Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeault wants to put a mandate in place by early 2023 that would require auto dealers to meet increasingly higher annual goals for selling zero-emission vehicles. In a plan critics say is impractical, the federal government aims to have half of all new passenger cars sold in Canada be zero-emission by 2030, and to achieve 100 percent by 2035.
Roughly 3 or 4 percent of new cars sold in Canada are zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), commonly called electric vehicles (EVs), Guilbeault recently told The Canadian Press, noting that he wants to mandate increases to those percentages in order to cut carbon emissions and to push Canada to develop such vehicles for the global market. Federal consultations are ongoing to determine how the mandate should work.
Ian Lee, professor of business at Carleton University, believes the policy “to force people to buy electric cars” will have unintended consequences such as a greater aftermarket in automobile parts to make old gasoline vehicles last longer. He says it’s also likely that a mandate would push many Canadians to import gas vehicles from the United States.
“You only become successful because you build a better product, because you’re providing more value. That’s the only way we will succeed, and it’s not because you’re forcing Canadians,” Lee said in an interview.
It’s buyer beware when it comes to EVs because the price tag is high and charging stations are few, Lee says.
“There’s a huge resistance from consumers, and I just don’t buy the argument that it’s because the auto dealers aren’t trying to sell them or because there’s a lack of incentives. There’s people that don’t have confidence yet on electric cars, and I’m one of them,” he said.
In fulfilling its election platform, the Liberal government will spend $1.5 billion over the next four years on incentives for buyers to purchase ZEVs. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra recently indicated that the maximum price of new vehicles qualifying for rebates will rise above its current $55,000 limit in order to include pickup trucks and SUVs.
British Columbia and Quebec have their own sales mandates through a ZEV credit system, which the federal government may emulate. These provinces also issue rebates, though some experts criticize that approach.
Christopher Ragan, founding director of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, said in a September 2020 paper that subsidizing EVs “disproportionately benefits wealthier households” and that spending those tax dollars on public transit would do more to reduce emissions.
“EVs should not be considered as the primary or even an important way for Quebec to reduce its carbon footprint,” Ragan said. He estimated that having one million electric vehicles on Quebec roads by 2030 would reduce the province’s overall carbon emissions by just 3.6 percent.
‘The Grid Is Incapable’
Plugging in millions more EVs would require large increases in electricity production and the grid to carry it, something Lee says has been largely ignored.
“The grid is incapable. … You’ve got the cart before the horse. Let’s say we even force everybody to buy electric cars—if there isn’t enough electricity or juice in the grid to fuel the cars, what have you done? You have created shortages and brownouts and blackouts and energy blackouts,” he said.
“There is no way you can displace the gargantuan amounts of oil and gas [in vehicles] without using nuclear, which most environmentalists are completely opposed to, including Mr. Guilbeault.”
According to Natural Resources Canada, consumers used 9,090 petajoules of energy in 2017, with 18 percent—roughly 1,636 petajoules—used through gasoline in vehicles. Replacing any fraction of this with electricity will prove costly. The Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, built at a cost of $23 billion in 2020 dollars, generates 70 petajoules annually, based on 2017 figures.
Former natural resources minister Seamus O’Regan told CBC News in September 2020 that “we have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear.” In November 2020, O’Regan joined then-economic development minister Navdeep Bains to announce funding of $20 million to Terrestrial Energy in Ontario to continue development of a small modular reactor.
During the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “exploring nuclear” was among the options being considered “as we try to get off fossil fuels.”
The necessity of nuclear power pits Guilbeault against environmentalists and likely his own preferences, however. Guilbeault was with Greenpeace for 10 years and was a founding member of Equiterre, both organizations that oppose nuclear energy. In 2018 he tweeted, “it’s time to close Pickering #Nuclear Plant and go for #renewables.”
The Canadian Environmental Law Association and 100 other groups protested the grant in an open letter in November 2020. The signatories called nuclear power a “dirty, dangerous distraction” from addressing climate change, and one “which would create environmental risks and financial liabilities for Canadians.”
The Pickering facility produces 85 petajoules each year, based on 2019 figures, and more must follow to charge up millions of EVs. However, it takes 10 to 19 years to design and build a nuclear plant, a time frame too long for any 2030 targets. Most viable hydroelectric projects were developed decades ago, and the output of solar and wind power generation is as unreliable as the weather.
Ironically, these renewables leave large environmental footprints in their setup and disposal, as do EV batteries themselves.
‘An Extraordinarily Inconvenient Fact’
A 2019 study by Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute revealed that more than 500,000 pounds of earth must be dug and moved to get enough lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, and copper ore for a 1,000-pound EV battery. Extraction in Congo, home to 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, has included child labour, harsh working conditions, pollution, and birth defects.
Dan McTeague, president of Canadians for Affordable Energy, says affordability is an increasing issue for Canadians and that environmental arguments can’t justify a heavier burden due to government mandates.
“Just to make the battery alone, is it acceptable when we dig up 500,000 pounds of the Earth’s crust?” asked McTeague.
“Answer that question and you’ll find the politicians run for the hills because the people proposing that know that is an extraordinarily inconvenient fact that they want to suppress. I’m all about environment, but I want to talk about all environmental impacts, not just the ones they cherry-pick.”
McTeague says that supply chain issues have already hindered car dealerships and that federal mandates 13 months from now would only add to the burden.
“We’ll still have most manufacturers, regardless of what they’re building, playing catch-up with total demand, and so I’m not sure how something like this is at all achievable, much less practical,” he said.
Government mandates and quotas “sound a little bit beyond authoritarian,” he adds.
“It sounds like it’s really premised on a world of magic and make-believe, that they can simply wish these things and they will happen. … You can’t force something to happen. It is physically impossible, economically improbable, and environmentally unacceptable for them to go down this road.”