Targets are great, but are they achievable?

Is Canada’s 100 per cent ZEVs by 2035 a fair and reasonable target? Are there other options to consider?

At the time of this writing, Canada has just announced plans to advance its target date for auto sales to be 100 per cent zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) from 2040 to 2035.

That five-year difference is a very big deal for everybody concerned, forcibly transferring the ZEV prospect from the long-term netherworld into near-term reality, just two or at most three product cycles away.

While that deadline is now formalized (pending supporting legislation), what was not included with the announcement was any detail about how we’re going to reach that goal. And those details are as important as the goal itself.

Lest there be any confusion, ZEV in this context may as well be spelled BEV, for battery-electric vehicles are very much what the feds are promoting. That point was clear from the locales chosen for the announcement, made jointly by three ministers at three different EV charging stations across the country.

The announcement was no surprise, given Canada’s long-stated support for global GHG (greenhouse gas) reduction programs, and similar positions already taken by other jurisdictions.

California, for example, has already established a 100 per cent ZEV mandate for 2035, while the United Kingdom and Norway have set even earlier targets (2030 and 2025, respectively).

It’s the California plan that is most relevant to our situation, as simply duplicating it would be the most expedient way to get automakers on-board—far more palatable than developing variants just for the Canadian market.

According to Green Car Reports, the CARB proposal still permits PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) sales to account for as much as 20 per cent of the market in 2035—providing those hybrids satisfy certain criteria.

It would be relatively simple from a regulatory perspective, too. Canada could just match its requirements to those of California rather than the U.S. federal regulations, which it currently emulates.

With that possibility in mind, it’s worth taking a more detailed look at California’s proposals, as laid out by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in its Advanced Clean Cars II (ACC II) regulations, and there are some surprises in those plans.

The first is, in spite of the stated goal of 100 per cent ZEVs by 2035, that’s not quite the reality.

According to Green Car Reports, the CARB proposal still permits PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) sales to account for as much as 20 per cent of the market in 2035—providing those hybrids satisfy certain criteria.

Specifically, they must be able to go at least 50 miles (80.5 kilometres) on electric-only power, as well as being able to operate fully-electrically in a defined cycle of moderate accelerations with a maximum speed of 80 mph (128.8 km/h).

It’s not a loophole, exactly, but it does give a minor respite for both manufacturers and consumers not quite ready for the 100 per cent edict.

Another key point is that California’s plans include interim ZEV targets of 26 per cent in 2026 and 76 per cent in 2031—with the 20 per cent PHEV clause applicable at those timeline intervals as well.

It’s an aggressive timeline that might need adjustment for Canada, given the differing challenges of weather, driving distances, and EV infrastructure between the two regions. Plus the fact that California is starting from an EV-penetration base of about 5 per cent compared to Canada’s 3 per cent.

Still, with the end-point being the same, some similar definition of the progression will be necessary to ensure the end result. But just defining the desired sales targets doesn’t ensure they will be achieved. And there is little evidence to suggest that consumers are attuned to such an ambitious EV adoption rate.

A recent study by Ernst & Young concluded that reaching just 50 per cent EV penetration won’t happen until 2028 in Europe, which is leading the way in EV acceptance, and 2031 in China, which is the next-most receptive market. In the USA, Ernst & Young says it won’t happen until 2036!

The study did not encompass Canada, but it’s difficult to see the Canadian experience dramatically outpacing the American, all else being equal. Which is why some form of EV market stimulation would seem to be imperative if the 2035 objective is to be achieved.

Should interim EV penetration rates simply be mandated (like in British Columbia and Quebec)? Several EV suppliers and lobby groups advocate that action, while the automakers tend to favour incentives, infrastructure expansion, and education as stimulants.

From a technical perspective, sales-percentage mandates are an arbitrary short-circuit to innovative solutions that might be achieved given technically-defined goals.

Rather than ZEV mandates then, given that Canada already regulates tailpipe GHG emissions, might it not be simpler and fairer for all concerned to progressively tighten those corporate-average GHG limits to reach zero in 2035? Doing so could achieve the same result in a less-arbitrary manner.

It’s a question worth asking.

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

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