Canada’s mandate for 100% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035 will have a big impact on automakers and consumers, a panel of experts recently agreed—but some divergent perspectives emerged on the merits and drawbacks of the mandate.
At the Canadian Climate Institute’s Building Momentum Toward Net Zero conference earlier this month, panelists discussed policy options for increasing zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) uptake to decarbonize transport in Canada.
They focused on the Canadian government’s recently-announced commitment to ZEV sales targets included in its 2030 emissions reduction plan. Canada said it would develop a light-duty sales mandate for new vehicle purchases that would increase incrementally to 100% ZEV sales by 2035. This translates to about 395,000 new ZEVs in 2026, 1.2 million in 2030, and 2.0 million in 2035, the government predicts.
The mandate will support a proliferation of ZEVs, said panelists Joanna Kyriazis of Clean Energy Canada and Katya Rhodes of the University of Victoria. But Brian Kingston, president and CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association, suggested Canada is using the wrong approach.
A better course is to target consumer demand, Kingston said, contending that the mandate “doesn’t guarantee more adoption, nor does it guarantee that we hit our targets by 2035.”
“And the reason is we don’t have the consumer demand measures in place.”
Kingston added that the mandate fails to account for the full cost of decarbonizing the grid to accommodate new ZEVs. He said it will harm low-income households, and won’t provide enough charging infrastructure to accommodate the sudden increase in demand.
But Rhodes, a climate policy professor and member of the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems, said rigorous academic studies and independent public reports indicate the mandate is well-aligned with climate targets and backed by “a suite of strong climate policies.”
“The ZEV sales mandate in particular offers a very powerful signal to automakers to channel their efforts into electric vehicle innovation, bringing down costs for consumers and increasing vehicle variety and availability across all provinces and territories in Canada,” Rhodes said.
Kingston said the ZEV mandate threatens to make Canada’s auto manufacturers less competitive by putting the Canadian auto market out of step with other economies—namely the United States, which buys more than 90% of Canada’s vehicles. Kyriazis replied that the mandate will help make Canada’s auto market more competitive with ZEV investments elsewhere, which will be key to expanding the country’s battery supply chains.
But she acknowledged that political turmoil south of the border could lead to a rollback in U.S. ZEV policies if a multiply-indicted former reality TV star regains the White House in 2024.
“There’s a real risk of EVs being pulled into culture wars and being politicized and ultimately impacting consumer demand,” Kyriazis said. So “we need a backstop policy in place in Canada to secure our clean car future while the U.S. remains uncertain.”
The panelists also discussed how the sales mandate would affect ZEV affordability for consumers. Kingston warned that low-income consumers could be forced to buy higher-priced ZEVs rather than carbon-powered vehicles and suggested policies should aim to make ZEVs the right choice, not the only choice, for buyers.
Rhodes replied that automakers are currently pitching high-end luxury ZEVs to wealthier consumers who “cross-subsidize” the transition, which “helps reduce the price of low- to mid-price vehicles.” She said the ZEV mandate could also create incentives for customers to buy mid-price ZEVs rather than luxury internal combustion vehicles—a move that is already gathering momentum, with more than 60% of Canadians saying they want their next car to be an EV.
Kyriazis said the emphasis on larger, more luxurious vehicles could slow the transition, citing GM’s temporary decision last spring to cancel the Chevy Bolt and focus on ZEV trucks and SUVs as an example.
“Canadians are also looking for affordable vehicles,” Kyriazis said. “And we’re not really seeing enough of those budget EVs being prioritized.”