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The Province of British Columbia announced a long-expected Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate Tuesday. Unless it is weakened before legislation is tabled in the spring, B.C.’s mandate will be the strongest in North America, leapfrogging California, other U.S. states and Quebec.

B.C.'s ZEV mandate, by the numbers

The mandate will require all new cars and light trucks sold from 2040 onwards to be ZEVs, a category which includes battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (conventional hybrids such as the ubiquitous Prius taxicabs are not considered zero-emission vehicles.)

The government’s policy will require ZEV market share of new vehicle sales in B.C. of:

  • 100% by 2040;
  • 30% by 2030;
  • 10% by 2025.

Year-to-date ZEV market share has been about four per cent in British Columbia — the highest in Canada. Sales hit a peak of 6.9 per cent in September (owing to a variety of one-off factors).

Given modern automobiles’ durability it would be at least a decade beyond 2040 before combustion vehicles fully disappear from British Columbia’s roads. 2050 or even 2055 might then be the years in which combustion vehicles fall to rounding error status.

B.C.’s ZEV mandate, strongest in North America?

California’s long-standing Zero Emission Vehicle mandate has been adopted by nine other states, and served as the template for the ZEV mandate that Quebec introduced two years ago.

B.C.’s proposed zero emission vehicle mandate would be the strongest in North America, leapfrogging California, other U.S. states and Quebec.

California doesn’t directly mandate that automakers sell a rising percentage of ZEVs every year; rather, it mandates that automakers earn a rising threshold of ZEV credits, or purchase them from competitors. The distinction between sales and credits is key, because long-range ZEVs can earn up to 4 credits apiece. Thus, while California and Quebec’s headline ZEV mandates of 22 per cent by 2025 look ambitious, they can be achieved with ZEV sales being as low as one-quarter of that number, or 5.5 per cent.

This year’s ZEV market share in California? 7.2 per cent in the first nine months, split between fully electric vehicles (4.0 per cent) and plug-in hybrids (3.1 per cent). Absent regulatory changes, the auto sector looks like it will comfortably hit California’s 2025 target.

British Columbia’s ZEV mandate will be the strongest in North America if it bypasses the credit system and applies directly to vehicle sales. If so, the legislation’s treatment of plug-in hybrids versus fully electric (battery-electric and fuel cell) vehicles will be key. As outlined in this public submission to the Clean Energy Growth Strategy, this author believes plug-in hybrids should be treated the same as fully electric vehicles.

While B.C.’s upcoming regulations look to be the most stringent on the continent, this should take nothing away from Quebec’s prior example, and California’s before it. Legislative late-comers can’t expect recognition or plaudits unless they outdo the first-movers, after all. The fact that several countries have announced plans to ban the sale of combustion vehicles by 2040 has also created the political space for the Province to embrace that once-unimaginable goal.

B.C. is going to need (a lot) more clean power

Perhaps no group will welcome the ZEV mandate as heartily as the province’s renewable energy developers.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests British Columbia would need to increase electricity production by about 30 per cent to displace the gasoline sold in-province each year. This would amount to roughly 3 Site C dams, creating a wealth of opportunities for First Nations and power producers to harness the province’s renewable resources in the cause of decarbonization.

British Columbians also purchase half as much road-use diesel as gasoline (this figure doesn’t account for fuel in the rail, marine, and aviation sectors). Hydrogen and fuel cells may replace most heavy-duty vehicles’ diesel use in the longer term, and the conversion of renewable electricity to hydrogen to motion is roughly one-third as efficient as charging vehicle batteries. A comparable amount of electricity would therefore be needed to displace B.C.’s diesel consumption.

The net effect would be to require an additional 6 Site C’s worth of renewable energy development — before even tackling aviation, rail and marine — adding a further wrinkle to the still-raging debate about the wisdom of moving forward with the controversial hydroelectric project. As Vox’s David Roberts, who coined the term “climate hawk,” compellingly noted, the fight against climate change requires even environmentalists into ugly tradeoffs.

Infographic from Government of BC

A long road ahead

On a more sobering note, while the passage of North America’s strongest ZEV mandate is cause for celebration, we must temper our self-congratulation. It’s relatively easy for British Columbia to pass carbon taxes and ZEV mandates, as we have little in the way of a fossil fuel or auto industry. Whatever our differences with Rachel Notley, carbon pricing was the Alberta equivalent of the City of Vancouver implementing a yoga tax.

Additionally, passenger vehicles still only represent about 14 per cent of British Columbians’ greenhouse gas emissions — one in every seven tonnes. Commercial transport (including trucks, buses, trains, planes and boats) is a further 25 per cent. So, the province’s entire transportation fleet, including vehicles and vessels from out-of-province and out-of-country, would have to be decarbonized for the province to meet its 2030 emissions reductions target of 40 per cent below 2007 levels. The provincial government has yet to outline its plans for these sectors.

Even with the first steps of carbon taxation and a ZEV mandate, there is still a long journey to arrive at an emissions-free B.C..

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