Canada’s Climate Failures Have Been Laid Bare. Can Transport Reform Be the Solution?

The Canadian government’s progress towards reducing emissions by 40% to 45% below the 2005 level by 2030 has been, hitherto, been “insufficient”.  Those are not this author’s words, but those of Jerry DeMarco, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development who stated as much in a press conference following the publication of five climate policy audits by the country’s Auditor General.

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In his speech, De Marco outlined how emissions in Canada are higher today than when the country first started looking at climate change mitigation measures back in the 1990s. Moreover, as climate targets and plans have “come and gone”, Canada, De Marco said, has “yet to deliver on any”, resulting in a tragically embarrassing truth outlined by De Marco himself; Canada is the only G7 country that has not achieved any emission reductions since 1990.

For context, the United States has seen a 7% reduction in emissions since 1990, the European Union saw a 32.5% reduction in 2022 compared to 1990 levels, and Germany, which has around the same GDP per capita at around $51,500 USD, has reduced its emissions by 35.7% in around the same period. Shockingly, France, which admittedly has a lower GDP per capita than Canada ($44,000 vs $52,000), produces 67% (6.6 tonnes) less CO2 per person, per year, than Canada, and that is excluding land use.

The headline figures and context are, simply, damning. Especially, for a government that came to power with the promise of a “cleaner, greener, future”. The real devil, however, lies in the depths of the five reports published and presented before parliament, three of which are most relevant to this publication.  

Canadian Net‑Zero Emissions Accountability Act, Unfit for Purpose?

In June 2021, the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act came into force establishing emissions reductions of 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and setting that target as Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. The act also introduced a requirement for the presentation of science-based emissions targets for 2035, 40, and 45, and laid out strict responsibilities for ministers in terms of reporting and accountability.

Following the obligations set out in the Act, in March 2022, the government published a roadmap on how to reduce emissions by 2030. The 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan included $9.1 billion in new investments to cut pollution and maintain economic growth by introducing schemes which would make it easier to switch to electric vehicles, build and renovate new homes, reduce emissions from the petrochemical sector, and more.

At the time, The Hon. Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change said: “Thanks to the actions of millions of Canadians, we have flattened the curve of our pollution trajectory, and this roadmap charts the course to lowering emissions to meet our climate target of 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels. By acting collectively now, we are positioning Canada to be a leader in the clean economy.”

Fast forward to 2023, and the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development found the 2023 plan to be “insufficient because key measures needed to meet the 2030 target were delayed or not prioritized” and highlighted that recent projections would only lead to a 34% emissions reduction target compared to 2005, well below the minimum 40% Canada committed under the Paris Agreement. Additionally, the commissioner found that 45% of the measures in the plan included an implementation deadline and that the plan n did not include a target or expected emission reductions for 95% of its measures. If that wasn’t enough, fragmented decision-making processes, confusing and inconsistent projections, and information which was not peer-reviewed also undermined the plan’s ability to achieve its stated desire.

Fleet Decarbonisation: Do as I Say, Not as I Do.

Due in part to the country’s geography and built environment, transportation directly accounts for 22% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Light-duty vehicles (such as cars and pickup trucks) account for 51% of all transport emissions, whilst heavy-duty vehicles (such as HGVs) account for 27%. Aviation, maritime, and medium-duty vehicles only account for 22% of Canada’s transport emissions.

In his presentations on the 7th of October, DeMarco concluded that while National Defence, Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Canada Border Services Agency accounted for more than half of the federal government’s vehicle fleet (10,580 out of 17,260), the agencies “contributed very little” to the government’s zero-emissions vehicle fleet targets of 80% by 2030.

Indeed, the percentage of zero‑emission vehicles across all 4 organisations stood between 1% and 3% in 2022, and all the audited organisations failed to provide an acceptable fleet decarbonisation plan in line with the government’s targets.

More broadly, only 3% of the federal government’s fleet (586 vehicles) produced zero tailpipe emissions and provided that the government tends to renew its fleet on a 7-year cycle, it is anticipated that only 13% of federal government vehicles will be zero emission by 2030, well below the 80% target.

