Considerations for Canada’s EV/ZEV Policies – Green, but not ‘Evergreen’

By Andre Fajardo

On December 21st, 2022, the Trudeau cabinet issued a news release outlining the Canadian federal government’s commitment to new regulations for commercial auto manufacturers and importers. These regulations mandate manufacturers and importers across the Canadian market to begin producing or sourcing ‘zero-emission vehicles,’ or ZEVs, as a percentage of their fleet sales. ZEVs are defined by Transport Canada as, “[any] vehicle which has the potential to produce no tailpipe emissions:” this primarily includes battery-powered ‘electric vehicles’ (EVs) as well as ‘hybrid’ vehicles that are built with the option to run on either battery-electric power as well as a conventional internal combustion engine.

The percentage goal of fleet sales that auto manufacturers must meet will be staggered between now and 2035: 20% of sales by 2026, 60% by 2030, and an ambitious 100% by 2035. These regulations would fold under and build upon a broader, national 2030 Emissions Reductions Plan. Consequently, these ZEV/EV policies will be supported under the existing assigned $9.1B funding; in particular, $2.9B of which has already been earmarked for EV production, regulation, and infrastructure.

ZEVs represent a major design and engineering shift away from internal combustion engines. For more than a century, gasoline or diesel power was the dominant technology used to power commercial vehicles. Vehicle manufacturers, accordingly, were hesitant – or more accurately, resistant – to entertain the battery-electric powertrain as a mass-market product. However, with an intensifying global focus on climate sustainability, consumers have shown a real appetite for electric options. Consequently, just about every major auto manufacturer has added, or has committed to adding, a ZEV to their fleet, as EVs are on pace to outsell gasoline vehicles by 2040, or even earlier. A significant proportion of these brands have even committed to shifting their entire fleets to ZEVs, signalling a relatively abrupt movement towards consciously green technologies. Many could reasonably see the rise of ZEVs as encouraging optimism for a green/alternative technological renaissance, as climate change continues to rear its head and impact much of the global community.

Up until very recently, because ZEVs were typically marketed as premium or higher-end offerings (with some notable exceptions), many were reasonably concerned that Canadian wallets would not be amenable to the higher sticker prices and upfront costs associated with changing to EVs. Some studies considered the sticker prices of EVs to be upwards of $10,000 CAD pricier than their equivalent counterparts. With that in mind, federal and provincial tax incentives have since launched that aim to soften that cost. Additionally, the promised long-term savings from owning an EV have been well proven: studies in both the US and Canadashow that the lifetime savings from owning an EV could range between $12,000 to $18,000 CAD. Given that consumers now trust automakers to make EVs as safe, powerful, or luxurious as their gasoline equivalents, Canadians (and Americans alike) have been won over by the electric renaissance. Yet, even with this seemingly rare success of a green, ‘clean’, technology, there are still very important concerns that should not be swept away by consumers’ excitement for EVs.

Under Canada’s broader Emissions Reductions Plan, additional proposals to implement ZEV sale targets would aim to reduce cumulative greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions between 2026 and 2050 by 430 million tonnes, which has been priced at $19.2 billion in averted global damages. In conjunction with the federal mandate to make Canada’s electricity production net-zero by 2035, the incoming ZEV sale targets makes very good sense as Canada continues to push towards its federal emissions reduction goals.Nevertheless, whilst excitement for the shift to electrification is reaching a fever pitch, a number of technological and political particularities underlying ZEVs could create major policy headaches for Canadians; consequently, it warrants careful consideration.

While electric vehicles produce far less GHGs during their operation, their production remains an extremely intensive process and is a far cry from their touted ‘zero-emission’ label. The global production of critical minerals and materials necessary to produce the high-performance batteries needed for most EVs – particularly, lithium and cobalt – continues to rely on extremely resource-intensive mining methods.

Notably, because the supply of lithium, cobalt, and other minerals or materials are unevenly spread across the world, certain countries like China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC) have emerged as dominant players in the global supply chain of these minerals. Readers should take note of two prominent considerations. First, the standard mining procedures used to within the industry remain highly polluting. Especially in developing countries, mining still relies almost entirely on fossil-fuel energy generation, are extremely water-intensive, and takes up immense amounts of land. Second, continued adoption of electric vehicles by Canadian consumers without supportive and proactive energy policy and relations-building could place Canada in greater precarity with its competitors or even allies. A report by E3G, a European-North American think tank, calls to attention the already tenuous and fiercely competitive state of energy relations between most nations. Given that many experts are predicting bottlenecks in material supply, due to physical scarcity or political relations, Canada will need to be prudent and careful as it navigates its course in rolling out the red carpet for ZEVs and greater electrification of its grid.

More locally, there are also concerns that adopting EV technologies and models would also cement the private passenger vehicle as the dominant choice of transportation for Canadians, even though experts and activists continue to stress the need for continued promotion and expansion of public transportation options. It has been continually proven that implementing effective public transit systems in urban and suburban Canadian regions would offer a much greater environmental boon compared to a singular focus on EV adoption. Efforts to promote public transportation are, however, continually beset by poor urban planning to accommodate flexible mobility options alongside urban growth, as well as a lackluster willingness by local and provincial governments to lean away from road-based systems and solutions. While the Canadian federal government has accelerated funding for the provinces to plan and construct public transit schemes, it remains a stark fact that Canadian urban policy woefully neglects the importance of robust public transportation. Most major Canadian cities score far lower than their European, and even American, counterparts in the planning, readiness, ambition, and equity of their public transit systems, despite similar amounts of funding.

On the issue of equity, it should be emphasized that EVs do not, in themselves, aggravate existing equity and inequality issues. Nevertheless, another important discussion has to be had about how electric vehicles could cause the rise of a visibly classist landscape of vehicle ownership and urban mobility. While the sticker prices of EVs are expected to decline in the long run, the ability to own both an EV and its associated conveniences remains a very costly and privileged affair. For wealthier EV owners, there is a very high demand for the ability to either charge at home, or to have reliable access to a nearby charging station. Those options are not easy to come by – given that many Canadians simply do not have access to their own garage or driveway – and as such, barriers to EV access and affordability continues to be faced by low-income and marginalized Canadian communities.

EVs represent a new level of consumer access to ‘clean technologies’ and promises to transform mobility for many Canadians. However, in this day and age, equity issues can never be overlooked or left unconsidered. In particular, the new dominance of EVs represents another barrier to movements trying to engender greater futurity and sustainability in our ways of thinking around urban mobility and design. Despite the ‘green’ promise that EVs seem to offer, there must be a real push by policymakers to insert and field discussions on more ‘evergreen’ issues of equity and sustainability into the conversation.

Canadians can be proud of the fact that green vehicles offer a chance for many, but not all, Canadians to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle whilst reducing their environmental footprints. Looking ahead, the next discussion ought to be around how we can create genuine sustainability for all Canadians. That will likely need us to look beyond private EVs, regardless of their success, and towards more equitable, ‘evergreen’ solutions.

Andre Fajardo is a first-year student in the Master of Global Affairs program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His policy interests center on Urban Policy and Education Policy, and his wider academic interests include political philosophy, democratic theory, as well as the role of technologies on politics and political behaviors. Andre is exploring either a career in research, or further studies at the doctorate level. 


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