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6,000 electric vehicles in the Yukon

It seems clear that there will be a lot more electric vehicles on Yukon roads in 2030

The shape of what a low-carbon world will look like is slowly emerging from the fog of the future. It is going to affect our day-to-day lives a lot more than just recycling our yogurt containers and avoiding plastic straws.

This is especially true in the Yukon. Because our private sector is so small, the role for individuals has to be bigger. The Yukon government’s new draft climate change strategy points out that commercial and industrial emissions are only 11 per cent of the Yukon’s total, compared to 54 per cent from road transportation. Meanwhile, In Canada, transportation including road, rail, air and marine combined is just 24 per cent according to Statistics Canada.

The Yukon’s transportation emissions are roughly equally split between commercial vehicles and personal ones; that’s you and your gas-guzzler, I’m afraid.

The draft strategy got some headlines for saying there “could be over 6,000 zero emission vehicles” in the Yukon by 2030. Today we have just 16, according to the Yukon Statistics Bureau.

Since road transportation is such a huge portion of the Yukon’s emissions, it makes sense to question our love affair with the internal combustion engine (ICE) if we want to reduce our carbon footprint.

Norway understood this a lot sooner than we did. The electric Nissan Leaf is Norway’s top selling car. Electric vehicles are already 7 per cent of Norway’s fleet.

We have 37,194 cars and light trucks on the road now, and their number has been growing about one per cent per year recently according to Statistics Bureau figures. Having 6,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030 would probably be about 14 per cent of the Yukon fleet.

So, on the one hand, 6,000 vehicles is a lot more than today’s 16. Interestingly, however, the plan suggests a dramatically slower roll out of electric vehicles than planned in leading countries. The draft Yukon strategy targets 30 per cent of new vehicles being zero-emission in 2030. Norway targets 100 per cent by 2025. Electric vehicle technology is developing rapidly. Some of the biggest global automakers have announced ambitions to dramatically ramp up their electric vehicle offerings. Back in 2017, General Motors announced it planned to shift to a 100 per cent electric future at some point, and have more than 20 models for sale in 2023.

It does take time to shift the mix of a vehicle fleet. The average age of a registered vehicle in the Yukon today is almost 12 years. This suggests that a lot of the gas guzzlers purchased this year will still be on the road for that 2030 target date.

While it’s hard to predict exact numbers and dates, it seems clear to me that there will indeed be a lot more electric vehicles on Yukon roads in 2030.

The big question is whether this will happen naturally, or how forcefully the government will have to nudge us along the way.

In previous columns, I’ve written about the Yukoners I know who own electric cars. They are enthusiastic about their performance and also their lower operating costs. The Yukon government strategy agrees with these pioneers, saying that the average Yukoner could save close to $2,000 per year switching from gasoline to electric. That’s comparing a Chevrolet Malibu with a Chevrolet Volt with an annual driving distance of 16,000 kilometres.

While electric vehicle purchase prices today are higher than ICE versions, this may change as electric vehicle volumes ramp up and economies of scale kick in.

The Yukon government draft strategy has some nudges in it. They suggest a rebate for zero-emission vehicles, although don’t mention how big this might be. The federal incentive is currently $2,500-5,000 depending on the model, while British Columbia’s program stacks on up to an additional $3,000.

It also suggests installing charging stations to enable highway travel in the Yukon, and to require new residential buildings in Whitehorse to have beefed up electrical systems to support 240-volt or so-called Level 2 electric vehicle charging.

Note that these are incentives to go electric, rather than disincentives to use ICE vehicles. They are also relatively light compared to what Norway has done.

Some of Norway’s more energetic nudges include a 25 per cent value-added tax on ICE vehicles. Norway also has a big registration tax on new ICE vehicles, calculated based on the vehicle’s weight, carbon and NOx emissions. For a Volkswagen Golf with a list price of around $30,000, for example, the registration tax is over $9,000. Electric vehicles are exempt from both taxes.

Norway’s gas and carbon taxes also make refueling almost twice as expensive as in the Yukon.

Norwegian electric cars also park for free and can use bus lanes in some cities, and enjoy other perks such as free road tolls and discounts on ferries.

The year 2030 will be here sooner than we think. The automotive industry may succeed in making electric vehicles the obvious economic choice, in which case few government nudges will be needed. But if this doesn’t happen as fast as many hope, and the climate situation continues to get darker, the Yukon government has lots of levers to choose from to accelerate the transition.

Assuming it eventually gets around to building more renewable power plants, of course, so that our electric cars aren’t actually powered by LNG.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.