Zero Carbon - Newsletter

Chris Hatch
Zero Carbon mast head

Nov. 19, 2023

Climate correspondent Chris Hatch sorts through the news, ideas, politics and culture to find what's working in the race against climate change.
Feature story

One green glimmer

There is, it appears, precisely one thing we are prepared to do at a scale commensurate with the climate crisis — buy cool cars.

This year’s UN climate confab is scheduled to be a “global stocktake” and it will surprise absolutely no one that action remains “woefully inadequate.” Global efforts “are failing across the board,” according to a group of the most spreadsheet-savvy folks in the field.

The group is called the Systems Change Lab, a joint effort of Climate Action Tracker, Climate Analytics, NewClimate Institute, ClimateWorks Foundation, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions, Bezos Earth Fund, and World Resources Institute.

The Excel experts got together to map what needs doing to meet the Paris targets and distilled it all into 42 distinct categories. On 41 of them, the world is “off track.” Half are “well off track,” while six are heading in the wrong direction altogether.

One lonely indicator is on track and headed in the right direction — sales of electric cars.

Climate activists will be quick to remind us that buying more EVs is not a climate panacea. We have to tackle those other 41 categories as well (and maybe even deeper challenges). But it’s worth looking at this one green glimmer on the spreadsheets because EVs are not only popular but have become both a symbol and a heuristic, a kind of mental model illustrating the task of switching from fossil fuels to clean electricity.

And they are proliferating exponentially. Much faster than most people in most Canadian provinces would realize. From “the car of the uber rich to the car of the Uber driver” (a memorable line from journalist Akshat Rathi, host of the podcast Zero). If you lump together pure electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, EVs already account for nearly one-in-five new cars sold around the world.

Just like heat pumps, the runaway leader is Norway. Today, almost all new cars have a plug. The speed has been astonishing. Only 12 years ago, EVs were less than one per cent.

“This market is kind of done,” said Colin McKerracher on a recent episode of Zero. A University of British Columbia graduate, McKerracher is now head of advanced transport for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In Norway, says McKerracher “We're now just waiting for the fleet to turn over.”

And that’s a key point. The atmosphere doesn’t pay attention to our sales stats, only to the amount of fossil fuels we’ve burned. EVs can’t do anything about the amount of carbon already in the sky but in Norway, they are starting to make a dent in the amount going forward — 24 per cent of the fleet is now fully electric, another seven per cent plug-in hybrid, so Norway is close to electrifying one-third of the passenger vehicles on its roads.

The runners-up in terms of EV sales are also northern European: Over half in Iceland, while Sweden is over 44 per cent pure EVs (another 19 per cent plug-in hybrids) and the Netherlands around 29 per cent (plus another 13 per cent for PHEVs).

In North America, California is in the lead — in the first half of this year, one-quarter of new cars were EVs.

The latest figures for Canada show around 10 per cent for pure EVs and another three per cent for plug-in hybrids.

Very few westerners have grasped what’s going on in the world’s largest car market. China added 5.4 million EVs just in the first three quarters of this year. It is such a massive market and EVs are taking off so quickly that China accounts for 60 per cent of global electric car sales.

What’s particularly surprising is that the exponential growth has continued, even though China ended its subsidy program in 2022, reckoning it had passed the tipping point for momentum.

September figures show fully electric models rose to 25 per cent of sales in China. Add on the plug-in hybrids and EVs have taken 37 per cent of the market. The four top-selling cars of any kind are all EVs, with the bestselling fossil fuel-burner ranking fifth. And beyond its borders, China’s EV boom has made it the world’s biggest exporter of cars, overtaking Japan this year.

Globally, the rise of electric vehicles is beginning to look like a classic case of the exponential growth we’ve come to know so well from smartphones and other pandemics.

Figure from the International Energy Agency, Global EV Outlook 2023

And if growth continues, the analysts predict it will follow the classic “S-curve” for adoption, where a new product struggles along and then suddenly takes over. That’s why the Systems Change Lab rates EV sales as the one indicator out of 42 that’s heading in the “right direction, on track.”

Figure from Systems Change Lab, State of Climate Action 2023

The story of EVs is fascinating, encompassing almost every aspect of the climate era: corporate shithousery and determined visionaries. Clever policies and political obstruction. Fear of climate disruption and demands for cleaner air. Carbon pricing, citizen pressure and consumer action, along with credit-trading, subsidies and myriad incentives. Governments around the world are introducing mandates to phase in zero-emission vehicles and phase out fossil-fuelled cars.

