Transport Canada has welcomed a General Motors proposal to make millions of electric cars mandatory on U.S. roads, prompting questions about the federal government's promised national zero-emissions vehicle strategy.
General Motors (GM) recommended Friday that the U.S. government adopt a national mandate requiring a percentage of auto sales to be vehicles that don’t dump carbon pollution into the atmosphere. Such a mandate is already in force in 10 U.S. states and in Quebec, so far the only Canadian jurisdiction.
GM has estimated its proposal could place over seven million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2030, removing 375 million tons of carbon pollution over the next decade. The company was responding to two U.S. agencies that had sought feedback on the Trump administration’s attempt to roll back Obama-era car emissions rules.
“Transport Canada welcomes GM’s zero-emission vehicles proposal and will be considering it in greater detail,” Marie-Anyk Côté, senior media relations advisor for Transport Canada, told National Observer Monday.
“GM looks forward to discussing the proposed U.S. National Zero Emission program with the Canadian government,” added Jennifer Wright, GM Canada’s communications director.
EVs are better, but hard to find
Washington itself has touted the benefits of EVs over traditional cars that burn gasoline to create energy. Battery-powered EVs are much more efficient at using the energy stored in their power source than their gas-powered cousins, which lose power to friction and waste heat.
While less efficient, gasoline is far more expensive than electricity in many parts of Canada. Even in high-cost areas, the cost of charging an EV battery is usually a fraction of filling up at the pumps. That means drivers of gas-powered cars pay more for less.
Burning gasoline, a fossil fuel, also creates carbon pollution that accumulates in the atmosphere and traps heat, leading to climate change. Older or less efficient gas vehicles sometimes also produce noxious or toxic substances like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and soot, affecting air quality. Transportation is responsible for a quarter of all of Canada’s carbon pollution. Scientists say rapid vehicle electrification can limit dangerous changes to the climate.
Pollution is also produced when EVs and their batteries are manufactured, but they make up for those emissions within six to 18 months — and most cars are driven for years. Some power plants also pollute when generating electricity used to charge batteries, but over four-fifths of the electrical grid in Canada is already non-emitting.
These advantages are part of why EVs make up 45 per cent of new car sales in Norway, and why California is aiming for five million emissions-free cars by 2030. But in Canada, they still make up a small portion of overall auto sales. Matthew Klippenstein of Green Car Reports has calculated close to 34,000 sales so far in 2018, for a 2.2 per cent market share.
While there are a number of EV models for sale, actually finding and buying one has been described as difficult, time-consuming or expensive. Consumers say models aren’t available to test drive, and many potential buyers end up on waiting lists. One in three British Columbians, for example, want an electric car but fewer than half of provincial dealerships have them.
In Ontario, buyers have to pay thousands of dollars more for EVs after the Ford government shuttered a generous subsidy program. It was funded by the province’s price on carbon pollution, that the Ford government has moved to abandon. The B.C. NDP government, however, is now considering its own sales mandate for electric vehicles.
Nationwide strategy missing in action
GM's nationwide proposal is based on California's zero-emissions mandate. Those rules mean GM must sell a minimum of roughly 2,200 EVs this year, or 1.1 percent of the vehicles it usually sells in the state.
California calculates its EV sales requirements by applying a percentage to most passenger vehicles that each automaker sells — so the sales target changes depending on the manufacturer. The EV’s range also determines the number of credits, and partial credit is given for hybrid vehicles.
Similar to a carbon market, automakers with surplus credits sell them to other automakers with a deficit. This is also similar to how the EV mandate works in Quebec. It has been in force there since Jan. 11, 2018.
The Trudeau government has committed to at least 30 per cent new EV sales by 2030, and promised a nationwide strategy for zero-emission vehicles “by 2018” as part of the Pan-Canadian Framework, its national climate plan. It has also allocated federal budget funding for installing new charging infrastructure.
But Canada’s EV market share has dropped globally from ninth in 2016 to 11th last year, according to Clean Energy Canada.
That group and others like Équiterre say the way for Canada to hit its EV sales target is to adopt a mandate similar to what GM is proposing and what Quebec, California and other U.S. states already have — forcing automakers to sell a certain percentage of EVs.
“The main barrier to increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles in Canada remains lack of inventory at dealerships,” said Annie Bérubé, director of government relations for Équiterre.
“A national ZEV mandate in Canada remains the most cost-effective policy the federal government could implement in its upcoming Zero Emission Vehicle strategy to reach our target of 30 per cent new sales being electric vehicles by 2030.”
The federal zero-emissions vehicle strategy could include such a sales mandate. The “advisory group” of government officials, stakeholders and industry representatives tasked with providing input into the strategy has considered the option.
With two months left in the year, however, no federal strategy has yet been announced, despite that advisory group having wrapped up its work over a year ago.
Nine months ago — on Jan. 31, 2018 — departmental spokesman Pierre Manoni told National Observer that “no additional meetings are anticipated” for the advisory group and that it had already “provided its advice” to government.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s office sent National Observer's questions about the strategy to Transport Canada. The government “continues to work with provinces and territories in the development of the Zero-Emission Vehicles Strategy,” said Côté.
GM Canada, industry group playing wait-and-see
GM Canada said that while the company believes it would be in Canada’s interests to align with a U.S. mandate should it be adopted, it’s waiting to see what happens.
“The GM proposal for a U.S. 50-state Zero Emission Program, if adopted, would be a government mandated and required program. If the U.S. adopts that new mandated program, we would support Canada aligning with it,” said Wright.
Meanwhile, the industry group that represents GM Canada, called the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, isn’t yet ready to adopt GM’s proposal for all its members. The CVMA has been against an EV mandate, and president Mark Nantais said that isn’t about to change.
“At this point in time, this is one company’s proposal that they’ve made in response to the consultations on those same standards in the United States,” said Nantais in an interview.
“My organization hasn’t discussed (GM's proposal) collectively at this point. I’m not sure whether they will, to be truthful...the ultimate goal here is to have a single national standard right across the United States. Canada should not step out ahead of that, until decisions are made.”
But he added that depending on how the decision is taken in the U.S. in response to GM’s proposal, “that may change the landscape.”
Nantais, who sat on the government’s advisory group, also said he wasn’t sure what had happened to the strategy after he wrapped up work more than a year ago. “My understanding is that strategy is supposed to come out late this year, or very early next year,” he said.
Questions to the Global Automakers of Canada, another industry group, were not returned before publication.