Globe editorial: Why is cutting carbon emissions so hard? Consider the 5,000 pound hunk of metal in your driveway

Canadians are in love and the object of their affection is hulks of steel on four wheels: trucks and sport utility vehicles.

In 2005, one out of three new passenger vehicles sold in Canada was a truck or SUV. By 2019, according to the International Energy Agency, that figure had doubled to 67 per cent. The trend to ever larger vehicles is a global one – last year, near half the light-duty vehicles sold worldwide were SUVs or pickups – but Canada leads the pack. No major country, not even the United States, has consumers who buy so many trucks and SUVs, and so few cars.

Canada’s love affair puts it in an ignominious position: The average Canadian vehicle has the world’s worst fuel efficiency, according to the IEA, at nearly 9 liters per 100 kilometers. And yet despite a steady bulking up of Canadians’ rides, average vehicle fuel-efficiency has actually improved slightly since the mid-2000s, when it was about 10 liters per 100 kilometers.

The answer to this riddle is steady and ongoing improvements in engine technology. The motor under the hood of your SUV is way more efficient than those of a generation ago.

Unfortunately, all that engineering hasn’t been used to make the average Canadian vehicle use a lot less gas. Instead, it has gone to ensure that Canadians can buy bigger and heavier vehicles – all those lifestyle pickup trucks hauling nothing more than groceries – while using roughly the same amount of gas.

It’s a real oddity in the history of innovation. Compare it to what’s happened with the humble light bulb. In traditional incandescent bulbs, 10 per cent of the electricity generated light, while the rest was lost as heat. LED bulbs have reversed that ratio, generating about 10 times as much light for each unit of energy. The average Canadian did not respond to this technological leap by installing 10 times as many light bulbs in their home.

The history of fuel efficiency in vehicles has been a winding road. Until the early 1970s, no one gave it much thought. But a series of oil price shocks focused attention. The United States legislated its first fuel-efficiency standards in 1975, and a decade later, a liter of gasoline could move the average new vehicle twice as far. Then gas got cheaper again, and progress of fuel economy stalled. Higher US efficiency standards were introduced in 2007, after oil again surged, and in 2012 Barack Obama planned even more ambitious rules. Donald Trump mostly reversed them and Joe Biden largely reinstated them.

In a continental auto market, Canada has been along for the ride. As for Europeans, they have a history of, for the most part, buying smaller and more efficient vehicles – in part because the have a long history of high gas taxes.

Raising fuel efficiency is key to cutting transportation emissions. Electric vehicles will play a big role – by 2035, Canada aims to have all new vehicles sold be zero-emission – but traditional, gas-fueled vehicles matter. If the world’s 320-million SUVs were a country, it would be the sixth-biggest source of GHGs.

A lot of people like to imagine that fighting global warming is as easy as pointing the finger at the oil sands. Yes, there is big work to be done there to cut emissions. But Canada’s millions of SUVs and light trucks emit about two-thirds as much GHGs each year as the entire oil sands.

One big problem with the growing fleet of SUVs and trucks is that they’re going to be on the road for years to come. And Ottawa has had no choice but to take that into account in its climate plans. The oil and gas industry is supposed to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 from 2019 levels; In contrast, transportation is expected to be down only 23 per cent.

The carbon tax will help. Less costly EVs, and more people buying them, will help. The soon-to-finally-debut Clean Fuel Standard will also help – though a lot less than originally planned. The harsh reality, however, is that while lowering oil industry emissions is necessary and obvious, it is Canadians’ love of hulking vehicles that presents a largely unnoticed and often unmentioned challenge in reducing this country’s climate pollution.

Engineers keep making internal-combustion engines more efficient, but the payoff is being squandered. Blame the oil industry if you like; blame the automobile industry if you want. But that 5,000 pound hunk of metal in the driveway? You bought it.

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