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Bumpy road ahead for industry, consumers as CleanBC transportation targets ramp up

Zero-emission vehicle sales accounted for nearly a quarter of total B.C. vehicle sales last year, roughly double the national average
Matthew Klippenstein is the regional director of Western Canada for the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association

B.C. has ambitious and country-leading goals for the decarbonization of its transportation sector, but some say these targets require too much, too fast, and will come at the cost of economic growth and quality of life.

The provincial government’s CleanBC Roadmap to 2030 maps the routes to reaching the province’s net-zero commitments by 2050, and a key part of the plan is the reduction of emissions in B.C.’s transportation sector.

CleanBC requires that, by 2026, 26 per cent of all new, light-duty vehicles sold in B.C. are zero-emission vehicles. That requirement is rises to 90 per cent by 2030, and 100 per cent by 2035.

A greater percentage of medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sales will also need to be zero-emission vehicles, and the roadmap aims to have 30 per cent of trips in B.C. powered by walking, cycling or public transit instead of personal vehicles.

“What we’ve seen with B.C. is it continues to punch above its weight and has demonstrated a lot of leadership in the country [in electric vehicle sales],” said Meena Bibra, senior policy advisor for clean transportation at Clean Energy Canada.

In 2023, B.C. electric vehicle (EV) sales—including the sales of both battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles—represented 23 per cent of total car sales, almost doubling the national average of 11.7 per cent, according to Clean Energy Canada.

During the same period, while B.C. accounted for 12 per cent of all vehicle sales in Canada, it claimed nearly a quarter of all EV sales in the country.

“It’s clear that B.C. is putting policies in place where those sales continue to increase…. It’s really been an intentional effort particularly with these sales regulations,” said Bibra.

B.C. and Quebec are the only provinces in Canada to have zero-emission vehicle mandates in place. Last December, Ottawa published regulations requesting all Canadian automakers and importers to gradually increase their zero-emission vehicle sales and to eventually meet a national 100-per-cent sales target by 2035.

However, despite the progress made on EV sales, experts say a lack of charging infrastructure in the province—and a lack of private charging stations in particular—remains a barrier for greater adoption of EVs.

“There is some help on the public side with charging networks, but to a much larger extent, people will want to rely on private charging because then they can fully benefit from the low electricity costs that we have here in British Columbia,” said Werner Antweiler, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia.

Those living in multi-unit residential buildings need approval from strata councils to install charging infrastructure, which can be challenging. That said, this issue could be addressed following the province’s new regulations to lower the threshold for adopting bylaw changes related to EV charging infrastructure, said Antweiler.

“What’s still needed is solutions for landlords and tenants, because right now it’s completely up to the landlord to decide what they want or do not want to install in the parkade.... We also need a solution for making it easy to charge overnight near homes where people only have curbside parking available,” he said.

The electrification of trucks and buses will need heavy batteries, which may not always be cost-effective, according to Antweiler. This has led the province to look at and invest in alternative fuels such as hydrogen.

Matthew Klippenstein, regional director of Western Canada with the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA), said that as demand rises, a significant amount of hydrogen—up to 100 times what is available now—can be produced by local plants as by-products by 2026. Such supply would bring down costs, he said.

“It has always been there, we just haven’t been capturing it because until recently there wasn’t that much of a market for it,” said Klippenstein.

“It remains to be seen what the details are like [regarding] finalized goals in terms of percentage of sales. That will be something that we will be happy to work with the province on.”

Business groups ask to review timeline

A lack of charging infrastructure and the relatively higher price of zero-emission vehicles—even with government rebates—has led some B.C. business groups to ask the province to undertake a serious review of its CleanBC targets and timelines to minimize economic burdens on British Columbians.

“We’re all on the same page around the transition to electric vehicles and the goal of trying to improve the conditions for the environment. But most of our members feel the targets are a bit too much too fast,” said Blair Qualey, president and CEO of the New Car Dealers Association of BC.

He said the industry is on track to make the 26-per-cent, zero-emission vehicle sales goal by 2026, but that 90 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035 are far from realistic. Consumers make decisions when it makes economical sense to them, not by being pressured with “hard and arbitrary” targets and timing.

“Given the current economic conditions, everybody’s facing all of those affordability challenges and not everybody can afford to buy more expensive electric vehicles … you need to drive the demand with incentives, making sure your charging infrastructure is affordable and easy to get,” said Qualey.

Forcing a sales target means that if carmakers or sellers cannot sell enough zero-emission vehicles, they will have to lower the number of other vehicles they sell to meet the quota and avoid penalties. This would restrict supply in the market, he said.

“It’s going to mean everything is going to be more expensive.”

David Williams, vice-president of policy at the Business Council of British Columbia (BCBC), said he is concerned that CleanBC’s path to reducing emissions is an expensive one—one that doesn’t leave enough time for technology innovation and asset turnover, and instead relies on reducing economic activity.

“In 2030, the [B.C.] economy is expected to be $28.1 billion smaller if we implement CleanBC than it otherwise would be compared to a reference scenario. That’s like taking income per person back to where it stood in 2013 by 2030,” said Williams, adding that BCBC has done its own calculations based on the B.C. government’s CleanBC modelling data.

“The timelines and targets need to be recalibrated. Emissions management and economic management should go hand in hand.”

Williams said he would also like to see the carbon tax return to revenue neutrality. As B.C.’s carbon tax increases, personal and corporate income taxes would fall and rebates to low-income households would grow, leaving overall taxation unchanged. 

Bibra said B.C.’s zero-emission vehicle sales targets and timelines remain important to help achieve Canada’s net-zero commitments by 2050 and to minimize the impacts of climate change.

“A lot of times we look at climate change, and we think about it as a future problem. But I would argue that in B.C. already, folks are feeling the impacts of climate change today, whether it’s wildfires, flooding, these weather-related events are becoming more and more visible,” she said.

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