Smart choices for
a lower emissions future

Peter Boag

Peter Boag is President and CEO of the Canadian Fuels Association.

​​Whenever we travel, we’re faced with a variety of decisions. What mode of transport will get us where we’re going? What route will we take? How long will it take to reach our destination? The governing concern is usually cost—how much and who’s paying.

So I am puzzled by decisions that are being made on our way to a lower emissions future—decisions that seem to ignore who’s footing the bill (taxpayers), as if Canadians are willing to forgo affordability and automatically travel first class. Clearly, we don’t have that sort of pocketbook. Yet some Canadian policymakers are zealously—often with taxpayers’ money—advancing a costly transportation electrification agenda.

Ontario is a case in point, although hardly the only jurisdiction in which this fixation on costly electrification holds true. The Province’s Electric Vehicle Incentive Program rewards early adopters with taxpayer-funded incentives of between $6,000 and $14,000 on the purchase of each vehicle, depending on battery size and seating capacity.

My point is not that electrification is wrong (I believe it’s an important component in a long-term shift in transportation modes). It is that this trend is disturbing for its disregard of the scientific and engineering literature, which strongly suggests a less expensive way to achieve greater greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a report in November 2015 that points to improvements in mainstream technologies as promising the greatest near-term impact to reduce petroleum transportation fuel consumption and GHG emissions. MIT’s research shows that “improvements in internal combustion engines, transmissions, and in-vehicle technology through reducing weight, aerodynamic drag and tire resistances, provide the largest fuel consumption and GHG emissions reductions for the next 20-plus years”.

The report highlights the time it takes for new technologies to achieve major fleet penetration. Two conclusions are worth noting: first, that “the impact of alternative energy sources such as electricity and hydrogen, even going out 30 years or so, [will be] modest”; and second, that in projections of vehicle sales by engine type, internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles will still make up 60 percent of sales in 2050.

MIT’s work aligns with findings of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As recently as January 2017, the EPA observed that auto manufacturers have been developing and adopting fuel economy technologies at unprecedented rates. Based on various sources, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the EPA concluded that “a wide variety of effective technologies are available to reduce GHG emissions from cars and light trucks.” Focusing on the evolution of these technologies is positioning automakers to meet increasingly strict fuel efficiency and emission standards through the 2025 model year at lower costs than predicted.

“Auto manufacturers have been developing and adopting fuel economy technologies at unprecedented rates.”

What are the best strategies to achieve our goal?

Cumulatively, the research tells me that if we are aiming for significant reductions in road transportation GHG emissions, we need to consider three broad strategies:

  1. Pursue continuous, ongoing improvements to ICE engine and vehicle technology.
  2. Conserve energy by operating vehicles and fleets more efficiently.
  3. Shift over time to alternative energy sources.

The success of these strategies hinges on at least three fundamental questions:

  1. How much can transformative technologies accomplish, and at what pace?
  2. What will it cost, and what are the affordability implications for Canadians?
  3. How much are Canadians willing to change behaviour to meet reduction targets?

Technology, affordability and behaviour are the wild cards in the current high aspirations to eliminate GHG emissions. In this issue of Perspectives, we touch on each. “The dominant power” reminds us of the long arc of research and development that underpins the development of all automotive technology. In “The high price of lower emissions”, we dig for the true cost of GHG mitigation policies and the best possible pathways to lower GHG emissions. Finally, Earnscliffe Strategy Group presents key insights from its surveys on energy and the environment in “It’s complicated: Canadian opinion and the fuels sector”.

In fact, I believe this issue features an impressive range of columns and articles that, together, present clear and balanced insight to help Canadians make informed decisions about our transportation fuels future.