Let’s face it: most of us drive our own vehicles.
Many have switched to transit, car shares or bikes to lower their carbon footprints, but most people in Canada drive cars. Worse yet, the vehicles we’re choosing, SUVs and pickup trucks, are big and polluting. Canadians now hold the dubious distinction of having personal vehicles with the worst fuel consumption and emissions on average. And that’s a big problem from a climate perspective where carbon emissions from transportation make up a whopping one-quarter of the total—and this trend is nowhere near bending.
Efforts have been made. Vehicle emissions standards and carbon pricing have been introduced, and investments made in transit and active transportation. Yet emissions in this sector are stuck in high gear. At this rate, we’re off course to transition our choices to electric vehicles to reach the government’s target of 100 per cent zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035.
Canadians now hold the dubious distinction of having personal vehicles with the worst fuel consumption and emissions on average.
The good news is that our electricity comes from almost entirely clean sources. Accelerating investments in renewable energy—the cheapest source of new generation—can help with the remaining unclean parts by replacing fossil fuel generation. And a new policy, a Clean Electricity Standard, would help ensure grids across Canada turn to solar, wind, and other clean options as electricity demand grows. On the transportation side, switching to cleaner fuels and moving away from gas-powered vehicles to zero-emission rides will be crucial. Those buying EVs want to know that their vehicles are being powered by clean electrons.
Not nearly enough
A report just released by the David Suzuki Foundation and Équiterre uses modelling to see whether reaching the federal government’s 2035 zero-emissions vehicle target is possible. It finds that existing policies, purchase incentives, investments in charging infrastructure, voluntary efforts by industry and technology changes won’t get us there. In fact, only 38 per cent of new vehicles sold in 2035 would be emissions free. For every gas-powered vehicle sold up to 2035, we’d be locking in an extra decade or more of polluting emissions.
For every gas-powered vehicle sold up to 2035, we’d be locking in an extra decade or more of polluting emissions.
So why are there still so few electric vehicles available? Many have complained about shortages in sales lots, especially in places outside B.C. and Quebec, which have zero-emission vehicle mandates. According to a recent study, 64 per cent of Canadian dealerships reported customers would have to wait between three and six months before taking home their vehicle. Plenty of gas-powered vehicles of all sorts are readily available and there’s no shortage of advertising telling you the virtues of SUV ownership. There are lots more zero-emission vehicle options for those in China, Europe, and the U.S. It seems automakers in Canada are making a bigger profit selling gas-powered vehicles and they don’t want that to change.
Enough carrots, time for sticks
Polluting cars in Canada damage our health and cost us money. Research confirms that health is harmed by burning the byproducts of fossil fuels, like nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone. A study found that $192-million in annual health costs would be avoided if all personal vehicles using the Highway 401 corridor through Toronto were shifted to zero-emission vehicles.
Polluting cars in Canada damage our health and cost us money.
There are still options that could change this and allow the auto sector to remain profitable, but the federal government must act quickly and put in place policies that will drive manufacturer investments to scale up EV production. We’ve used a lot of carrots; it may be time for some sticks.
Our best climate solutions still lie in better public transit, more active transportation, and communities that are planned to reduce car dependency and improve health. But as we transition, a lot needs to change—and quickly—to meet our climate goals. It’s time for industry to sell cars that allow us to swap fuel pumps for plugs and smog for clean air.
This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times
Policy analyst in sustainable mobility at Équiterre
Senior Climate Policy Advisor