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Rethinking transportation for an effective energy transition

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The energy transition is upon us. Although this is a hopeful time, the transition is not without its challenges. We know we must free ourselves as soon as possible from our dependence on fossil fuels (which still make up 50% of the energy we consume). Although hydroelectric power is a crucial element of this transition, we must go much farther than simply substituting our energy source. Conservation on a societal scale and energy efficiency will enable us to achieve carbon neutrality and ensure a sustainable future for the generations to come.

Transportation: key area of change for our energy future

Land use planning must be revisited, our buildings must become more energy efficient and our economy must become more circular if we are to optimize resource utilization. But one sector that must be completely rethought in connection with this transition is transportation.

Today, the transportation sector generates nearly 43% of Quebec’s entire GHG emissions. Not only is this sector responsible for such a large part of our emissions, but 97% of its energy consumption comes from refined oil products, while electricity is the primary source of the energy consumed by the province’s other sectors.

The transportation sector consumes the most energy of any Quebec sector, and there is no improvement in sight. In fact, from 1990 to 2019, the sector’s total energy consumption was up 41%.

If we zero in, we see that commercial goods transport accounts for half of the sector’s consumption, and personal vehicles for the other half. We need to take a fresh look at the vehicles on our roads.

Disturbing trends

There are a number of angles from which to rethink and adapt our vehicles to future energy demand.

Increasingly large vehicles lead to increasingly large energy demand

The first angle to consider is the prominence of light duty trucks and the role they play. To be sure, our vehicles have become more energy efficient over the years (41% decline in consumption), and they consume less energy than earlier models on the market.

But the increase in the number and size of the vehicles on our roads has wiped out the gains from these technological advances. More and more of our vehicles are gas guzzlers, which drives up the province’s total energy consumption.

Between 1990 and 2021, sales of light duty trucks increased by 253% in Quebec. Over this same period, these vehicles’ GHG emissions increased by 156%, versus a 19% decline for cars.

Rethinking vehicle size and weight seems essential if we are to optimize our energy use.

Electrify? Absolutely! But let’s be smart about it.

Another effective way to transition our energy use is to electrify the vehicles on our roads. We must leave the gas pump behind and increase the percentage of energy we produce locally.

Today, electrification offers a viable and increasingly accessible alternative. And thanks to electrification’s technological maturity, this transition is not only possible but achievable, offering us a clear path to a more sustainable future. Today in Quebec, we are seeing significant growth in rechargeable vehicles, with some 250,000 of them on our roads. This transition to rechargeable vehicles is also being supported by charging infrastructure. Across the province, there are some 8,300 public charging stations.

But the new vehicle electrification objectives for Quebec’s vehicles are ambitious. The end goal for 2035 is that fully electric vehicles comprise all sales of new automobiles (and that there be triple the current number of charging stations).

Although appropriate and desirable, electrification must not constitute the only path to an energy transition for the transportation sector. We as a society must begin by reducing our transportation needs and switch over to a more energy efficient set of transportation modes, such as public transit and active transportation. Under this new scenario, electrification will be the right choice only for unavoidable travel or for trips we can’t make via an alternate mode of transportation. With over 5.5 million automobiles and light duty trucks on our roads, we cannot simply replace these vehicles with electric ones. This would not be a sound use of our dwindling electricity resources, especially since all our other sectors need these same resources to drive their energy transition. What is more, the trend toward larger vehicles means that even electric light duty trucks will be consuming more and more of our resources.

True solutions for an efficient transportation sector

First and foremost, reduced energy demand on the part of the transportation sector will translate into urban planning measures leading to better and more sustainable mobility and measures fostering the development of alternatives to the automobile (mass transit and shared or active transportation).

If we rethink the way we plan our cities and our housing developments, we can promote smart urban densification to curb urban sprawl, which will help reduce the distances driven and the use of personal vehicles.

Lastly, it is by investing in public and active transportation that we can reduce energy consumption, while also reducing the impacts of our travel on the environment.

A successful transition will also reduce social inequalities, help protect our natural environment and guarantee that tomorrow’s energy will remain affordable for all Quebecers.

We have created a vehicle comparer to help you assess the impact of the vehicle you’re interested in, and its alternatives, based on your needs.

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Thanks to Hydro-Québec which, thanks to its support, allowed us to discuss these issues with hundreds of young people via a tour of Quebec CEGEPs and universities.