Last week was a real workout for Canada’s climate change deniers and/or do-nothings. In Toronto, Doug Ford announced that the first thing he’ll do when his Conservative government takes office at the end of the month is set in motion Ontario’s withdrawal from the cap-and-trade program that is supposed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And in Ottawa, the Conservatives pulled an all-night stunt in the House of Commons, keeping the lights burning and MPs voting Thursday night into Friday morning to protest the government’s refusal to table estimates of the per-household cost of a national carbon price.

The federal Conservative gambit was pure political theatre. Even if the government had some estimates to table, they would be essentially meaningless. That’s because the federal plan calls for a carbon levy of $50 a tonne by 2022, but leaves the distribution of the proceeds (and therefore the final impact on households) up to provinces.

There was barely more substance in Ford’s announcement. Getting Ontario out of the cap-and-trade deal with Quebec and California will be costly and complicated. His promised court challenge to the federal carbon tax has a snowball-in-hell’s chance of succeeding, and cap-and-trade now adds only four cents to a litre of gas. But it’s the thought that counts. Ford’s initiative is all about delivering on a reprehensible campaign promise to knock ten cents a litre off the price of gas, and lowering gas prices is the demagogue’s go-to political ploy.

Coinciding with that political pandering of motorists, Statistics Canada released some troubling data showing that the number of registered motor vehicles in the country increased by almost 550,000 last year. That’s 100,000 more than our population increase of 443,500 in 2017, continuing a trend going back to at least 2013. Between 2013 and 2017, registered motor vehicles increased by 8.2 per cent, the population by only 4.4 per cent.[1]

Nova Scotia even worse 

The figures cited so far are for all 34,320,737 registered vehicles, including large trucks, buses, and off-road vehicles. A subset, registered vehicles weighting less than 4,500 kilograms  – which would include cars, SUVs and vans – also exceeded population growth from 2013 to 2017, increasing by 6.7 per cent to 22,678,328.

The pattern of vehicle growth outnumbering people growth was even more pronounced in Nova Scotia. Total registrations were up by 1.95 per cent in 2017, but the population increased by only 0.55 per cent. Between 2013 and 2017, Nova Scotia’s population went up 1.1 per cent while the population of registered motor vehicle rose 4.5 per cent – more than four times faster.

Light vehicles increased by 1.8 per cent in 2017 – more than three times the rate of population growth while the increase from 2013 to 2017 is 5.4 per cent, or five times the rate of population growth. As a result, Nova Scotia went from having 610 registered light vehicles per 1000 population in 2013 to 636 per thousand in 2017.

The table below shows how Nova Scotia compares to other provinces, and Canada as a whole.

Light Vehicles per 1000 population

2013 2017
New Brunswick 696 718
Alberta 724 714
Saskatchewan 704 696
Newfoundland 648 686
Nova Scotia 610 636
Quebec 600 620
Canada 605 618
British Columbia 597 615
Manitoba 591 594
Ontario 562 578
P.E. Island 600 472

Source:StatsCanada (my calculations)

As the table shows, every province except Alberta, Saskatchewan and   Prince Edward Island had an increase in cars and light trucks per thousand between 2013 and 2017.[2]

And it’s not as if Canadians are buying smaller cars. According to shocking figures compiled by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, reported in the Financial Post, 68.7 per cent of new passenger vehicles sold in 2017 were light trucks – SUVs, pickup trucks and vans – up from 60 per cent in 2016. Electric vehicles, the great hope for reducing GHG emissions from transport, have had little impact so far. There were barely 50,000 electric vehicles – less than 0.25 per cent of the passenger fleet – on Canadian roads last year.

Despite concern about GHG emissions and government efforts to expand public transit we Canadians and Nova Scotians are obviously not ready to give up our increasingly-roomy rides.[3] When it comes to GHG emissions, having more cars on the road seems to have offset any reductions resulting from more stringent fuel efficiency standards introduced over the past decade. The latest federal government estimates for GHG emissions from road transportation are for 2016. They show an increase in emissions from road transportation from 129 million tons in 2005 to 143 million tons in 2016.

Having all of those additional cars on the road also means more accidents, traffic jams and air pollution. A $50 a tonne carbon tax, equivalent to about 12 cents on a litre of gas, may not do much to reduce GHG emissions, but it could make rush hour less painful if more people decide to save money by taking public transit. Conservatives in Ottawa and the provinces seem to want to make the carbon tax the defining issue of these times.  (Irony alert) Maybe proponents of carbon pricing should try turning the tables on the Conservatives, wooing motorists with visions of less traffic and a smoother commute in exchange for a more expensive fill-up.


[1] Statistics Canada Table 23-10-0067-01 for vehicles, CANSIM 051-0042 for population

[2] The significant drop in PEI is a major outlier and requires further examination, perhaps along with the latest public opinion sampling from Corporate Research showing the Green Party vying with the governing Liberals for top spot in the polls. Something is happening there, and we don’t quite know what it is.

[3] Full disclosure – My family of two is below the national rate – one hybrid car for two people. Until the boys left home we were at 250 per thousand.