In January, General Motors turned heads by committing to phase out gas-powered vehicles by 2035 – a full five years before a ban by the Canadian federal government is set to come into effect. Not to be outdone by its competitor’s pledge, Volvo announced in March that it would sell only electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030.
Over the last year, many other car manufacturers have come forward with their own sparkling promises to pour money into EV production. But a recent report by the environmental organization Environmental Defence says these pledges are merely a “smokescreen” used by car manufacturers to distract from the fact that they are still selling millions of gas-powered vehicles. Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence, said in a press release that Canadians should take these commitments with a massive grain of salt.
“The car companies make these promises over and over again, but they routinely fail to deliver, at least on scale. Meanwhile, they evade regulations and push ever more polluting SUVs on Canadians, all to pad the companies’ bottom line,” said Brooks.
Environmental Defence takes issue with the fact that while car companies have promised to invest in manufacturing EVs, they’re still spending more on selling and promoting gas-powered vehicles that could hinder Canada’s emissions reduction goals. In recent years, a growing number of those vehicles have been gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks.
In the first half of 2020, just 3.5% of cars sold in Canada were EVs, a percentage that will need to rise quickly if the federal government stands a chance of achieving its net-zero goal by 2050. In 2019, transportation accounted for 25% of Canada’s emissions, which was just behind the oil and gas sector at 26%. In order to get more EVs on Canadian roads in the near future, Environmental Defence has called on the federal government to do more to restrict the sale of gas-powered cars and to encourage consumers to buy electric ones. The report argues for new federal taxes on the sale of SUVs and pickups that would pay for EV incentives “to make EVs more affordable for everyone.” The Toronto-based organization also wants the government to introduce new tailpipe emissions regulations and to implement a nationwide zero-emission vehicle standard that requires car manufacturers to sell an increasing percentage of EVs.
“The car companies make these promises over and over again, but they routinely fail to deliver, at least on scale. Meanwhile, they evade regulations and push ever more polluting SUVs on Canadians, all to pad the companies’ bottom line.”
– Keith Brooks, Environmental Defence
China, the European Union and a number of states, such as California, have adopted zero-emission vehicle standards. Provincial governments in Quebec and British Columbia have also already implemented their own such standards, but advocates say a national standard is necessary to ensure even distribution of EVs across the country.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson recently announced that the federal government will follow suit on GM’s accelerated EV timeline, moving up its prohibition on selling gas-powered cars to 2035. It’s unclear at this point whether the federal government will adopt a national zero-emission vehicle standard or new tailpipe regulations, as it waits to see what the U.S.’s automotive emissions policies evolve into. Earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order that set a target that half of all vehicles sold in 2030 would be electric, but it wasn’t a legally binding requirement. Biden also announced that the U.S. would strengthen its tailpipe standards.
Canadian environmental groups welcomed Biden’s announcement as a step in the right direction for both countries but said the Canadian government needs to take more immediate action to reach its goals. “Canada cannot wait on Washington to realize its EV future. We’ll need to take that wheel ourselves,” said Joanna Kyriazis, senior policy advisor at Clean Energy Canada, in a statement.
The dire message from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report expressed that urgency. The report noted that many of the effects of climate change are already irreversible – including shrinking ice caps and rising sea levels – and that it could take 20 to 30 years to stabilize global temperatures with “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warned that the report “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”
Unless the federal government here in Canada decides to take more immediate action, car companies will continue to promote and sell gas-powered cars that could be on Canadian roads for decades to come.
Alex Robinson is the associate editor of Corporate Knights and an Ottawa-based journalist.