More often than not, Norway finds itself at, or near, the top of all the good lists — perhaps most notably as number 1 on the United Nations Human Development Index.
It has now secured its place at the top of another list: the 21st century race to make zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) the norm.
In 2020, Norway became the first country where the majority of passenger vehicle sales were ZEVs, specifically battery electric vehicles (BEV).
Data from the Norwegian Road Federation (OFV) shows that 54.3 per cent of all new cars sold in Norway last year were electric-only, up from 42.4 per cent in 2019.
In fact, when you add in hybrids, only 17 per cent of all vehicles sold were gasoline-only or diesel-only.
Remarkably, in 2011, 75.7 per cent of all passenger vehicles sold in Norway were diesel.
That was during a short, if misguided, fad in parts of Europe for cars powered by diesel.
There are large financial incentives to opt for ZEVs in Norway.
Since 1990, the vehicles have been exempt from import taxes, and six years later, owners no longer had to pay the country’s annual road tax.
In 2001, the government also removed the hefty 25 per cent sales tax from ZEVs.
Drivers get 50 per cent to 100 per cent taken off road tolls and ferry charges, and they can even drive in bus lanes, although that has had to be scaled back after the number of ZEVs on the roads increased significantly.
The director of the OFV says the young daughter of his friend made an observation that illustrated just how popular Tesla’s electric cars had become.
“She said to her father, ‘Look, father, there is a bus in the Tesla lane,'” laughed Øyvind Solberg Thorsen.
“That has become a joke, but it was actually something that has inspired the government and the authorities to reduce the access to the bus lanes in some parts of Norway, in Oslo during rush hour.”
Norway can afford to offer the huge incentives, partly due to its decades of well-managed fossil fuel exports.
It’s an irony not lost Norwegians.
“The most popular model in Norway in 2020 was the Audi e-tron, and that is not a cheap car, either in Canada or in the U.K. or in Norway,” said Thorsen, of the model that retails for $85,600 in Canada.
“So it’s actually quite fascinating to see how much people are willing to spend, in order to get the new technology and also be kind of environmentally friendly — more friendly than you were in the past.”
Electric vehicle criticisms
Many environmentalists believe that, as has been done in Norway, fossil fuel money should now be used to promote a greener future on the roads.
“We are aware that in the end, the Norwegian experiment has come about because of the financing of the transition to electric vehicles from money originally derived from fossil fuels,” said Doug Parr, policy director and chief scientist for Greenpeace in the U.K.
“That’s what’s going to have to happen on an enormous scale. The money that has been made from fossil fuels is going to have to be channelled into the clean technologies of the future that we need.”
Parr also stressed that there is a significant carbon footprint in producing new ZEVs, and that governments must also encourage more people onto public transit, to reach their climate change goals.
“In terms of electric vehicles, overall, it’s really important to recognize that they are not the silver bullet for making sure that our transport system as a whole is compatible with both climate and other environmental aspects of the system as a whole,” Parr said.
“Whilst many governments are now in the business of moving towards electric vehicles — and that’s good and that needs to happen — it’s absolutely not enough. We need various policies, funding investment in the other sectors as well.”
One environmental criticism of ZEVs is their use of rare earth metals in their large batteries.
“Not all of these metals are, at the moment, mined in an environmentally or socially responsible way, and we know that there are human rights abuses going on in some of the mining of these metals,” Parr said.
“So, alongside what is going on with the production of electric vehicles, there needs to be a multi-pronged strategy led by governments, but also participation by businesses, that means that we can address the sourcing issues for the metals that are essential to go into battery electric vehicles.”
Canada lagging behind
In Canada, ZEVs accounted for 3.5 per cent of new vehicles registered in the first half of 2020. Two-thirds of those were BEVs.
Part of the reason for that is that carmakers have been slow to make electric SUVs and pickups, which dominate the North American market.
“There should be a plug-in (Ford) F-150 coming really soon, Tesla has their Cybertruck coming, Rivian is one that’s making an electric truck. They’re all there all on the horizon,” said Sean Hart, vice president of Canada’s Electric Vehicle Society.
“There’s a number of SUV models coming out this year in 2021.”
The federal government offers an incentive of up to $5,000 for new ZEV purchases.
Some provinces top that up, notably Quebec, where buyers get an extra $8,000 rebate.
“People have heard about some of the more expensive electric cars. Tesla tends to be on the higher end, and you can get some of them that are in the $100,000 range,” Hart said.
“But a lot of them are in that $30,000 to $40,000 range, when you include the incentives. So they’re kind of middle of the pack. They’re not ‘exclusive.'”
Hart says many drivers forget that the operating costs of running an electric vehicle adds considerable savings over its lifetime.
In January 2021, the 2020 model of the gasoline Volkswagen Golf retails from $22,570 in Canada.
Its BEV equivalent, the e-Golf, starts at $37,895; a difference of $15,325 before tax.
“I think it will start to become the norm before the mid-2020s, certainly in Europe, and possibly elsewhere as well,” Parr said.
“Because the economics are going to take people there even if their environmental conscience is doesn’t.”
Norway aims to end the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2025.
Canada’s goal is to do the same by 2040, with Quebec setting a deadline of 2035.