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Should Canada set a date to ban gas, diesel cars as Germany did?

News that members of the German government voted to ban new gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2030 came as a shock to the automotive world.

Is this not the country that invented the internal-combustion automobile as we know it? Isn't this the home of automotive juggernauts like Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW? German auto makers made more than 15 million cars and light trucks in 2015 alone, and only the tiniest fraction of those were electric. Is this proof the internal-combustion engine – the engine that's moved us for more than 100 years – is nearing the end the road; or proof that German legislators are more fearless than their Canadian counterparts when it comes to confronting the auto industry? Or is it something else entirely?

Related: A tribute to the German internal combustion engine

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The vote in the Bundesrat, the German upper parliament, passed in September and was first reported several weeks later by Der Spiegel. Soon after came a flood of reports, most apparently based on a quick Google Translate of the original story. The news was covered everywhere, from Road & Track to CNET to Forbes to Popular Science.

Sven Boll is the reporter at Der Spiegel who broke the story.

"The European Union has started an initiative for low-emission mobility, and the Bundesrat expressed its opinion about this," he said over the phone from Berlin. "For the moment, it has no direct consequences."

The Bundesrat alone doesn't have the power to legislate which cars are and are not allowed to be sold in Germany or the EU. That's up to the EU Commission. The Bundesrat's resolution, as Forbes reported, actually calls on the Commission to approve only zero-emissions vehicles for use on EU roads by 2030. "This of course is more of a symbolic vote from the Bundesrat because everyone knows it will never be the law in Germany," said Boll. This is one section of the German government showing support for an EU initiative.

Germany's federal minister of transport was quoted as saying the 2030 date is "totally unrealistic" in Manager Magazin. As radical as a ban on new gas – and diesel-powered cars – sounds to us in Canada, where the range of solutions commonly proposed for curbing climate change is narrow, the vote by the Bundesrat is merely the latest such resolution.

Last year, Mary Nichols, the head of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) called for all new vehicles sold in the state to be zero- or almost-zero-emission by 2030, Bloomberg reported. It's necessary if California is going to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets, she said.

Earlier this year, the English-language press was confounded by news out of Norway that the country had apparently decided to ban the sale of new gas- and diesel-engine cars by 2025. Already about 24 per cent of all cars in Norway are EVs. It sounded extremely ambitious but not impossible. It took a couple weeks, but eventually clarification came from Automotive News Europe, among other sources: Norway didn't want to outlaw such vehicles, but instead use incentives to make eco-friendly cars irresistible. Again, the nuance of the news was lost in translation.

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But the bigger point here is that other countries and states are looking seriously at radical initiatives to lower greenhouse gas emission from the transportation sector. If Germany, with its massive auto industry, could get such a resolution – even a symbolic one – through one of its houses of parliament, why not Canada?

Electric vehicles account for less than one quarter of one per cent of new cars sold in Canada each year, according to Robert Karwel, senior manager at J.D. Power Canada.

He said if a law banning gas and diesel cars did go into effect in Germany, European auto makers would likely export more EVs to global markets, including Canada, to spread the costs over more units.

"The question," Boll said, "is whether it would be better for the German car industry if it knew that, after 2030, it could not sell its old [gas and diesel] cars. The industry would work harder on new technologies than if we don't have a date."

The question applies not just to the Germany industry, but to the Canadian one as well. Should countries set a date to ban new gas- and diesel-powered cars? And when?

It's a question worth asking and one that shouldn't shock the automotive world any more.

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