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British Columbia B.C. could follow Norway’s electric car model on road to going green

Thomas Pedersen of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions sits in his electric Nissan Leaf in Victoria on Sunday.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government needs a bright new attraction for its aging climate change show. The challenge is to find new ways to encourage consumers to switch from fossil fuels to renewable power. Whether the province adopts a carrot or a stick, it will take something big if the province is to meet its targets to reduce greenhouse gases.

Transportation is the biggest source of GHG emissions in British Columbia. Environmental organizations are lobbying hard to persuade the government to raise the provincial carbon tax, with its proven track record. The business community is pushing back, arguing that industry can't afford an additional burden. The deciding factor may be the voters: Heading into an election in 19 months, the populist-minded Premier Christy Clark may shy away from jacking up a tax that, for all its revenue neutrality, will still be seen at the pumps.

Perhaps a carrot is more attractive. Norway – similar to B.C. in population and geography – has already successfully road-tested a model that has led to a significant shift to electric vehicles.

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A new report from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, representing the province's four leading research universities, says that model can be replicated in B.C.

Right now, one out of every five new cars purchased in Norway is electric and the country is on track to meet its latest goal of 7 per cent of all vehicles on the road running on renewable electric power by 2018.

The B.C. government has its own incentive program that offers up to $5,000 for battery-electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles – it's one reason this province has the highest per-capita sales of electric vehicles in the country.

Even with that, electric-car sales account for less than 1 per cent of personal-vehicle purchases. It's not enough to nudge the dial.

The Norwegian government offered a bushel full of carrots to encourage consumers to make the switch and the result is it has had 40 times more success than B.C.

Norwegians pay no taxes on new electric cars. Drivers of electric cars get to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes; they also pay no parking fees, road tolls or ferry fees.

Importantly, too, Norway has addressed the fear of getting stranded with a dead battery – known as "range anxiety." British Columbia has roughly 600 public charging stations; Norway has more than 5,600.

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"They made it so easy for people, it became a no-brainer," said Tom Pedersen, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. Norway's new challenge is ensuring that the power grid isn't overwhelmed by the spike in demand for electricity.

"There is a tremendous opportunity here for Premier Clark to renew B.C.'s climate leadership," Dr. Pedersen said.

That is a pitch that the Premier is hearing a lot as she gets ready to release her new climate plan.

Tim Flannery met with the B.C. cabinet last week in Victoria. He's a leading global-warming activist and scientist who headed Australia's Climate Commission. He started his address to the cabinet by complimenting members on their past leadership – but then pointed out how quickly B.C. can fall behind.

He's spent a decade working with the energy sector in India, where coal is falling out of favour and solar-panel kits are now a popular dowry gift.

"Climate leadership is becoming an increasingly competitive space," Dr. Flannery said in an interview. "Everyone wants to be the clean-tech leader, to attract all of that capital that is going to flow. You need the reputation to do that."

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The pursuit of a liquefied natural gas industry in B.C. presents a challenge, he warns: "If you develop an LNG industry, you are going to be working three times as hard to maintain that overall leadership."

British Columbia expects to unveil the framework for a new climate action plan (dubbed CAP 2.0) in the next few weeks – a deadline imposed by December's climate change summit in Paris.

While Canada is regarded as one of the bad boys of the developed world because of its slacker climate policies under the outgoing Conservative government, there are now huge expectations that the incoming Liberal government will want to use the Paris summit as a chance for a fresh start.

Canada's premiers agreed last week that everyone not facing an election campaign will attend the conference with prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau.

Canada needs climate champions now. Premier Clark has an opportunity to step to the front of the national stage – although she'd best leave her LNG hard hat back in Victoria.

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