How realistic are campaign promises around electric vehicles?
HAMILTON, ONT. -- All but one party vying for votes in Monday’s election is talking about the transition from gas-powered vehicles to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), powered by electricity.
That is a key step to meeting Canada’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate crisis, since about 25 per cent of the nation’s emissions come from transportation. Canada has committed to hitting net-zero emissions by 2050.
The big question is whether targets around shifting to electric vehicles are achievable.
The Liberals have vowed to ensure that at least half of all passenger vehicles sold in Canada will be ZEVs by 2030 and that they will account for 100 per cent of sales by 2035.
To get there, the Liberals will offer $5,000 in incentives for ZEV buyers and build 50,000 charging stations. Its platform also vows to double the tax credit available to mining companies exploring for the minerals needed to produce batteries for electric vehicles.
The NDP also want to see all-new car sales be electric by 2035 and promises to waive federal sales tax on ZEVs and offer incentives of up to $15,000 per family for made-in-Canada vehicles. The party will also provide rebates on electric charger installation costs for those who buy new or used ZEVs.
The Conservatives say they will require that 30 per cent of all light-duty vehicles sold in Canada be zero-emission by 2030 and promise upgrades to the nation’s electricity grid and charging infrastructure. The party also promises investments of $1 billion in electric vehicle manufacturing and another $1 billion for hydrogen production.
The Conservatives also commit to updating the Canadian building code to make charging stations mandatory and that every federal or public building with parking has charging stations by 2025.
The Green Party promises to ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2030. It also promises federal grants and rebates for buyers of electric vehicles.
The Bloc Quebecois would introduce a law requiring car dealerships to always have an adequate inventory of electric vehicles.
The People’s Party of Canada platform doesn’t specifically address electric vehicles, but it does say it would “withdraw from the Paris Accord and abandon unrealistic greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.” The PPC would also abolish subsidies for green technology.
Joanna Kyriazis, senior policy advisor at Clean Energy Canada, says the Liberal platform is what her organization hoped to hear, though she points out it was the Conservative party that first mandated a sales target for electric vehicles by 2030 in its climate plan issued in the spring.
“We really believe it played a big role in moving the targets forward in the Liberal plan,” she said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca from Ottawa.
She said the NDP plan is short on details about funding levels for charging infrastructure and consumer incentives.
So far at least, there are few electric vehicles on our roads. According to Electric Mobility Canada, there were just under 170,000 electric vehicles on the roads at the end of 2020, accounting for less than one per cent of 23 million light-duty vehicles in total.
But electric sales figures continue to tick up.
In 2020, there were 54,353 new ZEVs (hybrid and full electric) registered in Canada, which accounted for 3.52 per cent of new sales, according to Statistics Canada figures. That grew from 2.91 per cent in 2019 and from less than one per cent in 2016.
Numbers were also up in the first quarter of this year, with ZEVs accounting for 4.6 per cent of sales.
A survey by KPMG Canada released in February found that 68 per cent of those who plan to buy a vehicle in the next five years are likely to buy either a fully electric or hybrid model. But many respondents said they are still concerned about the availability of charging stations, battery life, driving range and purchase price.
Globally, electric vehicles account for a four per cent share of passenger cars, and a one per cent share in the vans and trucks segment, according to BloombergNEF data.
Most countries are not on track to bring road transport emissions to zero by mid-century, says the report, and it would take making 60 per cent of new car sales ZEVs by 2030. At current rates of adoption, the world will be a 34 per cent by then.
The shift to electric won’t happen overnight but it’s coming fast, said Peter Hatges, national sector leader for automotive at KPMG in Canada, in a report issued in 2020 looking into the future of the nation’s auto sector.
“I’m not sure people appreciate the dramatic change that’s coming. It’s like the transition from horses-and-buggies to cars. Everything is going to be different.”
When the federal government announced it was moving its target for a complete shift to electric vehicles from 2040 to 2035 in late June, Omar Alghabra, who was then transportation minister, said the target was ambitious but necessary.
"We believe that it's doable. It needs determination, it needs focus, it needs effort."
He said that Ottawa had already poured at least $600 million into an incentive program offering rebates of up to $5,000 for a fully electric vehicle and $2,500 for a hybrid.
But the Liberal government had already said that while rebates were popular, they wouldn’t be enough to reach its first target – electric vehicles making up 10 per cent of sales by 2025.
Norway is the “poster child” for electric vehicle adoption at more than 50 per cent and a signal to Canada what is possible in a relatively short time period, says Nino Di Cara, founder and president of Electric Autonomy Canada, a news platform covering electric, autonomous and on-demand mobility.
A big part of the equation is whether Canadians are ready to embrace an electric vehicle the next time they buy a car. Di Cara thinks they are – or at least will be.
Di Cara says while the climate crisis generally drives the discussion about ZEVs, what often gets overlooked is that it’s just better technology and a better experience.
“Electric vehicles are smoother, quieter and cheaper to run,” he said during a phone interview with CTVNews.ca from Toronto.
“As people see more of them in their neighbourhoods, they will want them and the old technology will fade away, just like the smartphone did to the flip phone. That consumer tipping point is coming.”
Until that tipping point is reached, the market needs incentives and leadership from government, he says.
While actual sales numbers are “creeping up more slowly than we’d like,” says Kyriazis at Clean Energy Canada, projections are that electric vehicles will reach price parity with their gas counterparts in the mid-2020s and that will be a “game changer.”
The range of batteries has also vastly improved, with many models achieving 400 kilometres on a charge.
Also critical is that most automakers have many electric models in the pipeline that will drive demand, especially in the SUV, crossover and trucks segment that the vast majority of Canadians covet, she says.
On the charging side, investments are needed to make sure those living in urban areas in condos, apartments, and homes without private garages or driveways can plug in their cars.
It also means creating stations in rural areas and in publicly accessible areas, says Kyriazis.
“There are a lot of questions there. Do we convert gas stations to charging locations? Or do we create community charging hubs at schools, churches and community centres? There is also a lot of creativity happening in putting them in tourist areas or parks or commercial areas where you can enjoy your time while your car is charging.”
In 2020, there were about 7,700 public charging stations in Canada, with only about 500 being those capable of delivering a full charge in about 20 minutes, according to KPMG’s report.
“It is a chicken-and-egg problem. But governments need to push past this mentality and invest up-front in the infrastructure that will bring consumers along…”
Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug ‘N Drive, a Toronto-based non-profit, says it will “take a supercharged national effort” to get Canadians behind the wheels of EVs.
In a blog post in June, Clairman said consumer awareness of the savings in fuel and maintenance isn’t strong, even though shifting from gas to electricity can “save the average driver as much as $1,500 per year on fuel alone.”
Canada has all the pieces in place to achieve its targets, says Di Cara, including an electricity grid that is largely powered by hydro, nuclear, solar and wind, a strong automotive sector, lots of research into clean technology and future vehicles, and a rich domestic supply of the highly valuable metals and minerals like lithium and nickel that go into making lithium-ion batteries.
It really comes down to ambition, says Di Cara. Norway is showing that a rapid transition is realistic.
“So, as Canadians, do we want to be at the front of this or do we want to drag behind because it’s hard?”
Ultimately, says Kyriazis, there is no other choice but to shift to electric vehicles to head off the worst of a climate crisis.
“This is where the whole world is heading.”
Edited by Adam Ward