Bringing Environmental Justice to Canada’s Rollout of Electric School Buses
Addressing inequities in the transition from diesel to electric
Published May 1 2023
In recent years, government commitments have started to reflect a shift toward the electrification of Canada’s school buses and transportation systems at large. This is great news for the communities adopting electric school buses (ESBs), who will realize their many health and environmental benefits (1). Unfortunately, however, the buses and their benefits are not being equally distributed across Canada. On top of that, some communities will bear social and environmental burdens of the transition.
This article calls attention to some of the inequities that may arise along various points of the transition to ESBs and to electric transportation generally, and identifies opportunities to overcome these inequities and bring environmental justice to Canada’s rollout of ESBs. But first, a reminder of the concept and its application in the Canadian context.
Environmental Justice in Canada
Environmental justice in our context means that there is fairness and balance in the distribution of ESBs, in the social and environmental burdens of their production and use, and in the decision-making processes surrounding their rollout. In other words, the transition toward ESBs does not disadvantage certain populations while benefiting the more privileged.
Environmental justice achieves environmental equity in the long term by addressing the root causes of inequities to prevent future injustices from happening. For instance, potential environmental inequities associated with Canada’s ESB transition can be understood as products of environmental racism (2) and other existing forms of social discrimination and disadvantage, such as poverty.
In 2022, the Government of Canada took a formal stance toward environmental justice by amending the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to recognize the right of every person in Canada to a healthy environment (3). In March 2023, the House of Commons passed Bill C-226, An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice. If Canada’s transition to ESBs is to achieve environmental justice, relevant policies will need to reflect these promises.
Equity Challenges in Canada's Rollout
Many inequities arise at various points in the transition to ESBs: from battery manufacturing, to uneven distribution of buses and charging infrastructure, to unsustainable retirement of diesel buses. These inequities must be identified and addressed in policies and programs that support transportation electrification.
A key resource we can look to for guidance is the Equity Framework to Guide the Electric School Bus Initiative from the World Resource Institute (WR). In developing this framework, researchers at the WRI identified a range of intersecting equity concerns potentially associated with their own Electric School Bus Initiative. These concerns span gender, race and income, as well as transport, health, environmental and generational equity.
Identifying inequities also entails looking at how these inequities overlap for certain populations. For instance, increasing evidence from the United States and Canada shows that communities who lack financial access to ESBs already face other environmental inequities, including disproportionate exposure to diesel emissions and air pollution (12, 13).
To address these inequities, the WRI Framework highlights the importance of involving communities in the decision-making processes around the ESB transition. In Canada, this could be achieved through upholding Indigenous rights to self-determination, so that Indigenous communities can decide for themselves whether to implement ESBs or to undertake mining operations on their territories, for instance.
Addressing inequities in the transition toward ESBs also implies ensuring that buses and charging infrastructure are prioritized in areas that are most impacted by air pollution. Government funding programs should also prioritize low-income and minority communities to ensure an equal access to the benefits of ESBs.
In the United States, New York and California are providing priority funding for disadvantaged communities to implement charging infrastructure, respectively through the EV Make-Ready Program and the Equitable EV Charging Act (14). California has also committed funding to replace old diesel school buses with ESBs in disadvantaged communities, through its School Bus Replacement Program.
In Canada, Indigenous and northern populations should be seen as priority communities who need extra support to not only purchase ESBs and charging infrastructure, but also to protect their lands from mining and other manufacturing processes. British Columbia has made strides toward distributional equity through its CleanBC Go Electric Program which provides higher funding for ESB charging infrastructure for Indigenous communities and businesses. More recently, the federal government has pledged to make charging more accessible for Indigenous communities in Canada through its Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program (15), but these outcomes have yet to materialize.
The shift to ESBs must also be equitable for the operations and manufacturing sectors. This means that there should be a focus on workforce development to ensure that they have the skills and training necessary to participate in the transition to ESBs and access its benefits equitably. This could include programs to train mechanics and technicians on the maintenance and repair of ESBs.
Ultimately, addressing inequities in the transition to ESBs is not only a matter of fairness, but it’s also critical for achieving our shared goals of reducing air pollution and improving public health. By working together to ensure that the benefits of ESBs are equitably distributed, we can create a more just and fair sustainable transportation system for all.
(1) David Suzuki Foundation. (2023). Electric school buses: For the health of children and the planet.
(2) Ecojustice. (2020). Environmental racism in Canada: What is it, what are the impacts, and what can we do about it?
(5) IEA. (2021). The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions.
(6) Pembina Institute. (2022). How remote communities should be included in the push to electrify transportation.
(7) CBC News. (2022). Are EV batteries recyclable? Your questions answered.
(8) WRI. (2023). How to Ensure a Sustainable Future for Electric School Bus Batteries.
(9) Global News. (2023). How electric vehicles are sparking a battery recycling revolution.
(10) School Transportation News. (2021). Electric Repower – the Cheaper, Faster and Easier Path to Electric Buses.
(11) UNEP. (2020). Used Vehicles and the Environment.
(12) Giang, A. and Castellani, K. (2020). Cumulative air pollution indicators highlight unique patterns of injustice in urban Canada.
(13) Nguyen, N. and Marshall, J. (2018). Impact, efficiency, inequality, and injustice of urban air pollution: variability by emission location.
(14) FLO. (2023). Flo Partners with CA State Senator to Introduce Equitable EV Charging Act.
(15) Natural Resources Canada. (2022). New EV Chargers Coming to Indigenous Communities.