To hear Tesla founder Elon Musk and his electric vehicle disciples tell it, our personal transportation future is dazzling. In their world, internal combustion vehicles are belching dinosaurs heading for rapid extinction, and good riddance. In contrast, the new electric vehicles are fast, dirt cheap to run and maintain, snazzy and — any day now — affordable.

That’s hype.

In fact, one of the most dangerous beliefs about the electric vehicle revolution is that it’s in the bag. It’s not.

The reality is that electric vehicles will not displace gasoline vehicles without strong supporting policy. We can trace every environmental advancement — and failure — in passenger vehicles to specific policies, mainly technology-enforcing regulations. Electric vehicles are no exception. The fact that there’s been any electric vehicle success to date is largely the result of a patchwork of supportive policies in place across Canada and around the globe.

Even with that support, electric vehicles in Canada constitute a scant 1 percent of new passenger vehicle sales. The transportation sector is still 95 percent fossil-fuel-powered. The situation isn’t likely to change any time soon. Studies by my team and others suggest that if our goal is to achieve deep cuts to climate-changing emissions, policy to support electric vehicles will be necessary for decades to come.

To gain a better understanding of the lay of the land and the scale of our challenge, my team recently worked with the Metcalf Foundation to produce Canada’s Electric Vehicle Policy Report Card. It’s the first comprehensive census of Canadian electric vehicle policy across federal, provincial and municipal jurisdictions.

To set a goal we could use to compare policy efforts, we turned to the International Energy Agency. That body recommends that if we’re to meet global climate objectives, electric vehicles must make up at least 40 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales by 2040. In our scoring scheme, a jurisdiction with policies consistent with that level of adoption would earn an A.

We scoured the literature, including analyses of Norway, the Netherlands and California, the three jurisdictions with the highest electric vehicle adoption in the world. We then examined how existing policies could impact Canadian electric vehicle sales in 2040.

The results were underwhelming.

As a whole, Canada earned a C− grade; under current policy, electric vehicles will only reach 10 percent of new market share by 2040. When we compare provinces, the three most populous buoy Canada’s overall score: Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. The latter is the leader, with a B−, while Ontario and British Columbia each get a C−. The remaining Prairie and Maritime provinces all sit between D and F, with some expected to achieve less than 5 percent of electric vehicle market share by 2040. The recently proposed federal carbon pricing plan and clean fuel standard will bring up grades slightly across the country, but overall, they’ll remain low across the board.

What’s the problem? It’s not the quantity of electric vehicle policies—we count almost 100 different initiatives in Canada, two-thirds of which are presently active, with the balance being complete or lapsed. But the majority of these policies will have little to no impact on electric vehicle sales over the long-haul.

More than 80 percent of the policies are “demand-focused,” in that they seek to make electric vehicles more attractive to consumers. These include policies that offer financial incentives (we found 20 of them in Canada), increase the number of public charging stations and provide information to sway consumers. Although politically popular, only a handful of these policies have a significant impact on encouraging electric vehicle sales, and even those are not likely to be in place for more than a few years.

The remaining “supply-focused” policies regulate or incentivize the suppliers of vehicles or fuels. One particular supply-focused policy stands out: Quebec’s recently passed ZEV (zero-emissions vehicle) mandate (Bill 104). This is clearly the single most effective electric vehicle policy in Canada, one that requires automakers to sell ZEVs, either electric- or hydrogen-powered, as 15 percent of their sales in the province by 2025.

From a policy perspective, the ZEV mandate is a thing of beauty. It sends a clear, long-term signal to automakers and other stakeholders that the electric-mobility transition is under way. The policy has already had a transformative impact on electric vehicle sales in California since its birth there in 1990. It has incentivized innovation globally, in part because it has teeth: automakers choosing not to innovate must buy credits from the other companies, or pay fines. In turn, the more innovative companies are rewarded with the revenue from these credits.

This market-oriented feature is especially supportive of emerging electric-vehicle-focused companies such as Tesla Motors, which earned almost $140 million in revenue from ZEV mandate credit sales in the third quarter of 2016 alone. The policy is the one reason Tesla earned a profit in that quarter — though you won’t hear Elon Musk tell the story that way.

The ZEV mandate provides a clear opportunity for the federal government to cut through myriad and largely ineffective electric vehicle support policies currently in place. A national ZEV mandate could align with Quebec’s and California’s 2025 goals and provide an even stronger market signal by increasing ZEV sales to 40 percent of market share by 2040. This one policy alone would earn an A grade for all of Canada in our framework.

Canada could also align the ZEV mandate with complementary policies, such as the recently proposed clean fuel standard and ongoing fuel economy regulations. This would follow California’s leadership in implementing a comprehensive suite of transportation-focused greenhouse gas policies.

With strong enough supply-focused policies, the purchase incentives and other demand-focused policies might not even be necessary in the long term. To make the ZEV mandate more politically palatable, governments could enact short-term purchase incentives to help automakers adjust to the initial transition. In addition, governments could introduce a couple years of direct incentives to auto dealerships to help bring them on board. Continued public investments in public charging stations and revisions to building codes to require vehicle-charging infrastructure would also nicely complement a ZEV mandate.

Our Report Card does not evaluate policy cost-effectiveness, though our team has explored this in other projects. It may well be that a strong carbon tax — in the range of $100 per tonne — could be more cost-effective than electric-vehicle-specific policies because, in theory, the tax would allow the market to determine the lowest-cost package of technologies and actions to cut emissions.

That said, research and real-world experience demonstrate that such stringent carbon pricing is politically unlikely and might not be enough to break our present “lock-in” with gasoline-fuelled vehicles. That’s why California, an acknowledged world leader in climate policy, has proceeded with a selection of complementary, market-oriented regulations rather than waiting for strong carbon pricing.

It’s tempting to embrace the Musk hype — to imagine a dream world in which seamless, universal electric mobility is a fait accompli.

But our findings are clear: as much as we need to, Canada will not shift to a sustainable zero-carbon transportation system without extensive and long-term policy support. Though our current policies are not nearly up to the task, governments have proven options at their disposal that will get us where we need to go.

Photo: Marc Bruxelle/

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Jonn Axsen
Jonn Axsen is an associate professor in the Faculty of Environment at Simon Fraser University and director of the Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team (START). His research explores the nexus of consumer behaviour, technology progress and environmental policy.

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