Looking under the hood of this one green indicator, what jumps out isn’t a simple story of technological thrust but the need for a broad ecosystem of change — which includes the public, business and government.

We all know about Tesla’s extraordinary rise to crack the market. And there’s no question that visionary leadership played a crucial role. But it wasn’t the Ayn Rand tale that is sometimes told (nor the Muskian one). Tesla’s customers received hefty government rebates, while the company itself received government loans to build its mass-market factory. Most consequentially of all, its growth was bolstered by billions in credits paid by legacy automakers under California’s zero-emission vehicle regulations.

Norway has used 12 significant taxes, subsidies and regulations supporting EVs while making combustion vehicles very costly (and inconvenient). And these were nestled within the country’s broader suite of climate policies.

More and more governments are passing legal mandates and setting end dates for fossil-fuelled cars. In Asia, these include China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. You may have heard the U.K. has been fiddling with its plans but it has retained an overall mandate for 2035, aligning with mandates across Europe. Meanwhile, in North America, 12 U.S. states have adopted California's Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Program.

Canada is an interesting case study in its own right. Two provinces really stand out: B.C. and Quebec, where EV sales have grown to about 20 per cent. There’s a very steep drop between those two and the other provinces. Ontario is closest at around seven per cent. The distinction is that B.C. and Quebec both have actual mandates, like California’s.

This may come as a surprise to some of you because there’s been a fair bit of chatter and industry moaning about federal targets and regulations. But while the federal carrots (rebates) are available, the stick (ZEV mandate) is still stuck somewhere in Ottawa.

That’s not to let the provinces off the hook — other legislatures could be following the lead of B.C. and Quebec. But the government had better get that mandate into force soon because there are at least 41 other categories to get on track as well.

Donate button
The roundup

The feds suffered another legal blow, this time to the ban on single-use plastics. It was challenged by an industry group called the “Responsible Plastic Use Coalition.”

It may not be the end of the effort against plastics. "I'd say it looks like the federal government can regulate the things they're now regulating," Stewart Elgie told The Canadian Press. "They just have to do it in a more targeted way."

The decision does nothing to undermine the government's ability to regulate toxic substances in general, he added, including greenhouse gases. Elgie noted that in the decision, the judge uses that as an example of a toxic substance under the law. No word yet on whether the Trudeau government will appeal or take a new approach to plastic pollution.

And, as if the federal Liberals weren’t in enough trouble already, a new carbon tax carveout for farming could pass despite their pledge of no more carbon price exemptions.

And polling since the carveout for heating oil finds that only 15 per cent of Canadians want the price to continue rising as planned.

“The public’s understanding of the carbon price is the main determinant of support. Eighty per cent of households get more money back through rebates than they pay with a carbon price. Of those who say they receive more than they pay, support for the carbon price reaches 79 per cent. Among those who believe they spend more than they get back, the results are flipped: 82 per cent oppose the tax.”

It must be enough to drive an environment minister crazy. Even as policy after policy comes under attack, other pollsters found “a majority of Canadians (six in 10) want the federal government to do more to fight climate change and believe Ottawa would be ‘failing the people of Canada’ … if it didn't go further.”

And while we’re on the subject of polling, here are some other useful peeks into the public mind.

Clean energy = smaller bills

Most Canadians think EVs and heat pumps mean less spending on energy overall, according to findings from an Abacus Data survey commissioned by Clean Energy Canada.

Conservatives on climate

It’s sure a sign of the times that climate folk are polling about voting intentions for the Conservatives. That same Abacus survey found that maintaining Canada’s current climate and clean energy measures is more popular “with respondents from every single province, age group, and gender. It is also more popular with supporters from every political party — including, by a small margin, Conservative voters.”

Overall, 41 per cent of Canadians say “they would be more likely to vote for a pro-climate Conservative Party compared to 13 per cent who would be less likely. A Conservative Party that runs against climate action would deter more voters than it would attract — including 16 per cent of current Conservative voters."

Youth Climate Corps

Only 12 per cent of Canadians oppose the creation of a youth climate corps like the one established by the Biden administration in the U.S. Overall, 55 per cent of Canadians support the idea while another 23 per cent say they’d accept it.

Support rises to 84 per cent (support and/or accept) among those aged 18 to 35, according to polling by Abacus Data, commissioned by the Climate Emergency Unit.

