The emissions drop induced by COVID-19 has provided a glimpse to a future with sustainable transportation. These ideas will help make it permanent
In the nearly four months since COVID-19 first closed North American borders, disrupted supply chains and threw public transit systems into turmoil, one of the dominant themes has been the persistent drop in carbon emissions and the reduction in local air pollution as ground, air and marine transport networks shrunk.
Compared with 2019, levels of air pollution in all major cities, from New York to Mumbai, fell by nearly 70 per cent as a result of measures to contain the virus. Animals also became more visible, as seen when thousands of flights were grounded in Mumbai because hundreds of thousands of flamingos landed on Mumbai beaches. All spring, people enjoyed clearer skies and breathing purer air.
Now, as our economies and societies gradually — in some cases, haltingly — reopen, a pressing question tops the agenda: what can we do to ensure our cities remain cleaner, healthier and sustainable as passenger and freight transportation resumes?
As much as we’ve worked to flatten the COVID curve, it will be a huge opportunity lost if we fail to focus also on flattening the curve of carbon emissions and other pollutants.
Zero-emission vehicles, such as electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, have a significant potential to achieve this goal. However, there are substantial challenges to implementing zero-emission transportation solutions: supportive policies are not in place; the upfront costs of zero-emission vehicles are relatively high; there are limitations with heavy battery weight and range for commercial EVs; and there is an absence of efficient EV battery recycling technology.
Here are some suggestions to help us overcome these obstacles.
1. Economic recovery should focus on affordable zero-emission vehicles
While the government is defining economic recovery policies, the focus should be on maximizing renewable energy and zero-emission transportation. This crisis is a good time for governments to develop a zero-emission vehicle national strategy. This strategy must target the entire zero-emission vehicle ecosystem, including buyers, manufacturers, charging infrastructure and EV battery recycling.
Despite many impediments like high purchase cost, Canada witnessed notable electric car adoption in 2019. The primary driver was government intervention that subsidized the zero-emission vehicle purchase cost.
To continue this trend and counter potential market setbacks caused by a COVID-19 recession and oil price shocks, we need a more substantial stimulus package to support clean transportation and to continue critical incentive programs that focus on making EVs affordable.
Canada once ranked fifth globally in commercial vehicle production. It stands to reason the country can gain a prominent stake in electric vehicle production through a robust stimulus strategy that attracts zero-emission vehicle investment.
France’s government is injecting more than $8.8 billion to save the auto industry from huge losses created by virus lockdowns and wants to use the crisis to make France the No. 1 producer of electric vehicles in Europe. Canada, as well, should focus on spurring electric vehicle production that increases domestic electric vehicle sales.
2. Help businesses and fleets to adopt zero-emission vehicles
Corporations are the first to understand the business case for transitioning to zero-emission transportation, and they are ready to lead the way. This need is driven by various factors, like climate risks and improving economics based on a more favourable total cost of ownership. There is vast potential to electrify everything from garbage trucks and school buses to delivery trucks and short/long haul commercial vehicles. However, the main barrier is cost, with many looking for more significant incentives for purchasing and manufacturing vehicles.
3. Innovation in battery recycling technology
As we replace conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles, more new batteries will be built. They will eventually reach their end of life. Used EV batteries are a dangerous type of waste as they are both toxic and contain enough energy to explode. Used EV batteries can be repurposed for energy storage because there will be enough storage capacity in these batteries. However, this is only a temporary solution to a permanent problem unless the energy storage market considerably grows and matches the EV market.
Therefore, recycling technology must mature to recover 100 per cent of the battery materials, allowing us to reuse materials that would otherwise be mined and avoid landfilling. This vision of a circular economy for EVs will require additional investment, research and planning over the next decade. It is a daunting task, but it can be achieved if there is a broad commitment from all stakeholders, including the government.
4. Make commercial vehicles an epicentre of clean transportation
More than one million commercial vehicles are operating on Canadian roads. On average, a single commercial vehicle consumes 30 times as much fuel as the average passenger car. It is a sector that offers vast potential for reducing fuel consumption and emissions.
However, the challenge for EV makers is to provide a compelling economic case to adopt commercial electric vehicles due to high prices, enormous battery weight and long charging time. Commercial EVs can’t move cargo at a reasonable cost. It would take 20 times more massive battery compared to the mass of a diesel tank to deliver the same amount of energy.
Therefore, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could play a more significant role in replacing conventional commercial vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles’ longer-range and quick-fueling capabilities are especially attractive in heavier trucks and buses. In my opinion, fuel cell commercial vehicles could be used in cold temperatures where battery trucks and buses experience reduced performance.
Canada is recognized worldwide for its contribution to the maturity of fuel cell technology and industry expertise. We also benefit from the abundance of hydro-electric power to produce low-cost hydrogen that fuels hydrogen vehicles with a lower carbon footprint. Therefore, it is time for Canada to develop and produce hydrogen fuel cell technology for the commercial vehicle sector.
5. Reboot Transportation 2.0
As we are planning to restart the economy, let us prioritize sustainable transportation. So far, the way we have used transportation has had a detrimental effect on the environment. Let us see this pandemic as an opportunity to redesign our transportation systems for a better world.
Pete Thimmaiah, PhD, is program lead, zero emission fleets at the Fraser Basin Council, based in Vancouver. Twitter contact: @poovannact.