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OPINION: Pandemic Provides a Golden Opportunity for Cleaner Transport

The emissions reductions we’re seeing are very real. To sustain them, the time to act is now

Stephanie Wallcraft By: Stephanie Wallcraft April 30, 2020
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Before the COVID-19 lockdown measures set in, when was the last time you got onto a major highway at a reasonable hour and didn’t end up sitting in traffic?

If you live in a major city, in Canada or elsewhere, the answer is likely that you can’t remember. Over time, the slow, insidious creep of traffic density took over our previous lives, and we were powerless to do anything but sit in our cars and grit our teeth because going places meant we had no choice.

But if you’ve used a highway for essential travel since this began, as I did a few weeks ago, then you’ve been struck by the changes on our roads. A drive across the city that’s supposed to take 30 minutes … actually takes 30 minutes. There are fewer accidents, transport trucks arrive smoothly and on time, and the neighbourhoods surrounding the highways have far fewer noxious fumes hanging over them according to studies by Descartes Labs and the University of Toronto. It’s just one of many ways in which we’re suddenly navigating a very different world.

Are these changes entirely sustainable long-term? Of course not. The economy will need to restart as soon as possible, and some amount of traffic will inevitably return.

emissions reductions

However, it’s becoming clear, at least anecdotally, that Canadians are not willing to accept simply going back to the status quo once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Since the lockdown measures began, this publication has received more feedback than ever from readers asking why we continue to give press to gas-guzzling vehicles when there are so many electrified and hybrid-powered alternatives. The answer is that, before the world changed, supercars and large SUVs are what people wanted to buy, read, and daydream about, and so that’s where we focused our energy.

Will that still be the case in a month or two? We’re not so sure anymore.

There’s an evident appetite out there for making some of these changes stick long-term. With the right responses, we can learn a great deal from the lessons this pandemic has unintentionally afforded us and seize this opportunity to make positive changes for the future.

Incorporate Fuel Efficiency into Economic Recovery

Industry stakeholders are already suggesting that governments offer sales tax holidays and other incentives to kickstart automotive purchasing once the lockdown measures are lifted. If people are considering emissions as a result of all of this, why not strike while the iron is hot and add a fuel efficiency layer to those incentives?

emissions reductions

This wouldn’t need to be restricted to EVs or plug-in hybrids like the current incentive programs, which are firmly focused on increasing adoption of electric propulsion while locking internal combustion engines out. Rather, a directed COVID-19 recovery package could provide the top incentives for electrified vehicles, which might be enough to push the fence-sitters over the edge, but could also offer a lower-tiered benefit for traditional hybrids or the most efficient internal combustion engines. It might not change a farmer’s mind about buying a new F-150, but it could perhaps encourage some people who need to buy now to choose a more right-sized SUV or make the price leap into a hybrid. After all, the ideal is zero emissions, but the more reduction that takes place across the board, the better.

Keep Cars Off the Road

When this is all over, the roads are inevitably going to get busier again. Manufacturing will restart, restaurants will reopen, hotels will start taking guests, and the list goes on. Some people need to be on premises to complete their duties just due to the nature of what they do. But what we’re learning right now is that there are an awful lot of people who go into an office every day who don’t need to be at a workplace to do their jobs.

Pushing EV adoption as a longer-term emissions goal is noble and important, but it’s going to take a lot of time. There’s something we can do right now to get congestion off our roads: keep those employees working from home as much as possible. We’re long overdue for letting go of the industrial-revolution concepts of direct supervision and punching a timecard; it’s high time we accept remote work as legitimate work. (And for all the parents out there who just shuddered reflexively: I’ve been working at home full-time for more than five years, and it’s an entirely different proposition when the kids are in school, I promise.)

emissions reductions

emissions reductions

Governments can play a role in this in two ways. A self-employed individual already receives tax deductions for using a portion of his home as office space. Making it easier for a salaried employee to access these same deductions would make working from home more appealing. And perhaps businesses could not only get a relief from the red tape involved in registering remote employees but could also receive a tax break or other benefit for having a certain percentage of their workforce operating remotely. Both of these measures would keep more cars off the roads at peak hours, thereby directly reducing congestion and its resulting emissions.

There’s a side effect to this that goes beyond passenger cars: it also keeps transport trucks from sitting in traffic as often. Big rigs are the worst polluters on the roads, especially if they’re constantly changing speeds or sitting still emitting fumes. Fewer options exist today for transporting goods in eco-friendly ways at a local level, and that’s fodder for another separate discussion entirely. But until there are alternatives, the more that can be done to keep trucks running smoothly, the better off our air quality will be.

emissions reductions

Using the lessons we’ve learned under COVID-19 around keeping cars off the road as much as possible, at least in the most undesirable ways – namely, spewing exhaust while sitting in traffic commuting to a job that could be done from a home office – is a short-term way to capitalize on the momentum of eco-friendly attitudes and reach emissions targets faster. And it would be better for our health, from breathing fewer fumes to lowering our stress levels.

We’re sitting at a pivotal moment in history that provides opportunities for real change. Let’s refuse to accept a blind return to an old reality.

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