“A whopping 65 per cent of people aged 18 to 35 across Canada would consider enrolling in a Youth Climate Corps for two years,” writes Seth Klein. “Even more remarkable: 15 per cent of these younger respondents indicated they would ‘definitely’ consider enrolling.

“There are roughly nine million people in Canada between the ages of 18 and 35. If 15 per cent of them would ‘definitely’ consider enrolling in the YCC for two years, that’s about 1.3 million people. Now that, friends, is a genuine mobilization!”

Ontario town offered $4.8M to accept new gas plant

Napanee is already home to Ontario’s largest gas-fired electricity plant and the province wants it expanded. A series of other municipalities have rejected new gas generation recently. Now the Crown corporation, Ontario Power Generation, is dangling a $4.8-million “community benefit agreement” to persuade Napanee’s council to break the trend.

“It is totally inappropriate for OPG to be offering this payment. Offering payment in exchange for a licence to pollute is unacceptable,” said Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence.

Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, also objected to public money being used and called on town councillors to reject “dirty” electricity: “Kingston, Thorold and Toronto have said no to new gas-fired generation capacity. The Town of Napanee should say no, too.”

The climate cost of new housing

Everyone agrees we need to build more housing. Lots of it. But what would all that building mean for carbon emissions? It could be staggering.

“With weak policy approaches, adding 5.8 million homes could lock in as much as 142.7 Mt in new annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2030,” found the Task Force for Housing and Climate. For perspective, Canada’s total is around 670 megatonnes.

“On the other hand, with aggressive policy approaches, adding 5.8 million homes could generate as little as 43 Mt of annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2030. In other words, strong policy leadership at the federal, provincial and municipal levels could prevent almost 100 Mt of annual GHGs from new housing.”

Break glass in emergency

A jury in the U.K. found nine women who broke the windows of HSBC “not guilty.” HSBC is Europe’s second-largest fossil financier and the verdict came after a three-week trial.

According to Extinction Rebellion, the jury heard from several character witnesses for the nine women, like Andrew Medhurst, who worked for the HSBC Group for over 17 years, including as the bank’s head of global markets from 2003-05. Andrew concluded his character reference for Samantha Smithson by telling the jury: “If my daughter grows up to be like Samantha I will be very proud.”

EVs in the Global South

A new study from the folks at Carbon Tracker identifies a serious problem with that one green indicator: nations in the Global South may become a dumping ground for internal combustion engine vehicles unless governments adopt policies to seize the benefits of the EV revolution.

On the other hand, “shifting to electric vehicles can save nations in Asia, Africa, and South America over $100 billion annually on fuel imports, cut trade deficits, end dependency on offshore oil refining and create new jobs.” Carbon Tracker is urging governments to implement import bans on used fossil fuel cars, introduce emission standards, and eliminate tariffs on EVs.

China emissions set to fall?

“China’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are set to fall in 2024 and could be facing structural decline due to record growth in the installation of new low-carbon energy sources,” according to Lauri Myllyvirta’s analysis for Carbon Brief.

China installed more new solar power just this year than the entire amount that exists across the U.S., four times as much as China added in 2020.

Charging ahead

Back on the EV front, the feds’ Canada Infrastructure Bank made a deal with Parkland Corp. to add 2,000 more fast-charging ports to its network. It’s the second charging deal by the CIB, after a similar-size one in April that financed over 2,000 with Flo Inc.

Those are pretty big numbers, but Quebec has bigger plans: the province says it’s adding 6,700 fast chargers and over 100,000 Level 2 chargers to Quebec’s public network.

And Canada’s first EV battery plant began hiring. In one week, it received over 5,000 applications for jobs in Windsor, Ont. “The company is no longer worried about whether it will be able to attract the talent it needs for its Windsor facility, which is a joint venture with Stellantis,” reports the Windsor Star.

Reducing driving

I’ll leave you with a recommendation for a more holistic perspective on EVs. David Zipper travelled to Norway to check in on the EV revolution and the implications for public transit, active transportation and social justice more broadly. In a piece for Vox, he writes:

“Ending the sales of gas-powered cars, as Norway is close to doing, is an essential step toward addressing climate change. But … even the most optimistic forecasts for global EV adoption would not prevent a potentially catastrophic 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures. Reducing driving — not just gas-powered driving — is crucial.”

That's all for this week. Thank you for reading Zero Carbon. Please forward it along and always feel free to write with feedback or suggestions at

Support for this issue of Zero Carbon came from The McConnell and Trottier foundations and I-SEA.
Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up.