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While putting more PHEVs on the road will help to significantly cut transportation emissions in the near term, the only scenario in which Canada comes close to achieving its target of achieving net zero GHG emissions by 2050 is if the sale of new PHEVs stops in 2035.

Embracing plug-in hybrid electric vehicles as part of Canada’s zero-emission vehicle transition strategy makes sense today. But next decade, we’ll need to revisit the relationship, says the International Council on Clean Transportation

Hands up if you knew that the federal government’s definition of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) includes not only battery electric vehicles (BEVs) but also plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), even though the latter have combustion engines and burn gasoline?

Language purists and climate hawks might protest, but a new report by the International Council on Clean Transportation — modelling carbon emission scenarios related to Canada’s plan to mandate 100 per cent ZEV new light-duty vehicle (LDV) sales by 2035 — suggests the government’s policy logic, if not its taxonomy, is sound.

But there’s a catch. While putting more PHEVs on the road will help to significantly cut transportation emissions in the near term, the only scenario in which Canada comes close to achieving its target of achieving net zero GHG emissions by 2050 is if the sale of new PHEVs stops in 2035.

Emissions trajectory

“In the shorter term, we want to see as many Canadians as possible buying vehicles that plug in. Whether it’s a PHEV or a fully battery-electric, increasing the percentage of all-electric miles is critically important to bending down the GHG emissions trajectory,” says Ben Sharpe, an ICCT senior researcher and Canada lead, based in San Francisco.

Ben Sharpe, senior researcher and Canada lead at ICCT
Ben Sharpe, senior researcher and Canada lead at ICCT. Photo: Ben Sharpe/LinkedIn

In 2025, for example, ICCT estimates that the well-to-wheel CO2 emissions of an average PHEV and BEV in Canada will be 52 per cent and 82 per cent lower, respectively, than an average combustion vehicle.

But as we get to 2035 and beyond, when new combustion vehicles are no longer a factor, the outlook changes. In 2050, for example, in the two most ambitious emissions reduction policy scenarios modelled in the report — nearly identical except that PHEVs make up 20 per cent of sales in one while in the other they ended in 2035 — emissions in the first scenario are 50 per cent greater.

“Once you start to really turn over the fleet and have a massive amount of fully electric vehicles on the road, any vehicles that are not fully electric — your plug-in hybrids — start to make a really outsized impact in terms of their emissions,” says Sharpe.

Alternative scenarios

In all, the ICCT report, Canada’s path to 100% zero-emission light-duty vehicle sales: Regulatory options and greenhouse gas impacts, considers three alternative regulatory scenarios as well as a baseline that reflects current adopted policies and GHG emissions standards, both federal and provincial (B.C., Quebec and Ontario).

Well-to-wheel CO2 emissions from Canada’s passenger vehicles fleet between 2020 and 2050. The data labels in 2050 show the percent reduction from 2021 emissions. Source: ICCT

Alternative scenario 1 assumes B.C. and Quebec accelerate their ZEV uptake in accordance with current roadmaps and draft regulations and that, federally, Canada aligns with the Biden administration’s goal of 50 per cent EV sales in the U.S. by 2030. Alternative 2 goes further, assuming that Canada meets the ambition outlined in Environment and Climate Change Canada’s March 2022 Emissions Reduction Plan, which is roughly aligned with the state of California’s current draft regulations that require 61 per cent EV sales by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035, with BEVs making up 80 per cent of that total. In that scenario, the 80/20 BEV/PHEV split continues through 2050.

Alternative 3 goes further, assuming stricter LDV GHG efficiency standards and a complete phase out of PHEV sales after 2035.

All three alternative regulatory scenarios get Canada to its goal of 100 per cent ZEV sales by 2035, but in the context of the country’s 2030 GHG emission reduction target (a 40-45 per cent reduction from 2005) and its 2050 net zero goals, they reveal varying trajectories and achievements in terms of the EV-PHEV sales mix, energy consumption impacts, CO2 emissions trajectories and cumulative CO2 emissions reductions.

Of those scenarios, the report is clear that only the most stringent will get the country’s emissions down to a level (a 92 per cent reduction from 2021; see graph) that gets close to the federal government’s 2050 pledge.

“Considering Canada’s 2050 target of net zero GHG emissions, the only scenario that comes very close to achieving that target is Alternative 3 …, which completely phases out PHEV sales by 2035,” it states.

To eliminate residual CO2 emissions from ICE vehicles still on the road in 2050, the ICCT says regulators could also consider strategies to accelerate fleet turnover and fully decarbonize the electricity grid.

Analysis “welcomed”

While the ICCT report was independently commissioned, the federal government did provide feedback as it was being developed. According to email correspondence with Electric Autonomy Canada, a Transport Canada spokesperson says the government “welcomes” the new analysis.

“The ICCT study sheds light on the greenhouse gas emission reduction benefits of different paths towards 100 per cent ZEVs by 2035,” says the spokesperson. “The study reaffirms that the Government of Canada’s existing and forthcoming measures to be on a path to meet its ZEV sales targets are essential to meeting Canada’s 2030 and 2050 climate change targets.”

For his part, Sharpe says he thinks the government’s current approach to including PHEVs as part of its 100 per cent ZEV sales strategy is sound, especially given the current challenges posed by Canada’s harsh winters and the economics of installing charging infrastructure in remote communities.

“I think it’s wise to not be absolutist at this stage in the evolution of this transition,” he says. “The pathway for cities is pretty straightforward. But there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of technological advances in electric vehicles as well as what the infrastructure rollout looks like in some of these [rural] places.”

The ICCT’s full report can be found here.

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