The future is electric.
It’s a popular slogan used by leading automakers as the industry shifts gears and transitions towards eco-friendly, sustainable means of transportation.
There is growing consensus among industry and climate experts that EVs can play a vital role in helping countries, like Canada, meet their net-zero emission targets, but it will be a long ride with roadblocks ahead.
“There is no credible climate action plan that doesn’t include a significant push towards electric transportation,” said Jeff Turner, senior research lead at Dunsky Energy and Climate Advisors.
“I think it is crucial that we electrify the transport sector to meet our climate change goals, but … only electrifying the transport sector will not be enough,” said Alexandre Milovanoff, a researcher in sustainable transportation at the University of Toronto.
A multi-pronged approach is needed that will involve developing the public transit infrastructure as well as making driving private vehicles less convenient and more expensive, he said.
In Canada, the transportation sector is the second-largest source of emissions, nearly tied with oil and gas.
Kent Moore, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, estimates that driving EVs could potentially reduce Canada’s emissions by 15 per cent.
“It’s clearly important, but it can’t be the only thing,” he said.
Moore, like Milovanoff, believes a series of measures will need to go hand in hand with EVs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Cutting plastic use, transitioning to newer building materials, like wood, from concrete — which is a huge emitter of carbon dioxide — and plant-based food production will contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
“There’s no single magic bullet.”
Where is Canada on the EV map?
Current EV sector manufacturers in Canada include GreenPower, Lion Electric, New Flyer and Nova Bus, which is owned by Sweden’s Volvo.
The country is rich in key materials for EV battery production, including lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel, putting it the among top five in the world when it comes to battery supply chain potential, said Joanna Kyriazis, senior policy advisor at Clean Energy Canada.
Canada’s EV market is growing, but there is some catching up to do.
Electric vehicles represent somewhere between five and 10 per cent of new vehicle sales in Canada, said Turner.
Currently, less than 10 per cent of the country’s stock of vehicles are electric, according to Ryan Riordan, research director for the Institute of Sustainable Finance at Queen’s University.
“It is increasing, but it’s increasing slowly particularly relative to … some jurisdictions in Europe and really slow compared to countries like China,” Riordan said.
Out of the world’s total stock of 10.2 million EVs, China has 44 per cent (4.5 million), Europe has about 31 per cent (3.2 million) and the U.S. accounts for 17 per cent, according to a report by the International Energy Agency published in April 2021.
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With the largest annual increase in 2020, Europe overtook China as the biggest market last year.
Over the past decade, Canada’s EV sales share has steadily risen, reaching 4.2 per cent in 2020, IEA data showed.
However, industry experts say Canada will need to expand its domestic manufacturing ability and battery production and pump in more dollars to make a dent in the global EV market on its way to chasing zero-emission targets.
Lion Electric, a Quebec-based company, is among the country’s key players in the EV race.
It has a manufacturing capacity of 2,500 units in Saint-Jérôme, north of Montreal. The automaker is also currently building a manufacturing capacity for 20,000 units per year in Illinois.
Last month, Lion Electric received a conditional order for 1,000 electric school buses from Student Transportation of Canada that the company estimates would eliminate up to 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year.
The order is part of Infrastructure Canada’s Zero-Emission Transit Fund (ZETF) — the federal government’s commitment to provide $2.75 billion over the next five years to support the electrification of public transit and school transportation.
Marc Bédard, founder and CEO of Lion Electric, said there should be a greater urgency to switch to EVs.
“So what needs to happen, I think, needs to happen faster,” he told Global News.
“We need legislation that will allow some money to be invested … to help the operators to do a smooth transition to electric.”
Roadblocks and targets
Canada has committed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
In June, the federal government set a mandatory target for all new light-duty cars and passenger trucks sales to be zero-emission by 2035.
As parts of its 2021 election platform, the Liberals have also pledged to require 100 per cent of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sales to be zero-emission by 2040, where feasible.
While some are confident that Canada will meet those targets, others are a bit skeptical.
“We can hit those timelines,” said Turner. “That’s not to say that we don’t have a lot of work to do, but these targets are absolutely feasible.”
However, Milovanoff said Canada’s current trajectories and measures are not enough.
“If there are no drastic changes in our investments in the way we deal with the transport strategies, no, I don’t think we will meet those targets,” he said.
A public charging network, especially for longer inter-city travel, remote, rural areas and apartment buildings, is another piece in the transition to electrification. And building that will take time, Moore said.
Charging electric cars also takes longer than filling up a gas tank.
Canada’s cold climate could complicate the chemical function of EVs and offset the range as they don’t produce a lot of waste heat.
On the plus side, though, EVs start immediately without having to crank up the engine multiple times as we often find ourselves with conventional cars in winters, said Turner.
From an economic standpoint, EVs are more expensive to buy than conventional cars but in the long run, they are cheaper to own.
This is because EVs cost less to fuel and have fewer maintenance needs, like oil change and gears, that ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles require.
Riordan said the costs of operating an EV could be half or even a quarter of what they are for an ICE.
“Even though the EV cost more upfront, often you’ll pay that back and actually come out ahead in just a few years by going electric,” said Kyriazis.
Financial incentives from the federal government and provinces help make EV an attractive option.
In 2019, the feds launched the iZEV program, giving purchase rebates of up to $5,000 to Canadians buying an EV.
There are additional incentives between $3,000 and $8,000 from provinces like Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Quebec, said Turner.
To get more people behind the wheel of an electric car, a package of clean car policies, including continued government incentives and subsidies, is needed, experts say.
“If we can get more Canadians driving electric vehicles, it’ll also help to justify automakers investing in Canada to build EVs here and their batteries,” said Kyriazis.
Going forward, a broad switch means behaviours will ultimately have to change.
“I think we’ll get there, but it won’t be overnight. It may take us 20 years to make the transition,” said Moore.
–with files from Reuters