EVs: Mind the Infrastructure Gap

The Canadian government has issued a mandate for all newly sold cars and light trucks in Canada to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035, emphasizing the need for widespread and reliable electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the country. The responsibility of implementing the Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program, which finances the deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, lies with Natural Resources Canada. The private sector and other levels of government also play major roles in this initiative.

De Marco’s audit of EV infrastructure in the country found that as of July 2023, Natural Resources Canada had funded 33,887 electric vehicle charging ports that were either completed or under development and that the programme was expected to exceed the 2026 target of 33,500 charging ports.

However, the audit found that 87% of funded charging ports were at stations in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia with the remaining 13% in the other provinces, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon. A partial explanation for this geographic infrastructure gap lies in the fact that Natural Resources Canada has not established targets for underserved areas and does not collate data which could help identify areas where EV chargers could be most useful to communities.

More worryingly, the department found that the Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program has no mechanisms to fund, identify, or include “measures to ensure the reliable operation of charging stations beyond the time of installation. Mind the (soon-to-be crumbling) infrastructure gap; that is clear.

What can Canada do to avoid an unmitigated climate policy failure?

In the audits, De Marco and Co outlined a number of recommendations. In terms of net zero policy, it was made clear that Environment and Climate Change Canada should publish concrete and transparent timelines for its expected emissions reductions. Moreover, in a bid to improve the credibility of its dodgy modelling, the government must work with independent scientists, engineers, and economists via a public forum. For EV infrastructure, what is clear as day is that Natural Resources Canada data collection and long-term financial planning must be drastically improved and reformed. Lastly, National Defence, Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Canada Border Services Agency should, evidently, develop and implement the most basic fleet decarbonisation strategies.

Where does all this leave Canada? Well, in the eyes of this author, De Marco’s recommendations are valid, well thought out, potentially impactful and, ultimately, unambitious. Indeed, the monumental challenge which is climate change requires far more than departmental fleet renewal strategies; it requires a fundamental reassessment of the status quo.

From a transportation perspective, Canada, like so many other countries, needs to end its toxic relationship with the car and look at and invest in new mobility options.

Certainly, nobody in their right mind would suggest that today’s Canada, with its long distances and low national population density, should invest in coast-to-coast high-speed high-speed-rail. However, the fact remains that so many Canadians, even those who live a mere kilometre outside the country’s main cities, have no choice but to rely on private automobiles for transportation, which is embarrassing.

In the eyes of this Canadian, it is absurd that sizable cities in the Montreal to Quebec City axis, such as Drummondville (population 79,000) and Saint-Hyacinthe (population 57,000), see six or fewer trains per day on weekdays. It is absurd that the few trains that serve those cities can cost consumers $50 or more for a single journey if not purchased months in advance.

By the same token, it is absurd that Alberta’s two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, which host 75% of the province’s 4.26-million-person population and are a mere 300 km apart, are not connected by regional rail and are only served by what can be described as a “replacement bus service”.

It is absurd that seven of Canada’s ten largest airports are only currently accessible by road.

It is also absurd that Canada’s largest rail infrastructure owner is privately owned (in part by Bill Gates, of all people).

It is absurd that taking a VIA Rail, the federal government’s effective rail monopoly, service between Montreal and Toronto takes as long as the car: 543 km, 5 hours 45 minutes by car, and 5 hours 30 minutes by train.

It is absurd that large cities with populations as large as 750,00 have no high-capacity public transport systems and that thousands of communities with populations over 10,000 are not connected, in any way, by any form of public transportation, to their larger neighbours, let alone themselves.

In Canada, the car has, for decades, been hailed as the king. But with the ever more pressing issue of climate change on the charred horizon, the government should be calling for, preparing, and instigating this now absurd king’s immediate fall from grace.

Following the government’s spectacular climate failure over the past decades, Canada’s Climate Commissioner should now be empowered to assess the compatibility of Canada’s current transportation, energy, and infrastructure systems with the country’s domestic climate priorities, laws, and international obligations. In doing so, the Commisisoner’s, ideally binding, recommendations should be an impetus for wide-ranging and (in a Canadian context) radical reform to all levels of the government’s economic, industrial, and social policies