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Council of Canadians proposes alternatives for federal infrastructure spending


Could the promised $60 billion in federal infrastructure spending over the next ten years help us achieve the goal of limiting global warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius? Yes, if it is invested in sustainable energy projects and climate jobs; no if it’s spent on bigger highways and carbon-intensive projects like the Energy East and Trans Mountain pipelines are approved. Is the political will there to translate the promise of “sunny ways” into solar power and a 100 per cent clean economy by 2050?

During the last federal election, the Liberals promised to “make the New Building Canada Fund more focused.” They said, “By providing significant, separate investments in public transit, social infrastructure and green infrastructure, we will enable the New Building Canada Fund to make greater investments in Canada’s roads, bridges, transportation corridors, ports and border gateways, helping Canada’s manufacturers get their goods to market. We will also make the fund more transparent, by providing clearer project criteria, alongside faster approval processes.”

On Jan. 24, just before Parliament began its new session this year, the Canadian Press reported, “Increased infrastructure spending is one of the first priorities, given the state of the economy. Infrastructure Minister Amerjeet Sohi says he’s talking to the provinces about how to allocate existing cash from the $10 billion New Building Canada fund set up under the previous government.” The newspaper explains the Liberals promised a 10-year, $60-billion fund during the election, of which they pledged to spend $20 billion over the next two years on infrastructure (half of which had already been budgeted by the Conservatives).

Then on Feb. 4, the Edmonton Journal reported that the federal government would fast-track $700 million in spending to help boost Alberta’s economy given it is being battered by low oil prices. This is funding that had been announced by the Harper government in 2014 but had not yet been allocated. The newspaper notes, “Trudeau said the federal government has committed to quickly provide the struggling province with [the] previously announced infrastructure funding through the Building Canada Fund. …A list of projects wasn’t immediately available, but [Sohi] said his department is working to review and approve Alberta’s funding application as quickly as possible.”

While we can certainly hope that list includes public transit and other climate-friendly measures, the Edmonton Journal adds that the prime minister and Alberta premier Rachel Notley “also committed … to jointly promote energy infrastructure such as pipelines and the importance of increasing Alberta’s market access.” This is a concern.

Vancouver-based transportation consultant Eric Doherty, who is also a member of the Council of Canadians Vancouver-Burnaby chapter, has written, “Given Trudeau’s statements on the seriousness of the climate crisis, you might expect that the multi-billion dollar infrastructure program he ran on in the election would already be targeted to reduce carbon pollution. You would be wrong.”

In an op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun, Doherty writes, “The federal Liberals ‘historic infrastructure plan’ acknowledges that infrastructure will need to be beefed up to deal with climate impacts such as flooding from more intense storms and rising sea levels. But when it comes to reducing the carbon pollution that threatens everything humans value, the plan is silent. And that leaves open a big door to provincial, municipal and regional governments getting billions in federal funds for projects that make the climate crisis worse. There is money in Trudeau’s budget allocated to a public transit fund which can reduce carbon pollution, but even ‘green infrastructure’ is mainly focused on replacing sewer pipes and the like rather than reducing carbon pollution.”

Doherty highlights that British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is asking for freeway expansion funding from the Trudeau government. This funding would go toward replacing the four-lane Massey Tunnel that connects Delta and Richmond with a $3 billion, 10-lane freeway bridge. He adds, “Ontario’s Highway 427 Expansion project in Metro Toronto is proceeding with barely a mention of climate or carbon pollution. Similarly, Infrastructure Canada’s web page is silent on the increased climate pollution that will be caused by widening the federal portion of Autoroute 15 in Montreal.”

Doherty concludes, “Let’s help Justin succeed in this tough work, by demanding that not one dollar of public infrastructure money go to increase carbon pollution.”

In December 2009, the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Labour Congress jointly released a paper titled Green, Decent and Public. The paper argued that reducing emissions and addressing the climate crisis as an engine for green job creation. Authors Andrea Harden-Donahue and Andrea Peart stated, “As many as 18,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion of investment in energy conservation and renewable energy systems. The average renewable energy investment creates four times as many jobs as the same investment in the fossil fuel economy.”

They proposed, “The federal government should provide an economic stimulus of at least $10 billion over each of the next two years. Such a program, mainly directed to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects including building retrofits and public transit, would create at least 200,000 jobs.”

With a $60 billion infrastructure budget now in place, this promise of jobs could be made a reality. The Council of Canadians calls on the Trudeau government to pursue this vision.