If Canada wants to capitalize on the value proposition of zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, it needs federal policies and national leadership to achieve it
In Canada we have more than 25 million vehicles on the road. About a million, or just 4 per cent, are medium- and heavy-duty trucks, including those that transport and deliver goods across the country and to your door. But when it comes to climate change, they have an outsized impact.
While passenger cars represent 90 per cent of vehicles on the road, they only account for about 50 per cent of Canada’s total carbon pollution coming from transportation. Almost as much, nearly 40 per cent, comes from those one million trucks.
The Pembina Institute has been doing important work to find short-term opportunities to reduce pollution from on-road freight, while acknowledging that ultimately we need to drive it to zero — and that requires zero-emission trucks. The trouble is, there aren’t many of them on the road in North America.
That’s about to change.
Landmark clean truck legislation
California, as it has so often done on climate policy, is forging ahead with the passage of a landmark Advanced Clean Truck rule that will require more than half of all trucks sold in the state to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. By 2045, it will be all trucks sold.
The regulation takes effect in 2024, with escalating annual zero-emission truck sales requirements for manufacturers, with some variation in the requirements depending on vehicle class (with more aggressive targets for certain market segments, such as garbage trucks, first- and last-mile delivery, and drayage trucks — vehicles that move goods over short distances, from a port to warehouse or rail depot, say).
The Golden State knows it’s a big enough market to drive innovation and attract investment, meaning that in addition to the significant health and environmental benefits, there will be economic benefits as well. It’s estimated that by 2040 the new rule will deliver:
- US$1.7 billion in avoided carbon pollution,
- US$8.9 billion in health savings,
- US$5.9 billion in industry savings by 2045,
- 7,442 new jobs, and
- US$282 million added to state GDP.
ZEV truck model growth surging
According to CALSTART, a national clean transportation nonprofit, today there are 98 commercially available models of zero-emission vans, trucks and buses. By the end of this year that will leap to 176 and keep growing from there.
Will we see many of these on Canadian roads? It remains an open question, and the answer will largely depend on whether we have the right policy framework in place — a mix of carrots (e.g. purchase incentives) and sticks (e.g. regulatory requirements).
While there are hints of progress, efforts to transition trucking from diesel to zero-emission technologies remains scattered in Canada.
For example, in British Columbia, the provincial government is slated to launch a program including rebates and infrastructure investments for zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, and is working with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to pilot zero-emission and renewable-fuel drayage trucks. Meanwhile in Alberta, the industry-led Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration recently launched a pilot using two heavy-duty, extended-range, hydrogen fuel cell electric hybrid trucks to move freight year-round between Edmonton and Calgary.
On the corporate side, there have been a range of commitments to adopt zero emission trucks. Loblaw, the country’s largest grocery chain, put in an order for 25 of Tesla’s electric semi-truck back in 2017 (like others, it’s still waiting) and is bullish on the technology’s prospects. Walmart Canada has committed to a 100 per cent alternatively powered fleet of vehicles by 2028.
Federal policies needed
But if Canada wants to truly capitalize on the value proposition of zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, we’re going to need the federal government to step up and play a bigger, national role. Canada published new rules for heavy-duty gas and diesel trucks in 2018, which cover model years 2020 through 2029, but recently delayed forthcoming regulations for associated trailers (aerodynamics, tire systems, etc.). Regardless, given the growth in recent years from freight trucks, incremental improvements in combustion engine performance simply won’t be up to the task within the context of Canada’s Paris Agreement commitments to cut pollution over the next decade.
In May 2019, while hosting the Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver, Canada became the first country to sign up to the Drive to Zero pledge, joining leaders including California’s Energy Commission and Air Resources Board. A month later, then federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, and the chair of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, signed a new cooperation agreement to advance clean transportation. While the agreement predominantly references passenger vehicles and low-carbon fuels, there’s no reason it shouldn’t extend to all types of vehicles, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
California has a long history of leading the way on climate change policy in North America — setting ambitious targets and following them up with policy. Canada has a long history of setting ambitious targets, then failing to follow up with commensurate policy. Over the past five years this has begun to change, yet we still aren’t on a trajectory to achieve our 2030 targets.
Right time to act
Some might argue that amidst the economic wreckage of COVID-19 now is not the time to enhance our efforts. But as California’s Nichols said about the Advanced Clean Truck rule: “This is exactly the right time for this rule. We certainly know that the economy is in rough shape right now, and there aren’t a lot of new vehicle sales of any kind. But when they are able to buy vehicles again, we think it’s important that they be investing in the cleanest kinds of vehicles.”
Canadians would be well-served if our leaders in Ottawa adopted a similar view, and a similar rule.
Dan Woynillowicz is the principal of Polaris Strategy + Insight, a strategic advisory firm helping accelerate the energy transition and deliver climate solutions.