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Stewart Muir: The bumpy road to a green future means EVs alone won't save the planet

The post-fossil fuel nirvana won't arrive any time soon
EV charging
EVs are growing in popularity, but we are a long way from their dominance with certain vehicles.

Who wants to be the knuckle-dragger questioning the promises of a bright future when everyone is zipping around in their 100% green vehicles, comfortable in the knowledge that this is the way to save the planet?

Okay, obviously with this column premise, that person would have to be me. Now don’t go getting the wrong impression. I’m as quick as anyone to agree that a world with no tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks would be an improvement on the current state of affairs. Although I don’t yet own an EV, I did spend $3,000 installing a level 2 charger at a recreational property I own, primarily for the use of my city visitors but also one day for me.

Big promises in this vein have launched a thousand green prophets into public office. Still, as new information stacks up with each passing day, it seems remiss not to point to a number of trends that cloud the likelihood of us seeing a post-fossil-fuel nirvana arrive any time soon.

In a recent presentation in Vancouver, Brian Livingston of the C.D. Howe Institute drew attention to the glaring gap between net zero targets and things to actually get to those targets.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)’s 2022 Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) carried a nice chart showing 40 per cent emission reductions by 2030. Yet there is scant indication of what needs to be done to get there.

B.C.’s targets call for 25 per cent fewer kilometres travelled in light-duty vehicles, a drop more than made up by a projected 3o per cent rise in walking, cycling and transit trips. However dubious this switch-up may sound in practice, provincial residents especially in and immediately around the City of Vancouver have gotten with the program and are buying electric cars more than anywhere else in Canada.

While Livingston believes it’s realistic to think that all new cars sold could be electric by 2035, this trend does not apply to light passenger trucks.

On the light trucks front, consisting of 80 per cent of total vehicle sales, Canada will fall short of 2035 targets by 74 per cent. Which is consequential, because drivers are not buying nearly as many cars as they used to. It used to be that Canada‘s most popular car was the Honda Civic; now it’s a Ford pickup truck.

Of B.C.’s 3.2 million light passenger vehicles, 2 million are classified as light trucks at a time when there are still few EV options for that category on the market. It’s no better for heavier freight trucks.

Since we’ll be driving trucks with internal combustion engines for a long time to come, they might as well be as clean as possible, right?

In March, German legislators quietly ditched an all-electric vision. Motorists will now be able to register new cars with internal combustion engines after 2035, so long as they use “CO2-neutral” fuels that burn like gasoline and diesel but release fewer climate-damaging emissions.Greenpeace, naturally, labeled the move a “stinky compromise.” Maybe it’s more like an awakening to reality. Also, having crunched the numbers, Germany is no doubt thinking about saving the hide of its very large automotive industry.

So it was dismaying to see the plug pulled recently on a $600 million biodiesel refinery planned for Parkland Refining BC’s site in Burnaby. The news was greeted by shrugs. One wonders whether the collective indifference is tied to a belief – contradicted by Livingston’s evidence – that electric vehicles mean we won’t need greener liquid transportation fuels at all. 

There will be those who point to California’s recent decision to declare that half of all new heavy freight trucks in the state must be EVs by 2035 as the reason why it’s finally time to throw in the towel on internal combustion. More likely, the Golden State will win gold stars for EV adoption but only by consuming all of the electric trucks that other North American jurisdictions were hoping to get.  

It will be surprising if Germany’s pivot to the practical does not start to catch on elsewhere.

Underlying all of this is confusion on the question of whether or not the world is now in the declining phase of fossil fuels. Peak oil is failing to show up in reputable short-term forecasts. Far from shrinking, net global oil use is growing because of growing plastic and petrochemical consumption, especially in emerging markets like India and China.

The energy transition will be longer and more complicated than is commonly acknowledged. In the place of polarizing debates that quickly turn moralistic, we should be taking apart every challenge and looking for opportunities to innovate. Climate action won’t be about one big sweeping action like all of us driving EVs; it will be the result of 10,000 ideas that by steady endeavour are turned into solutions.

Stewart Muir is the founder of Resource Works and co-founder of Burnaby-based Tersa Earth Innovations, a biotech startup pursuing green solutions in recovering energy transition metals.