Cities’ accelerating shift to zero-emission transportation keeps Canada’s climate goals in sight
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Municipal Fleets
Dec 9, 2021
John Lorinc

From Halifax to Coquitlam, cities and mayors on the front lines in the fight against climate change are putting electric vehicles and zero-emission transit at the heart of their campaigns

Cities across Canada seek to pave the way towards zero emission targets, keeping Canada on track for its climate goals.

From Halifax to Coquitlam, cities and mayors on the front lines in the fight against climate change are putting electric vehicles and zero-emission transit at the heart of their campaigns

Last week, the City of Toronto’s environment committee endorsed an accelerated version of the TransformTO climate plan, including several moves meant to stoke the uptake of electric vehicles, considered to be one of the linchpins of the strategy. The new plan will now go to city council for approval in mid-December. If adopted, Toronto will become just the third city in North America to set a goal of being net-zero by 2040.

Among the plan’s short-term (2022-’25) goals: deploying over 3,200 level 2 and DC fast charging stations in high-priority public locations serving areas with growing EV ownership; mandating EV charging facilities in all new buildings, as well as incentives for installing stations in existing buildings; and exploring the feasibility of rebates from Toronto Hydro for EV charging in private residential dwellings during off-peak hours.

Toronto’s new target, admittedly ambitious, is that EVs should account for 30 per cent of all private vehicle registrations by 2030. (In 2020, battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles accounted for just 3.5 per cent of new vehicle registrations in Canada.) It’s also accelerating plans for its own fleets. An earlier version of the climate plan recommended that 45 per cent of the city’s fleet should be low-carbon vehicles by 2030, but if the plan is approved, that target will increase to 50 per cent.

Much of the work

Perhaps most important, Toronto is far from alone. Many Canadian cities, big and small, are escalating the urgency and ambition of their actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. While climate events like the COP26 climate conference put the spotlight on national strategies, it falls to cities — led by their mayors and other champions — to use planning and energy policies to do much of the work.

And as they do, electrification of transportation is playing a key role.

“Reaching net-zero means scaling up local innovation in energy, buildings, waste and transportation — and electric vehicles are central to that,” says Carole Saab, CEO of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

While federal support and funding is critical — Saab cites the Zero Emission Transit Fund as one example, which will pay for 5,000 zero-emission transit buses by 2025 — she notes that “FCM has also laid out plans to help electrify municipal fleets, and to support federal [zero-emission vehicle] targets by installing 50,000 public charging stations…by scaling up proven strategies, like leveraging municipal parking authorities.”

New EV strategy

Among individual cities, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) stands out for its latest zero-emission transportation and climate efforts. Over the next three years, it will spend $15.7 million on electric buses, while the city’s climate plan embeds EVs into a broader set of strategies designed to spur transit-oriented development, more intensification in the city’s core, and fleet electrification. HRM Council also just approved a new electric vehicle strategy that includes a proposal to deploy 1,000 charging stations over the next decade.

“We’ve made a commitment in Halifax that we want to [have] net-zero municipal operations by 2030,” says HRM mayor Mike Savage. “To do that, we’ve got to start moving on fleet electrification.”

Savage points out that of the 5.9 per cent property tax hike anticipated for 2022, 3 per cent will be earmarked specifically for climate initiatives. “We are absolutely moving towards taking action on climate change.”

Adding resilience

At the other end of the country, Richard Stewart, the mayor of Coquitlam, says the expanding use of EVs in the Lower Mainland city provided a measure of resilience during the devastating floods last month after the provincial government imposed rationing on gasoline.

“In that context, several of us were saying, ‘This is one more reason you need to get to electric,'” says Stewart, one of three council members to drive EVs (four others drive e-bikes). “It’s not just the fact that the flooding was caused by climate change, but [that] electricity is the contributor to the solution here.”

Earlier this year, Coquitlam and the federal government announced plans to co-invest $255,000 in 21 new EV charging stations, while B.C. Hydro is deploying another 65 elsewhere in the province.

There’s also growing evidence that larger municipalities are taking a more holistic view of EVs and electric micro-mobility, and going beyond demonstration projects involving charging stations, hybrid EVs and fleets.

Comprehensive plan

This summer, the City of Montreal, for example, laid out a comprehensive, six-point “transportation electrification” plan for the next two years that includes 2,100 new electric Bixi bikes and 250 electric taxis, 660 level 2 and DC fast charging stations, regulations requiring charging infrastructure in all new buildings and the phase out of older municipal fleet vehicles for EVs.

Montreal is also looking at establishing the first so-called “low-emission zone,” which will be “free of air and noise pollution caused by gasoline powered vehicles,” and it is investing $13 million in businesses linked to the city’s sustainable mobility and e-mobility sectors.

Looking ahead, many eyes on are Calgary, where the newly elected mayor Jyoti Gondek made it her first priority to have the city declare a climate emergency, which passed last month. Calgary already has a Climate Resilience Strategy, but the city is lagging on meeting its emission reduction targets.

New measures

Gondek declined a request for an interview, her office saying she is still in transition mode. But a suite of new measures is expected. One of the commitments in the emergency declaration calls for the city to “develop strategic business plans and budgets across all departments that identify, invest in and accelerate ideas such as high priority emissions reduction, climate risk reduction opportunities, and implementation of a carbon budget.”

Absent substantive action, an emergency declaration will be largely symbolic. A further challenge is that more than 90 per cent of Alberta’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels (the proportion is nearly as high in Nova Scotia, too), so EV adoption won’t significantly mitigate emissions until the grid is decarbonized.

However, speaking earlier, Gondek underscored her desire to follow up with meaningful steps by framing the issue as not only about the environment, but Calgary’s economic prosperity.

As Savage also attests, if taking action means fighting opposition and making difficult, potentially costly, decisions for cities to meet climate targets then so be it. “We’ve made a commitment in Halifax that we want to be net-zero [in our] municipal operations by 2030,” he says, but “it’s not cheap.”

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