in Toronto, a 5-kilometre peninsula of land jutting into Lake Ontario near downtown has become a cyclists’, walkers’ and birders’ paradise, at little cost, Stoett noted.

Another method is called the “pay as you save” program common in the United States, wherein, for example, a building owner will get a government loan to retrofit his building to make it more energy efficient. Then the owner uses the savings he or she generates on heating or air conditioning to pay off the loan. The same incentive could be used to encourage taxi companies or pizza chains to buy fleets of electric cars, using gas savings to pay off their loans.

Sell yourself

Montreal is actually a very green city comparatively, thanks to its well-used public transit system, heavy use of hydro-electricity (Most other major cities rely on heavily polluting coal or oil to fill their energy needs), best bike path network in North America and solid carbon-depletion strategy, Potvin says. We are better than Vancouver, she finds, but you would never know it because Vancouver has done a much better job of painting itself green and promoting that image. In return, Vancouver attracts industries working in green technologies.

Communities like Mile End and Rosemont are being studied around the world as examples of self-contained, walkable neighbourhoods that are reducing their carbon footprints. In many ways they are like New York City, now considered a leader in carbon reducing strategies, and what a city should be, Potvin said — fun, vibrant, connected.

“Montreal’s carbon-reduction plan is very good, but they haven’t shared it very broadly,” Potvin said. “It will be better this year, with the public consultation. … Montreal should be proud of itself, should explain what we are doing to build a healthy system.”


René Bruemmer, Montreal Gazette

Published on: January 3, 2016 – Last Updated: January 3, 2016 4:49 PM EST

To access article: