Reporting honestly on greenhouse gas emissions

Open Letter to CBC News   (n.b. the journalist’s response is also published at the end)

Good Evening M. Nakonechny,

It was my pleasure to meet you last week outside the Québec court of appeal.

In the interest of improving CBC’s reporting of issues relating to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, find below several comments on your piece on the motion to have construction halted in the Technoparc until the court of appeal has its word on the Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) on November 2. I am copying your colleagues who have published recently on this project; some of the points below relate to their work as much as yours. For more context on why a climate-focused organization would oppose a private transportation project of this nature, see this op-ed addressing that question.

I recommend that staff writing on issues relevant to climate change are adequately trained and resourced to ensure the most factual, objective reporting possible.

Questionable Calculation

“A total of 20 hectares of green space will be cleared during the construction of the entire 67-kilometre rail network — the equivalent of close to 25 CFL football fields. To compensate, CDPQ Infra is committed to planting 250,000 trees over 200 hectares.”

CBC journalists seem at liberty to choose how they define the size of a football field depending on the slant they want to give their piece. When vaunting an expansive new liquor warehouse, one reporter chose to inflate the perceived size by equating it to smaller NFL fields. Another chose a more Canadian measuring stick, comparing protected green space to CFL fields. In Mr. Nakonechny’s piece last week, describing the 20 hectares (in reality 21, see page 15 here) of forest and wetlands that the Réseau Express Métropolitain proposes to bulldoze, he decided to define the CFL field differently – including 18-metre-long end zones, thus opting for the measuring stick that minimized the project’s perceived impact (25 fields instead of 31 or 36 by his colleagues’ calculations). At the very least, I would recommend consistency across your organization. As an advocate of a sustainable future, I would also recommend that environmental degradation not be understated.

False Equivalency

More importantly, the piece concluded with a false equivalency being drawn between the 20 hectares of green space that would be cleared and the 200 hectares of green space that would have trees added to them. Paving over green space is only equivalent to planting trees if the area planted involves removing asphalt/demineralizing that surface. It is unreasonable to assume that such a stipulation was made in the contract with the Jour de la Terre Québec who agreed to plant the trees on behalf of the CDPQ. According to the same press release, the CDPQ paid for the planting of those trees to compensate for GHG emissions stemming from the REM’s construction, not to replace green space that would be razed. The CDPQ is double-dipping and careless reporting allows them to get away with it.

Such compensatory measures for GHG emissions would be welcome were they to represent an honest desire to offset the construction’s emissions. In another successful PR effort, the CDPQ billed the move as a complete offset of emissions during the construction of the project: “La Caisse s’engage à acheter 87 000 crédits compensatoires générés par le programme 375 000 arbres afin de compenser les émissions anticipées de GES durant la construction du REM.” However, due to the cement required for the towering concrete viaducts necessitated by the CDPQ’s choice of technology, those offsets cover just over 10% of total emissions attributable to the project’s construction.

Misleading reporting

Reporting without critical examination the “20-to-200 hectare” trade-off cited frequently by the CDPQ misleads your readers in two other ways:
1) the CDPQ’s carefully worded claim excludes green space that is not legally classified as such; and
2) the green space that they require to be developed around stations like the Technoparc to render the project economically viable is also ignored.

The green space that CDPQ-Infra intends to pave over far exceeds 20 hectares – in large part due to the sprawling parking lots around several of its stations. One of the network’s 15 new stations will require between 30 and 50 hectares of ‘excellent agricultural land’ south of Highway 30 in Brossard. Official estimates for the total number of these grasslands and agricultural lands slated for parking lots or other uses does not figure among the CDPQ’s talking points, but is the kind of question that a conscientious journalist should be reporting on.

As their agreement with the Union des Producteurs Agricoles du Québec states, $3-million has been devoted to protecting land around the 10-30 intersection, which leaves hundreds of hectares of land unprotected and open to speculation and development. (see map). Would the CDPQ have chosen to locate its station in the greenfield adjacent the DIX30 shopping centre if it did not expect to profit from ensuing developments bringing it $10 per square foot in royalties for developments within a kilometre of the station? Brossard’s offer to use an old golf course to avoid expanding beyond the psychological barrier of highway 30 was rejected.

REM-Sprawl-BrossardSimilarly for the Technoparc, the REM’s arrival will spur development south of Rue Alexander Fleming, with plans to develop 54% of the remaining forest and wetlands. This, in a borough of the city with a surprisingly high rate of vacancy in its commercial building stock. Industrial and commercial buildings across the city sit vacant and brownfields are left for the public purse to remediate. Why provide a transit subsidy (72¢ per passenger km) building on forests and wetlands when the city has so much other available space? Mr. Nakonechny’s decision to publish a map of the station location without mentioning the further development that the station engenders is disappointing and leads readers to facile conclusions about over-reaching environmentalists.

REM-Sprawl-Technoparc

When the CDPQ’s talking points are repeated without analysis or scrutiny, its wager that the public and the media are more concerned with feeling green than actually reducing emissions or protecting biodiversity is validated. The CBC is a trusted source of information. When reporting on an issue of this import, your staff must be adequately equipped to conduct the research necessary to report accurately and completely.

Montreal is far from meeting the objectives for green space preservation as recommended by the World Health Organization and required by the Plan Métropolitain d’Aménagement et Développement (PMAD). It is also facing a major challenge with respect to growing transportation emissions. Those facts, in addition to the ever-growing threat to biodiversity is more than enough reason for sober reflection. The environmental community is not simply opposing the destruction of 20 hectares of forests and wetlands, we are concerned with the hundreds of other hectares of green space and agricultural land that the REM is designed to exploit – and the impact that such sprawl will have on our greenhouse gas emissions.

Sincerely,
Matthew Chapman
President, Coalition Climat Montréal

 


 

M. Nakonechny response 

Further to our conversation this afternoon, the story you take issue with is balanced and contains no errors of fact.

To the specific points which you claim are either misleading or false:

  1. Lacroix said construction will not affect the wetlands south of Alexander Fleming Street.” This statement relates specifically to the construction of the REM Technoparc station. The link you sent regarding “plans to develop 54% of the remaining forest and wetlands” relates to development in the Technoparc area more broadly.
  2. A total of 20 hectares of green space will be cleared during the construction of the entire 67-kilometre rail network”  Again, this is related to the construction of the REM rail network, not any potential development around the REM lines or stations by parties other than CDPQ Infra.
  3. “To compensate, CDPQ Infra is committed to planting 250,000 trees over 200 hectares.”  According to the Quebec Ministry of the Environment’s assessment of the REM, under “3.4.5.6 Superficies forestières,” the requirement to plant 250,000 trees is specifically mentioned as a compensatory measure to the deforestation caused by the project.  “Comme mesure compensatoire pour les pertes de milieux boisés, l’initiateur a conclu un partenariat avec l’organisme « Jour de la Terre Québec » pour la plantation de 250 000 arbres dans la région métropolitaine de Montréal qui représenterait un gain de 208 ha.” CDPQ Infra may see this compensatory measure as sufficient and you may view it as insufficient, but it is true.

My story gives your coalition an equal, if not greater, share of space to make your arguments.  It would be irresponsible and contrary to the CBC’s journalistic standards and practices to not give fair hearing to CDPQ Infra which is advancing reasonable claims of its own.

I appreciate your feedback, but would ask in the future to just write directly to me and not cc my editors or colleagues on correspondence about my stories. Should you then find my answers lacking, I can direct you to the appropriate person above me in the editorial chain.

Regards,

Simon Nakonechny
Videojournalist
CBC Montreal
Reporting honestly on greenhouse gas emissions