Electric vehicle adoption was the focus of attention at COP26, but serious action on reducing transportation emissions in Canada hinges as much, if not more, on a transition to clean transit, writes CUTRIC’s Josipa Petrunic
The United Nations COP26 climate summit concluded after a flurry of speeches, announcements, and commitments to avert the climate crisis. Like many world leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made many headline-worthy promises — ending public financing for fossil fuel, calling for a global climate tax, capping oil and gas emissions, reducing global methane emissions, ending deforestation and advancing the adoption of zero-emission cars and trucks.
Vehicle electrification dominated the agenda for transport day at the summit, shutting out discussion of other carbon-cutting technologies in transport, including transit and active transportation. Transportation accounts for more than 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and a single solution with EVs may not be the only solution to the climate crisis.
The federal government’s messaging at COP26 implies that Canada will be taking serious action on emissions. But “serious action” can’t take an EV-only approach to decarbonizing our transportation sector. Mandating the sale of zero-emission vehicles and investing in public transit must go hand in hand, like the zero-emission transit fund announced by the federal government during the previous mandate, to reduce the anticipated strain on public infrastructure.
The Liberal government announced in June that all new cars and light-duty trucks sold in Canada would be zero-emissions by 2035. First and foremost, incentivizing EV adoption isn’t the only necessary part of getting EVs on roads. Road-pricing policies to complement the influx of EVs will also be required.
As the adoption of private electric vehicles accelerates, there will be further strain on roads and public infrastructure, potentially leading to more congestion and gridlocks in major urban centres. With a dwindling road tax, including an excise tax on fuel, all levels of government will have to come up with innovative policies to plug this shortfall of revenue. Clean transit is an alternative to move people, ease gridlock, and reduce the strain on public infrastructure. Governments can offset the shortfall in revenue and build connected communities by incentivizing transit agencies to move towards net zero-emission and providing financial support to boost ridership post-pandemic.
There is no future where just electric vehicles will avert the climate crisis without the intervention of clean transit. One of the ways to permanently reduce pollution is to get people out of cars and into fast and convenient clean transit.
A recent study at the University of Toronto showed that focusing solely on the electrification of passenger vehicles would put a significant strain on resources, including our electrical grid and the metals required, such as lithium and cobalt. Instead, we need to shift people from using private vehicles and into other modes of transportation like transit, walking and cycling.
Today, a city bus can carry as many passengers as 50 cars and pollutes up to 18 times less than passenger vehicles. One Canadian’s decision to make a 32-kilometre commute by public transit instead of by car can cut carbon emissions by 9.1 kilograms per day. If we also switch from traditional diesel-run transit buses to electric buses, we can save an additional 150 tonnes of greenhouse gases per bus per year. For Toronto, that would mean a decrease of 340,000 tonnes of emissions annually for the entire Toronto Transit Commission fleet.
As Prime Minister Trudeau returns home with all the commitments on the world stage and presents these goals to the Parliament, the federal government is tasked with developing instrumental policies that support green transit. In the previous mandate, the Liberal government launched a $2.75-billion zero-emission transit fund and a commitment to buy 5,000 zero-emission buses over the next five years. In this term, we encourage the federal government, along with its provincial and municipal counterparts, to develop policies that encourage other modes of transportation beyond electric vehicles. Transit electrification will support jobs, develop the economy, and build climate action leadership for Canada on the world stage.
Dr. Josipa Petrunic is CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, the non-profit responsible for the development and commercialization of low-carbon transit technologies.