Are electric vehicles really the answer?

January 21, 2019
Denise Mullen

This edition of the Environment and Energy Bulletin explores the role of the personal vehicle in our daily lives, economy, and our environment. Given the emerging popularity of the electric and "low/zero emissions" vehicles as a tool to reduce our carbon footprint, we look at the environmental and economic costs of transitioning to this growing class of vehicles.

Report Highlights

  • In 2015, there were 1.2 billion cars spread across every country on earth. We estimate that in 2017 this count rose to 1.4 billion.
  • In 2017, Canada had ~34 million registered vehicles, of which 66% were machines less than 4,500kg, which we use as the proxy for personal transportation. B.C. is different, with 80% of registered vehicles counted as a personal vehicle.
  • The transportation sector, its vehicle composition, trends, technology, economic and environmental impacts is an important area of conversation and public policy debate because of its associated greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, transportation represents 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada the figure is 24%; in B.C it is 40%.
  • Like some other countries and sub-national jurisdictions, B.C. now has a strategy targeted at the sales of more zero/low emissions vehicles — 10% of all vehicle sales by 2025, rising to 30% by 2030 and to 100% by 2040. The first target is probably achievable; the last looks remarkably optimistic.
  • The commonly used term "zero emissions" is a misnomer. The main benefits of ZEVs come from reduced operating emissions and improved local air quality. But the overall environment footprint of ZEVs depends, crucially, on how electricity is produced.
  • Should B.C. achieve its targets, emissions reductions from the transport sector would be real given our >95% carbon-free electricity system. But the total capital costs to consumers (via purchase prices) and taxpayers (via subsidies) of getting there are likely to be massive. Are consumers willing and able to make the necessary trade-offs in an accelerated transition?
  • In the end, an increasing number of low/zero emissions vehicles will be part of B.C.’s transportation mix, but this shift is not a panacea and no electric vehicle Valhalla awaits. Electrifying transportation is another component of a complex policy and regulatory landscape for managing greenhouse gases.

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