Shifting to EVs is not enough. The deeper problem is our car dependence

Electric vehicles will be part of the solution, but meeting the challenge of climate change requires taking on the dominance of cars in our communities.

Our government should be doing much more to get Canadians out of cars altogether

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands at a podium in a parking lot next to an electric car with 'Budget-22' written on the licence plate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement highlighting the 2022 budget's investments in electric vehicle infrastructure in Victoria in April. Electric vehicles will be part of the solution, writes Paris Marx, but meeting the challenge of climate change will require taking on the dominance of cars. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Paris Marx, a technology writer based in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a bold claim: Canada "isn't just going to be a global player in EVs.… We get to be global leaders." Over the past year, the federal government has been announcing a series of deals with auto companies and suppliers aimed at growing the domestic electric vehicle industry.

With gas prices soaring above $2 a litre for the first time in May and Atlantic Canada's record temperatures serving as yet another reminder that the world is rapidly warming, it's clear that we desperately need to rethink our transport system. But is the government focusing too much on electric vehicles instead of encouraging more people to ditch their cars altogether?

Electric vehicles tend to produce fewer emissions over their life cycles than equivalent vehicles powered by fossil fuels, but the framing often used by government and industry that they are "zero emissions" is misleading.

Unlike a conventional vehicle, whose emissions come from burning fossil fuels, a greater share of an EV's emissions comes from its production; more specifically, its battery. This is the side of the EV that often doesn't make it into the ad campaigns.

The International Energy Agency estimates that there will need to be a significant increase in mineral extraction to fuel a green transition that places emphasis on EVs over alternatives like public transit and cycling. For example, demand for lithium is expected to soar by 4,200 per cent and cobalt by 2,100 per cent.

Greenwashing operations

Those figures sound great to the mining industry, which hopes to use EVs to greenwash its operations, but they have severe human and environmental consequences throughout the supply chain.

The "lithium triangle" in South America is poised to be a significant source of the mineral, but already it's polluting the water and lowering the water table, threatening fresh water access for local communities.

Meanwhile, the site of much of the world's cobalt extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo experiences high rates of birth defects and contaminated water, and around 40,000 children are believed to work in artisanal mines. In 2019, electric carmaker Tesla was among a number of companies named in a lawsuit over child deaths at cobalt mines in the DRC.

But this isn't just happening abroad. Part of the prime minister's pitch for Canada to be a global EV leader is to increase mining as well. Lithium mines in Quebec have already been responsible for environmental accidents and subject to community opposition, while Indigenous opposition is already mounting over plans to exploit the Ring of Fire in Ontario. We're sure to see more as provinces across the country look for mineral deposits to exploit.

An electric vehicle charging space is pictured at a parking lot in Surrey, B.C.
Unlike a conventional vehicle whose emissions come from burning fossil fuels, a greater share of an EV’s emissions comes from its production; more specifically, its battery, writes Paris Marx. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In 2019, transportation accounted for 25 per cent of national emissions, second only to oil and gas, and that had grown by 54 per cent since 1990, in part because people were driving more and buying big trucks and SUVs instead of sedans. There's a need to address the transport sector's emissions, but the problem goes beyond tailpipe emissions.

According to Statistics Canada, 73.7 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas, but the majority are in the suburbs, not the downtown core, and those suburbs keep growing. That reality is the product of decades of government policy that incentivized suburban living and prioritized cars above other forms of mobility.

A study released in January found that 83 per cent of Canadians own or lease a vehicle, and 81 per cent of car owners felt it would be impossible not to because so many of our communities have been built to deny residents a reliable alternative. Those suburban communities also have higher carbon footprints than denser urban areas.

But car dependence isn't just an environmental problem. In 2020, an estimated 1,745 people died in motor vehicle collisions and another 7,868 people sustained serious injuries. Commute times are also getting longer in Canadian cities, and sitting in a car is associated with a whole range of adverse health impacts.

On top of that, owning a car is more expensive than many people realize. Before the pandemic, inflation and soaring fuel costs, the Canadian Automotive Association estimated the annual cost of vehicle ownership was between $8,600 and $13,000, depending on the model. It's surely higher now.

An unprecedented opportunity

The climate crisis offers us an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine how we move and how we build our communities, but the push for electric vehicles is about making the smallest possible change — one that likely won't deliver the scale of emissions reductions we need. Meeting the scale of that challenge requires taking on the dominance of cars in our communities.

The federal government has increased transit funding, but much of the money won't flow until 2026 and beyond. Meanwhile, subways in the major cities need expansions to keep up with demand, municipal bus systems need operations funding to provide a more frequent and reliable service, and many Canadian cities lack proper cycling infrastructure.

Similarly, the Liberals finally approved Via Rail's high-frequency rail plan between Toronto and Quebec City after five years of delay, but even then it won't arrive until the early 2030s. And it still won't match the high-speed rail being built in countries across Asia and Europe. The ambition we need simply isn't there.

Electric vehicles will be part of the solution, but the deeper problem is how many Canadians are dependent on their cars with no reliable alternatives. Governments serious about climate action need to change that.

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Paris Marx

Freelance contributor

Paris Marx is a technology writer, host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, and author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.