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An electric vehicle is charged in Ottawa on July 13, 2022.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada’s government is enchanted – obsessed even – with the idea of building batteries for electric vehicles on home soil. Already, Volkswagen is soaking up about $14-billion in public subsidies to build a battery factory in Southwestern Ontario, and Stellantis, owner of Jeep and Fiat, and LG Energy Solution are demanding equal treatment for their joint venture.

The mission to make Canada (well, Ontario) part of the global EV supply chain was inevitable and, from a purely industrial point of view, makes some sense, even though the per-employee job creation bill may emerge as the most expensive in Canadian history.

But on so many other levels, the decision to lunge into the EV supply chain lies somewhere between irresponsible and crazed; it locks us into an ever-expanding car culture for generations when we should be downgrading the car as a transportation tool, as some European cities are doing.

EVs, and hybrid cars to a lesser extent, enjoy a global image that is entirely unjustified. The pitch – buy an EV and save the planet – is just nonsense.

Never mind that EVs are still cars that need to be parked. Their presence will still disfigure cities, pushing politicians and developers to build new parking lots, roads and highways to gratify the endless swarms of drivers (see Ontario’s proposed Highway 413, an assault on the wetlands, waterways and farmland in Southern Ontario’s Greenbelt).

And never mind that EVs are hardly “clean,” even if they have no tailpipe emissions. The EV supply chain is notoriously ugly and carbon-intensive. Yes, EVs can make urban air more breathable, but at what cost to the greater environment?

Cleaner air in cities does not mean climate change will slow down. The EV revolution could even accelerate global warming as forests in sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere are razed to make way for the mines and smelters that produce the nickel, copper, cobalt and lithium required to build EV batteries. The Washington Post recently reported that the high-pressure, acid-based nickel-leaching process used in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of the metal, generates 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of nickel.

After a slow burn, there is no doubt that EVs will sound the death knell for diesel- and gasoline-powered cars. European Union law requires all new cars to have zero carbon emissions from 2035. In the United States, President Joe Biden wants the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten car-emission standards to the point that two-thirds of new cars and light trucks will have to be electric by 2032. Canada is considering an even more aggressive zero-emissions mandate, backed by the lavish investments in battery production.

The debate virtually worldwide is the speed at which governments should banish internal-combustion engines; it is rarely about the need to banish cars regardless of what power source they use. EV production could actually increase the number of cars on the road, since families will probably buy them initially as second cars – urban runabouts – while they keep their longer-range fossil-fuel cars for as many years as possible.

As EV use soars, so will the demands on regional and national power systems. Already, there are fears that plugging in millions of cars at night could blow grids in areas where there is barely enough electricity to meet peak demand. Last September, California asked residents to avoid charging EVs during a brutal heat wave, when all the juice was needed to keep the lights and air conditioning on. As the planet heats up, so will the battle to find enough power to keep EVs charged up and homes running.

More power plants will have to be built and, in many countries – perhaps most – that means building coal and natural-gas plants. The International Energy Agency says that about two-thirds of global energy comes from fossil fuels and that ratio is unlikely to change much any time soon, since nuclear plants are costly and renewable energy is unreliable and rolling out slowly, if steadily.

It may make sense to plug in an EV in Ontario or Quebec, where zero-emissions energy is the dominant power; it makes little sense to plug in an EV in Alberta, where almost 90 per cent of the electricity is generated by fossil fuels. EV owners in Alberta are merely transferring emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack.

In some enlightened cities, the debate is not whether EVs are a net benefit but whether cars of any size, shape or power source are. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo doesn’t want her streets cluttered with fossil-fuel or battery-powered cars. The city has banned heavily polluting diesel cars, added bike lanes to most of the streets in the centre, eliminated most cars from a few main roads like the Rue de Rivoli and is expanding the metro network. The result is that car trips in Paris have fallen by almost half since 1990, according to a study by Les Cahiers Scientifiques du Transport.

Which brings us to Canada. If there is one project that would create thousands of jobs, improve business productivity, clean up the air, reduce the output of greenhouse gases and cut the demand for endless highway construction, it would be high-speed electric rail between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, where population densities are high enough to make the project sensible. Cost estimates are all over the map. The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy put the price tag at about $12-billion, which is $2-billion less than the bucks being thrown at the Volkswagen battery plant alone. But forget it – the Canadian government wants more cars, not fewer. Canadian cities will remain car sewers forever.

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