Situation is ripe for a doubling down on investment in EV supply chain, charging infrastructure, education and workforce training, experts say, to meet immediate needs and spark long-term growth in Canada’s clean transportation economy
The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought with it a massive toll — in lives lost, but also in terms of the huge number of Canadians unemployed and businesses struggling to survive this unprecedented interruption in human activity.
As governments make plans for economic recovery, a growing chorus of industry leaders and policy experts have argued that Canada’s clean economy, including EVs, EV infrastructure and other forms of electrified transportation and mobility, should be prioritized.
News reports suggest the federal government intends to move in this direction — essentially building on its pre-pandemic 2030 climate plan agenda — but so far specific commitments beyond immediate relief for individuals and businesses have been few.
Shift the economy
While not speaking for the government, at least one Liberal MP is expressing his support for this position.
“The economy was already changing quite rapidly even before the pandemic, and obviously with the steep drop in oil prices, the need to shift our economy is that much greater… there’s no better opportunity to invest in the clean transition,” Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Member of Parliament for Beaches-East York, tells Electric Autonomy.
Adds Erskine-Smith: “I do think that the executive director of the International Energy Agency is right when he says we need to put public investments in the clean transition at the heart of the stimulus response to the coronavirus on the way outside of the pandemic.”
With parties as diverse as Clean Energy Canada and the World Bank making a similar case, we reached out to a number of Canadian experts to ask what this shift might look like, and where the priorities and opportunities lie.
Dual benefit solutions
According to Brendan Haley, policy director of Efficiency Canada, when it comes to stimulus investments in the clean economy, “a lot of the solutions and technologies have a dual benefit” of providing economic relief which is both short and long-term.
Large-scale infrastructure projects, such as electric vehicle charging networks, are one obvious area in which investment has the potential to provide short-term results and also allow clean sectors to grow sustainably over time.
Since 2016, Natural Resources Canada has already dedicated over $226 million to projects designed to increase the number of EV chargers available to Canadians. Nathan Lemphers, a research fellow at the Smart Prosperity Institute, argues that EV infrastructure needs “an order of magnitude or more change in the amount of funding” in order to fully support Canada’s current ZEV targets.
Echoing this statement, Erskine-Smith argues that “there’s a role for governments to play in a serious way, not only to help support the more nascent industries and the move to the clean transition with some consumer subsidies, which we’ve done in part, but also support the infrastructure.”
“We’ve done that in an important way, but I would say also a relatively modest way so far. Here’s an opportunity to make a national infrastructure program happen for clean vehicles.”
Funding the expansion of charging networks not only provides employment for the workers building the infrastructure but makes it easy for a larger number of Canadians to purchase electric vehicles, thereby assuring waves of growth for the industry over the long term.
Policy landscape ripe for action
The current economic situation could also be working to transform political dynamics that have previously prevented strong ZEV policy from coming to fruition, according to Lemphers.
“The fact of the matter is that COVID radically changes the policy environment for electric and autonomous vehicles in Canada… the balance of power at the negotiating table is very different,” says Lemphers.
Policies such as a national ZEV mandate, a clean fuel standard, or emissions standards aligned with those mandated in California could be proposed as conditions of bailout deals with automakers, he says.
In a recent open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, Clean Energy Canada stresses that this principle should apply to the energy sector as well, recommending that “any relief for the fossil fuel sector… which [is] facing long-term structural challenges, must have stringent conditions to focus on workers, decarbonization and diversification, and not impede the transition to a clean energy economy.”
Investment opportunities abound
According to Lemphers, there is no shortage of investment opportunities that would spark long-term growth in Canada’s clean transportation economy.
One major way to bring clean jobs to Canada is to bolster the electric vehicle supply chain by incentivizing the manufacturing and assembly of EVs and vehicle batteries through tax incentives or loans.
Recent research has shown that if Canada reaches its stated targets of having 30 per cent of vehicle sales be zero-emission by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2040, the country’s zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) economy could consist of 1.1 million jobs and a GDP of $152 billion by 2040.
However, those numbers do not represent a scenario in which a major EV or battery manufacturing operation is brought to Canada, which would see the size of ZEV-industry employment rise to much higher levels.
Another area in which investment could support the transition to decarbonizing transportation is the domestic production of critical minerals such as lithium, which is currently used in the majority of EV batteries. Lemphers highlights the Calgary-based companies E3 Metals and Summit Nanotech as examples of companies doing innovative work to develop lithium in an environmentally-friendly manner.
Additionally, governments could invest in procuring ZEVs themselves, electrifying public transit fleets, and preparing electrical grids for the increased loads which ZEVs will put upon the system through software and hardware upgrades.
Education ensures future growth
Investment in education is clearly crucial to enable workers to reskill in growth areas and continue to provide the next generation with the tools to support the clean economy.
Institutions such as the British Columbia Institute of Technology have established several courses designed to effectively prepare workers for clean sectors expected to see increased growth in the next decade. Their Electric Vehicle Maintenance Program, for instance, provides vehicle mechanics with the unique skills necessary to work with EVs.
“In every program we teach at BCIT, we’re looking at incorporating clean technology and sustainability,” says Kim Dotto, dean of applied research at BCIT, who is also currently working on developing a Masters of Smart Grid Systems degree.
“There’s an understanding among educators that the clean economy is something not only that we need to because it’s good for the environment, but it’s also a good portion of where the economy is headed over the next decade or two decades. We have to train the people who are coming through now to be ready for that economy as it grows.”
Research has shown, for instance, that education has an especially crucial role to play in preparing Canadians for the rise of autonomous vehicles, for which skills such as computer programming and cybersecurity are essential skills.
A clean future
Although the first priority for any stimulus plan should be getting Canadians back to work, Haley stresses the importance of considering our economy’s long-term health as well. In this regard, it is crucial that Canada acts to make the right clean investments without delay.
“I think we should start framing it as something that entrepreneurs, investors, people thinking about job training can see as the trajectory for economic opportunities in the decades to come,” says Haley.
“For a durable recovery, we really need to create investor confidence and lay out a trajectory of demanding innovation over the next number of decades,” he says. “That’s what we actually need to solve climate change.”