Disconnect between concern about climate change and the vehicles people drive keeps growing. In 2018 I noted a couple of troubling Canadian transportation trends – the number of registered road vehicles is increasing faster than the population and SUVs and their ilk are increasingly taking over the roads. The drift continues.

Between 2017 and 2018, Canada’s human population increase of 1.41 per cent was outpaced by a 2.01 per cent increase in registered road vehicles. In Nova Scotia, where population growth has become a fixation, the number of humans grew by only 0.96 per cent, while cars on the road grew by 1.60 per cent.

Table 1.Population vs. Vehicle growth

2017 2018 change
Canada vehicles 24,566,696 25,060,399 2.01%
Canada population 36,543,321 37,057,765 1.41%
NS vehicles      647,549      657,912 1.60%
NS population      950,401      959,500 0.96%

Source: Statistics Canada (23-10-0067-01)

And yes, vehicles are taking up even more space, and burning more gasoline or diesel, as sales of light duty vehicles (LDVs) are increasingly dominated by SUVs, crossovers, minivans and pickups. DesRosiers Automotive Consultants and J.D. Power report that 74.7 per cent of light duty vehicles purchased in Canada in 2019 were in that group, up from 69.1 per cent in 2018. Most of the growth in LDVs has taken place in the small SUV/pickup segment, which includes many cross-over versions of popular passenger cars.

DesRosiers et al did not provide a provincial breakdown for all of 2019, but Nova Scotia Finance added up Statistics Canada monthly reports to the end of November and found that over the first eleven months of 2019 what Statscan calls “light trucks” accounted for 72.2 per cent sales of sales in this province. This continues an upward trend that has been occurring since at least 2010. In that year, passenger car sales in Nova Scotia slightly outnumbered the light truck category (SUVs crossovers, minivans and pickups). But the light truck category began to dominate sales in our province in 2015 and have continued to do so.

Table 2. Percentage of Light Truck sales by year

2010 2014 2017 2018 2019
Canada 53.5% 57.6% 68.2% 69.1% 74.7%
Nova Scotia 47.3% 49.7% 64.7% 66.1% 72.2%[1]

Statistics Canada 20-10-0002-01 and DesRosiers

As the table shows, Nova Scotians lagged well behind the national trend in 2014 but have been rapidly closing the gap since then. This has been happening despite growing concern about carbon pollution and climate change and the fact that the average price of light trucks is 40 to 45 per cent higher than the average price of a passenger car.

In November, according to Nova Scotia Finance, the average price of a passenger car was $28,194, compared with $42,421 for SUVs and light trucks – a 50 per cent differential. Because SUVs and crossovers are not significantly more costly to manufacture than sedans or hatchbacks a large chunk of the differential goes to fatten the bottom line of carmakers.

The SUV trend is hard on the environment, as well as the pocketbook. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, light trucks emitted 31 per cent more greenhouse gases per kilometre than cars in 2017. Total emissions from gasoline trucks increased from 20 million to 48 million tonnes from 1990 to 2017.

Canada the worst

The growing affinity for SUVs over the past two years will likely add to that total, confirming Canada’s standing as the country with the most carbon-intensive fleet of road vehicles in the world. A study released last March by the International Energy Agency (IEA) showed Canada to be the world’s worst in average fuel consumption and carbon emissions, the latter a dubious distinction we held three years running, 2015-17.

The carbon emissions per kilometre is particularly revealing, exposing a correlation between Canada’s love affair with light trucks and our dominance in the tailpipe pollution stakes. The IEA report, which goes back to 2005, shows that carbon emissions from Canada’s LDVs were consistently ranked near the top.

In 2005, before mandated fuel efficiency standards kicked in, we were third, behind our American and Australian friends. In 2010, as Table 3 shows, Canada was tied for second worst with the U.S. and Mexico, behind number one, Australia. All four leaders showed improvements to 2014, but after that, Canada became worse, while the others improved slightly.

Table 3: CO2 /km CO2 emissions (grams) per kilometre by country and year

2010 2014 2017
Canada 221 203 206
Australia 225 195 188
US 221 203 198
Mexico 221 177 175
Philippines na 205 196

Source: International Energy Agency

A guy from aforementioned  DesRosiers/J.D. Power, discussing the upsurge in light trucks, suggested to Postmedia that Canadians are willing to pay 40 to 50 per cent more for their wheels because we live in a large country “where people drive long distances on varied topography, dirt roads and snow.” Well yes, except that over 80 per cent of Canada’s population is urban, with that percentage growing, paradoxically, along with the popularity of large vehicles. And as for the snow and the rough terrain, only Russia, at 192 grams of CO2 per kilometre comes close to Canada in tailpipe pollution. Other rugged, snowy places seem to move about with significantly smaller carbon footprints – Ukraine averages 162 grams per kilometre, Sweden 139, Finland 135, Iceland 129 and Norway 121.

University of Calgary economist Blake Shaffer, has a more convincing explanation.   Writing for Postmedia, Shaffer cited surveys that show Canadians are embracing trucks for safety, reasoning that a larger vehicle is safer in a collision. This is true only if the collision is with a smaller vehicle, a notion that, as Shaffer puts it, “raises the prospect of a vehicle arms race, with drivers buying ever larger cars in order to protect themselves, when safety would be just as effective if everyone drove similar smaller vehicles.”

What to do?

Shaffer argues that the way to get people back into smaller, fuel-efficient cars is to increase the cost of owning and operating a gas guzzler, as many European countries do. One approach would be a substantial carbon tax – much higher than it is now. Another would be a system of emission-based registration fees, an approach taken by 24 of the 32 countries of Europe. The latter employs a carrot-and-stick mechanism: low- or zero-emitting vehicles receive rebates (as in Canada) while large emitters pay more – often a lot more – to register.

In France, for example, registration begins to cost more once emissions pass 119gCO2/kilometre. The extra charge starts at 50 Euros and rises quickly to a maximum of 10,500 Euros for vehicles emitting 184 grams and over, according to a 2018 report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.   As Table 3 showed, Canada’s average emissions in 2017 were 206 grams, suggesting that most vehicles on this country’s roads would be paying top Euro to register in France.

The idea of a graduated registration fee is not unknown in Nova Scotia, but here it applies to vehicle weight, not emissions, and it does little to reward smaller vehicles with lower-emissions or to penalize the opposite. By my reckoning, based upon the schedule of fees presented on the Registry of Motor Vehicles site, it costs $176.90 to register a Honda Civic but just $100 more to register a Hummer, a Ford Excursion or similar automotive behemoths.

Registration fees based on emissions, such as they have in France, and a robust tax on automotive fuel would at least slow down the aptly described “vehicle arms race” and curb carbon pollution from our highways and streets. The provincial government is currently more interested in keeping gas and diesel taxes down than in promoting such policies. But if Nova Scotians are serious about meeting legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets we will need to tackle vehicle emissions, and soon. Those light trucks leaving the auto dealerships in increasing numbers are going to be on the road for years to come.




[1] Eleven months to Nov. 30, 2019