What Canada can learn about reducing GHG emissions from 8 unexpected places

CANADA’S TRANSPORTATION SECTOR is second only to the oil and gas industry in its relative contribution to this country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Quite simply, whether it’s passenger or freight travel, getting from A to B almost always equals C — as in carbon emissions. In fact, in 2014, 23 per cent of total Canadian greenhouse gas emissions resulted from transportation, mostly personal and commercial transportation, but also ships, trains, planes and even pipelines. So in the fight against climate change, any serious effort to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions requires big advances in low-carbon transport. Fortunately, we don’t need to solve this puzzle entirely on our own. Countries the world over are deploying new techniques, tactics and technologies to de-carbonize transportation that Canada can learn from and maybe even adopt. Here’s a look at eight of the most interesting and exciting examples.


Electric vehicles are popping up everywhere. But the major obstacle to their wider use for public transit is charging time. Enter the electric road. Last year, the city of Tel Aviv began testing a technology that charges electric vehicles while they drive. The system, developed by ElectRoad, an Israeli startup, was conceived primarily to facilitate large-scale urban adoption of electric buses. It consists of copper loops buried in a section of roadway connected to a power converter at the side and vehicles fitted with contacts that receive electricity when driving over the road. The real-time power dimension, unique to ElectRoad’s technology, would allow vehicles to have smaller, lighter batteries.


In Sweden, an electric highway is being tested to power large transport trucks with hybrid-electric motors. The current is drawn from overhead electric wires running the length of a two-kilometre test lane, fed through a conductor attached to trucks’ roofs using a pantograph, an apparatus common on electric trains and trams. The trial, led by the Swedish Transport Administration on a highway north of Stockholm, is among the first to use this concept for heavy transport. Trucks travelling at up to 90 kilometres per hour connect automatically to the power lines when they enter the test zone; upon exit, the motor’s diesel-electric mode kicks back in. The trial will run until 2018.


Another simple yet effective option to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles is to take them off the road altogether. Car-free days, car-free weeks, car-free zones, car-free cities — all of these concepts, at once symbolic and substantive, are taking hold in many locations, and all owe a debt to Bogotá, Colombia, for leading the way. There, the notion of declaring city streets off-limits to vehicles began back in the 1970s. Though car-free days aren’t an alien idea for Canadians, Colombia took it a step further. In 2000, car-free day — called Día Sin Carro — was made official via a public referendum, closing more than 120 kilometres of roads to cars and trucks. That was just the beginning. In 2014 the city began experimenting with a car-free week.


Not all transportation emissions come from vehicles. In Singapore, the Maritime Singapore Green Initiative — launched in 2011 and expanded in 2016 — uses incentives, rebates and targeted investment to cut emissions from Singapore-registered vessels and ships that use its ports. The program’s emphasis on green ships, green ports and green technology travels well. It includes discounts on registration fees and tonnage taxes for ships that meet emissions targets, incentives for ships that use cleaner, low-emission fuels and grants to help marine firms add or upgrade equipment to capture and reduce exhaust emissions.


Japan, and specifically greater Tokyo, plans to make the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games carbon neutral — and, in the process, use the games as a springboard to boost the capital city’s long-term energy efficiency. The effort includes construction methods and materials, waste management and energy sourcing for the sites themselves. With millions of people moving around during and after the Games, another key piece is massive investment in cleaner public transport. The lessons here go beyond the event itself. Not only does it show what’s achievable if low-carbon goals are entrenched as first principles in planning, but it also shows how to use a specific project to raise broader public awareness. Case in point: in February, Japanese officials launched a campaign encouraging citizens to donate old smartphones and other electronic devices so the metals they contain can be recycled into the 2020 Olympic medals.


In Finland they’ve turned the problem of greenhouse gas emissions on its head. Instead of just finding ways to make transportation more efficient, they’ve also found ways to reduce the need for transportation through policies. In 2007, Helsinki city council approved a climate strategy to the year 2030 that focuses on using urban planning to reduce GHG emissions while maintaining the high quality of life the people of Helsinki expect. The strategy is multi-pronged but some of the best lessons for Canada lie in plans to increase public transport use, reduce urban sprawl and ensure that the lifecycle costs (rather than just the upfront costs) of new construction are considered. Practically speaking this means making public transport quicker, cheaper and cleaner, while making cycling parking mandatory at stops; encouraging walking and cycling by building suitable pathways and maintaining them throughout the winter; and finally, reducing commuting distance by using city policies and planning to discourage building outside the current urban transportation network.


In 2016, Kenya enacted its Climate Change Act, which put into play a low-carbon development plan with the dual objectives of reducing the country’s vulnerability to climate risk while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. On the emissions front, Kenya’s urban transport sector will be a key target. Currently it is a major source of air pollution and carbon emissions because of a combination of poor planning, dirty fuels and older, inefficient buses and automobiles. Kenya will cut transport sector emissions by using more energy efficient vehicles and by encouraging the use of bikes, rickshaws and other small-wheeled, non-motorized transport. While these approaches aren’t new to Canadians, the strong linkage between reducing emissions and securing the country against climate risk is a message we could leverage more here.

Costa Rica

This small country’s message to Canada: to make big cuts in carbon emissions, set ambitious goals. Few countries can match Costa Rica in the use of renewable energy to drive their power grids. In 2016, drawing on abundant hydroelectric power, coupled with geothermal, wind, biomass and solar supplies, its electricity system ran solely on renewables for 250 days. Transportation, however, has been a different story. There, it remains heavily weighted on diesel. To address that, the government’s 2030 energy strategy calls for an integration of renewable power into the transportation sector. The tools it’s using to achieve this include mandated biofuel substitution, electrification and o sets connected to the country’s domestic carbon market. All of this will help support Costa Rica’s goal of becoming one of the world’s first carbon-neutral countries by 2021.

Beyond learning from these eight examples, Canadians could also offer up some lessons for the rest of the world in turn. Here’s one of the most impressive.


If Costa Rica and other countries with significant hydroelectric assets are looking for models to apply to the electrification of their transport sector, Quebec could top their list. The province has taken the lead in creating a charging network for electric vehicles; it offers financial rebates on electric vehicle purchases and tax credits for home-charging stations; and it is also conducting feasibility studies on multiple modes of electric transit, including trolleybuses, streetcars and commuter trains. In all, exploiting the province’s massive hydroelectric power base could yield a huge payback in GHG emissions cuts: replacing one million gasoline-powered vehicles would reduce Quebec’s emissions by 3.4 million tonnes annually.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Energy Exchange Magazine (Pollution Probe). Map image courtesy of Chris Brackley/Energy Exchange.