Think an Electric Vehicle Will Cut Your Ghgs? Not in These Provinces.

Nissan Leaf

By Jonny Wakefield

April 2, 2015

Will switching to an electric vehicle reduce your carbon footprint? In Canada, it depends on where you live.

A new study by University of Toronto researcher Chris Kennedy is adding fuel to the debate over electric vehicles (EVs) and climate change. 

Last week, Kennedy told the CBC that plugging an EV into the carbon-heavy electricity grids of three Canadian provinces is no better for the environment than burning a tank of gas.

In Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Alberta, "you're better off filling up at the pump," Kennedy told CBC's The Current. Those provinces rely on coal to generate a large part of their electricity.

Kennedy’s latest paper, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the carbon intensity of electricity generation—findings which could have big implications for EVs in Canada. 

The study looked at the tons of carbon dioxide emitted over the life of an electric vehicle. In the last five years, around 10,000 electric vehicles have sold in Canada.

EVs will not significantly reduce emissions in provinces that produce more than 600 tons of greenhouse gases(GHGs) per gigawatt-hour of electricity, Kennedy concludes. 

He found that in B.C., Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland, emissions from EVs were “close to zero” due to the relatively low-carbon intensity of electricity grids in those provinces. Not so in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, which have the dirtiest electricity grids in Canada in that order. Fortunately, EV sales seem to be strongest in provinces with cleaner electricity grids.

2013 study from Natural Resources Canada indicated that 95 per cent of plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales were in the six “clean power” provinces—the provinces that emit fewer than 200 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour.  

Decarbonizing the transportation system is crucial step in reducing Canada’s GHG emissions. According to a 2012 WWF-Canada study, road transportation accounts for around 19 per cent of GHGs, making it the “greatest contributor” and “second-highest growth source of emissions in the country.”