Transportation Emissions

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What do Canada’s transportation emissions look like?

A substantial portion – 24% – of the greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution emitted in Canada comes from the way people and goods move around. Cars, trucks, planes and other modes of transportation burn fossil fuels like gasoline, diesel and kerosene, and this releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases into the atmosphere.

As shown in the graph below, transportation emissions are a longstanding problem for Canada. This is because these emissions are deeply tied to how we live – they’re a by-product of our population, how we design our cities, how we ship our food and commercial products, and how we travel for work and pleasure. Over the years, Canada has seen substantial growth in transportation emissions – an increase of 42% between 1990 and 2015.

Greenhouse gas emissions by Canadian economic sector, Canada, 1990 to 2015

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Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2018). Greenhouse gas emissions by Canadian economic sector.

Drilling down, we see that Canada’s transportation emissions are made up mostly by freight trucks, followed by passenger vehicles. Notably, emissions from passenger light trucks have risen over the years, even as emissions from passenger cars have declined. And this has happened despite efficiency improvements in both types of vehicles. In other words, while vehicles in 2015 may have been guzzling less gas than they were in 1990, changes in the number and type of vehicle on the road, as well as the overall frequency of travel, mean that transportation emissions continue to be a growing problem.

Transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions, Canada, 1990 to 2015

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Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2018). Greenhouse gas emissions by Canadian economic sector.

What can we do to change this?

The good news is, there are well-researched policy options at the government’s disposal. This could include anything from a strong carbon tax to better transit and urban planning. While a lot of these measures need to be implemented at the municipal and provincial levels, the federal government can set broad policy direction and issue funding to the kinds of projects that make a dent in our country’s emissions profile.

Right now, there are two big federal policy measures on the horizon: a zero-emissions vehicle strategy and a clean fuel standard.

Zero-emissions vehicle strategy

In May 2017, the federal government announced its plan to develop a national strategy to increase the number of zero-emission vehicles on Canadian roads by 2018. By “zero-emission,” the government means vehicles that run on battery-electric, plug-in hybrid technologies, or hydrogen fuel cells.

The federal government’s zero-emissions vehicle strategy stems from the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which places this initiative within a broader suite of policy initiatives to tackle climate change in Canada.

As a first step, the federal government committed over $180 million in 2016 and 2017 for the deployment of infrastructure for electric charging stations, alternative fuel charging stations and technology demonstration projects. After all, “range anxiety,” or the fear that electric vehicles will have insufficient power to to reach their destinations, remains a concern for many prospective electric vehicle consumers. Just as we saw the rise of gas stations over the past several decades, we will need to see extensive charging infrastructure – on streets, at homes, and built into the many buildings that make up our urban landscape.

We will learn more about the government’s zero-emissions vehicle strategy in the coming months, when details are formally announced.

Clean fuel standard

The federal government has also started to roll out a clean fuel standard – a requirement that producers, importers and distributors of fuel reduce the amount of GHG pollution associated with the production, processing, distribution and use of that fuel. This is a major element of Canada’s climate strategy, and an important step forward in the transition away from GHG-intensive fuels used in transportation, buildings and industry.

The idea behind the clean fuel standard is to create incentives toward the use of low carbon fuels, energy sources and technologies. These could include electricity, hydrogen and renewables. The long-term goal is to achieve 30 megatonnes of annual reductions in GHG emissions by 2030, contributing to Canada’s effort to achieve its overall GHG mitigation target of 30% emission reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. This is the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off the road.

In December 2017, the federal government outlined key elements of the design of the clean fuel standard regulation. This is a the beginning of a process of consultation and revisions with provinces and various stakeholders, designed to end with final regulations in 2019. Once the rules come into force – possibly after the next election – they are designed to become more stringent over time.

Will this be enough?

The federal initiatives outlined above are promising, but are still in their early phases of roll-out. Their success depends in part on public understanding and support, as well as widespread and consistent demands that Canada do its fair share on climate change over the next several decades.

While the shape and scope of federal policies remains somewhat uncertain, what is clear is the degree of ambition required to address the climate challenge through changes in the transportation sector. One easy way to think this through is to understand the scale of electrification that our transportation fleet will need to undergo in the coming years.

According to Simon Fraser University, electric vehicles are a key component in the transition to a lower emissions transportation system because of the huge impact they have on cutting GHG pollution – with Canada’s current electricity grid configuration, electric vehicles can reduce emissions by anywhere 45% to 98% compared to a gasoline vehicle, depending on the province or region we’re looking at.

Keeping this in mind, climate experts have suggested that over 40% of vehicles will need to be electric by 2040 if we want to keep warming under 2 degrees. Right now, electric vehicle sales in Canada are a fraction of this amount – 1% – a fact that indicates that the rate of electrification needs to be drastically improved.

One of the federal government’s challenges in addressing the transition to electrification is dealing with the range of energy grids and policy regimes in different provinces. Looking across the country (as of October 2016), we see that the current policies of Canadian provinces are a mixed bag, resulting in a national-level score of C minus.

Simon Fraser University’s Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team’s Electric Vehicle Policy Report Card

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* policies current as of October 2016.         Source: Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team, Simon Fraser University (2016). Canada’s Electric Vehicle Policy Report Card.

The good news is, we know what works best, and many of these policies are now in place or in development at the federal level. The same group that compiled the score card above recommends the following policies: a Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, strong and long-duration financial incentives and strong carbon pricing.

References: 

  1. Environment and Climate Change Canada (2018). Greenhouse gas emissions by Canadian economic sector. Retrieved online from: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/greenhouse-gas-emissions/canadian-economic-sector.html
  2. Government of Canada (2017). Government of Canada to develop a national Zero-Emissions Vehicle Strategy by 2018. Retrieved online from: https://www.canada.ca/en/transport-canada/news/2017/05/government_of_canadatodevelopanationalzero-emissionsvehiclestrat.html.
  3. Government of Canada (2018). Clean fuel standard. Retrieved online from: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-pollution/energy-production/fuel-regulations/clean-fuel-standard.html.
  4. Government of Canada (2017). Notice to interested parties – Clean Fuel Standard regulatory framework. Retrieved online from: http://gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2017/2017-12-23/html/notice-avis-eng.html#ne1
  5. Government of Canada (2017). Canada’s Clean Fuel Standard: how it will work. Retrieved online from: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2017/12/canada_s_clean_fuelstandardhowitwillwork.html
  6. Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team, Simon Fraser University (2016). Canada’s Electric Vehicle Policy Report Card. Retrieved online from: https://sustainabletransport.ca/portfolio/canadas-electric-vehicle-policy-report-card/?utm_source=tester-+Marena&utm_campaign=1dcfdc092d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2016_11_16&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_9205829fe4-1dcfdc092d-
  7. Transport Canada (2018). “Transportation 2030: Green and Innovative Transportation.” Retrieved online from: https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/future-transportation-canada-green-innovative-transportation.html
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