The frustration is palpable in the voice of John Bennett, national program director at Sierra Club Canada Foundation, when discussing Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s announcement of what the government called “new regulatory initiatives” to curb Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, in the days leading up to last week’s UN Climate summit in New York city.

But it wasn’t because the announcement was just “a re-announcement of a copycat announcement from the United States” two years before, as Bennett put it to the CBC’s RCI online news arm when Canada announced it planned to adopt increasingly stringent U.S. fuel economy regulations. No, the frustration was more to do with the fact that the minister’s moves – increased fuel efficiency standards, a move to decrease sulfur in gasoline, and new heavy duty truck emissions rules, again all aligned with U.S. moves – have to do with Canada’s road transportation sector, which Bennett sees as relatively small potatoes in Canada’s overall disappointing emissions picture.

According to Environment Canada’s latest figures, the transportation sector is responsible for slightly less than a quarter of Canada’s total greenhouse emissions and smog-forming pollutants. Up until this year’s figures came out, transportation was the largest emitter, at 28 per cent, but this sector includes not only light and heavy duty trucks, but also airline, train and marine emissions.

“Cars themselves are more in the area of 10 percent (of overall Canadian emissions), so it’s not a really significant thing,” he said, before quickly clarifying himself – some may call it backtracking – in an interview with the international news service that can be heard here.

“It’s a good thing (to increase fuel efficiency standards), but we were hoping that the government of Canada would come to the UN summit with something more, not something old.”

His initial reaction highlights a welcome bit of perspective into the whole Canadian climate debate. The oil and gas sector nudged ahead of the transportation sector as this country’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter (25 percent versus 24) for the first time in 2012, said a report released by Environment Canada in the spring. Electricity production is next highest at 12 percent, the next four sectors (including buildings, industrial, and agriculture) ranging from seven to 11 percent of overall emissions, or roughly what consumer vehicle GHG emissions contribute to the overall amount.

The difference is that consumer vehicle emissions are by far the most highly regulated of any of these industries. Indeed, Bennett fumes that there are no federal GHG emissions restrictions for either the leading emitting oil and gas sector, nor any of these other industries. And it’s these sectors that together make up 76 percent of Canada’s total GHG emissions, as measured by the federal government itself.

That perspective is important when considering why 311,000 people came out to march in support of U.S. government action on climate change, according to numbers reported by the New York Times. It was a rally that landed on the last day of National Drive Electric Week, where at least nine events ran in six different provinces, all in support of increased awareness and public acceptance of zero emissions or significantly reduced emissions plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Dr. Mark Jaccard specializes in sustainable energy and climate policy in the School of Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, and he had high praise for plug-in hybrid vehicles when interviewed on the Quirks and Quarks science-focused radio show that week. Though he sees a market for zero local emissions BEVs, he sees the ability to run on electricity most of the time but still have backup gasoline power for long trips could be a gamechanger among automobiles.

National Drive Electric Week
National Drive Electric Week. Click image to enlarge

“That’s a fantastic technology,” he said enthusiastically, as can be heard here. “We need to force its penetration in the economy.”

Moves such as this may cost more for governments and consumers in the short term, but they won’t fundamentally hurt the economy as critics have feared for many years, argued Jaccard, pointing to California’s tough emissions rules and affluent economy. Moves such as the elimination of coal-fired electricity in Ontario, the implementation of a seven-cent-per-litre fuel tax in Vancouver, and a regulation forbidding fossil-fueled new electricity plants in BC show that there are pockets of major political will to implement auto-related emissions reducing measures.

And yet there appears to be an unfortunate unbundling of North American automotive regulations between Canada and the United States when it comes to the next generation of clean vehicles: BEVs, plug-in hybrids and even fuel cell vehicles. While the U.S. offers a national tax rebate of up to US$7,500 on plug-in vehicles, with president Barack Obama publicly musing about increasing it to $10,000 and making it available as a point of sale incentive, only drivers in Ontario and Quebec have $8,500 or $8,000 rebates, respectively.

This effectively makes any of these vehicles markedly pricier outside of central Canada, even in enviro-conscious BC, where higher gas prices and a healthy number of EV quick-chargers still help maintain some plug-in demand. Plus the U.S. has announced public support for hydrogen fueling stations, while in Canada there has been nothing but crickets, again, even though BC is still a global leader for fuel cell technology research.

The main question now is whether the Canadian government is willing to follow up its enthusiasm to align with U.S. fuel economy, emissions and crash regulations with the next generation of emission reducing methods, which will need a comprehensive country-wide strategy of some kind. And to truly fight climate change, many other measures as well.

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