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The United States Congress’s adoption last year of the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, dramatically ratcheted up electric vehicle incentives.REBECCA COOK/Reuters

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry does not have much sympathy for other countries complaining about the massive subsidies President Joe Biden’s administration is offering to electric-vehicle and battery-component makers, as Washington seeks to break China’s dominance of the global EV supply chain.

“The reaction shouldn’t be ‘Oh my God, you shouldn’t be doing that, you’re putting us in an unfair position,’” Mr. Kerry said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Do it! Everybody’s got to do the same thing to accelerate this process even more.”

His comments served as a warning to European and Canadian policy makers scrambling to keep up after Congress’s adoption last year of the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, dramatically ratcheted up EV incentives. The U.S.-led subsidy war leaves other countries with the unpalatable choice of either outbidding Washington to lure EV and battery makers, or forgoing billions of dollars in investments and thousands of jobs.

Last week’s decision by electric-battery startup Britishvolt to enter administration (the British equivalent of creditor protection) underscored how U.S. subsidies have disrupted the market in only months. A year ago, Britishvolt was a high-flying unicorn that had just announced it would build a 38-gigawatt-hour (GWh) battery plant in northeastern England. Then-British prime minister Boris Johnson hailed the company’s plans as a testament to the country’s “place at the helm of the global green industrial revolution.”

Britishvolt also hired former Quebec premier Philippe Couillard to head up efforts to win government support for the construction of a battery plant in that province. But the IRA and Britishvolt’s own financial troubles last fall led the company to abandon its Quebec plans. And last week, it pulled the plug on the British plant, too.

The news could not have gone unnoticed in the office of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who has been leading Ottawa’s strategy aimed at attracting EV-assembly and battery plants to Canada. Ottawa successfully lobbied to ensure the IRA’s US$7,500 rebate on U.S. EV purchases is extended to vehicles assembled in this country. But few EVs on the market meet the IRA’s North American content requirements. The first Canadian-built EVs that could qualify for the credit will not roll off the assembly line until later this decade.

Even more worrisome, the IRA has made Canada a much less attractive place to build electric batteries. The legislation provides a tax credit for U.S. battery-cell production of up to US$35 per kilowatt-hour and a US$10-per-kwh credit on battery modules. The credit could slash the cost of building an EV battery south of the border by as much as one-third, or by more than US$3,500 for a typical 75-kwh battery pack.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is under pressure to match the IRA’s production tax credits in this year’s federal budget. Canada’s only large-scale lithium-ion battery factory on the books – a $5.1-billion joint venture in Windsor, Ont., between automaker Stellantis and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution slated to beginning operating in 2024 – was announced several months before the IRA’s passage. But the price of ensuring Canada’s place in the EV battery pecking order has gone up substantially since then.

While Ontario still remains in the running for a major battery-plant investment by German automaker Volkswagen, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and provincial subsidies to build the plant may not be enough to seal the deal. Ottawa and Queen’s Park may need to match the IRA’s production subsidies, too.

“The U.S. has turned on a shop vacuum to suck up incentives, and we’re standing here with a dustbuster,” Matt Poirier, senior director of policy and government relations at Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, told the House of Commons standing committee on international trade in November. “Are we going to try to match it or at least compete with that, or are we going to let all the investment go south?”

According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which tracks global EV supply chain investments, battery makers announced plans for 12 new gigafactories (or large-scale battery plants), in the United States in 2022, with a total planned capacity of 343 GWh. By comparison, the Stellantis-LG plant in Windsor is expected to have a production capacity of about 45 GWh.

There is no guarantee that all of these plants will be profitable, even with heavy subsidies. Benchmark projects there will be a surplus of batteries on the market by 2026, though growing electric-vehicle sales later in the decade could lead to a battery shortage.

Future demand will hinge on a slew of variables, from oil and electricity prices to sales rebates and whether governments move to enforce the zero-emission-vehicle sales mandates they already set. Ottawa aims to have ZEVs account for all new vehicle sales in this country by 2035, but has provided few details about how it plans to ensure the target is met. All of which makes entering an EV subsidy war even riskier than it sounds.