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Politics Support for Harper’s environmental record increasing, poll shows

Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers a question during question period in the House of Commons, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014 in Ottawa.

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The number of Canadians who believe the Conservative government is doing a good job of protecting the environment is inching upward, according to a recent poll – despite the federal government finding itself repeatedly under fire on environmental issues, and Canada remaining on track to fall substantially short of its Copenhagen greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

The poll also comes two weeks after Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it would be "crazy" to limit oil and gas emissions, as his government first promised to do in 2006, at the current oil price. The poll also comes at a time when environmental concerns continue to underpin opposition to major pipeline projects across Canada, and after Canada criticized for inaction at a climate conference in Lima this month.

The poll, conducted by Ipsos Reid for Global News and published this week, found that a majority of Canadians still believe the Harper government is failing on environmental issues, but that majority is shrinking. The poll found 59 per cent of Canadians disagree that the Harper government is "doing a good job in protecting Canada's environment," but that figure is four percentage points less than the same poll last year. Meanwhile, 41 per cent agreed, strongly or somewhat, that the government was doing a good job protecting the environment has increased four percentage points since last year. The gap – between the growing minority who approve of the Harper environmental record, and the majority who still don't – is shrinking.

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More Canadians also believe the government has "struck the right balance" between economic growth and environmental protection – 42 per cent agreed, somewhat or strongly, with that statement, up five percentage points from last year, according to the poll.

Mr. Harper this month shot down questions about when Canada will introduce its long-promised oil and gas emissions regulations, saying he still supports them but that now is not the time.

"Frankly, under the current circumstances of the oil and gas sector, it would be crazy. It would be crazy economic policy to do unilateral penalties on that sector. We are clearly not going to do it," he told the House of Commons this month. His government has said it is waiting on the U.S. to regulate emissions from its oil and gas sector in tandem with Canada, though Environment Canada has suggested the U.S. is already restricting some emissions that would have a comparable impact overall to limits Canada was considering Mr. Harper told the CBC this month that Alberta's carbon levy – which applies narrowly, to only a fraction of emissions and only from large-scale emitters – is something "on which you could go broader." His former cabinet colleague who is now Alberta's premier, Jim Prentice, this month delayed a decision on whether to extend, expand or kill the carbon tax.

Also this month, Environment Canada released its annual emissions trends report, which reiterated that Canada is not on track to meet the reduction targets Mr. Harper's government agreed to after the 2009 Copenhagen summit. Under that deal, Canada pledged to reduce emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels, by 2020. It's on pace to fall halfway short, and this month's emissions report also showed emissions are on pace to grow, not decline, leading up to 2020. "We've got more work to do," Mr. Harper acknowledged in his CBC interview, dodging a question of whether Canada will meet the 2020 targets, set when Mr. Prentice was his environment minister.

"World emissions are going up. Canada's have not been going up," Mr. Harper told the network, though Canada's are projected to go up between now and 2020. "So look, is there more that can be done? I think so, absolutely... the real challenge on this is how you reduce emissions in a way that do not endanger jobs and growth of people at home."

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq also returned from a climate conference in Lima, Peru, this month, where she was criticized for failing to make concrete pledges. The Lima conference was in many ways a set-up meeting for next year's summit in Paris. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who also attended, said in a statement the agreement reached in Lima was watered-down and left a daunting path for any robust deal to be struck in Paris.

The UN has urged countries to submit "ambitious national commitments" leading up to the Paris summit by the end of March. Canada has not committed to doing that, "leaving the possibility we'll show up with nothing," said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization. That March pledge was seen as a starting point for talks in Paris, which he fears will be delayed without that. "Obviously, we're hoping that they'll change their mind on that," he said.

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Canada, meanwhile, is on the sidelines amid a recent pact, announced by China and the United States, to rein in emissions growth. Internationally in climate talks, the Canadian government is "not contributing in any kind of helpful way... so Canada is just irrelevant now, it seems, in terms of having any kind of position of leadership on the climate file on the international stage," Mr. Gray said in an interview Wednesday. He suspected the spike in support for the Canadian environmental track record may be tied to federal advocacy in support of the oil sands. "There's a whole bunch of other environmental issues, of course, in any given year at a federal government level. There's been very little progress at all on any of those either," he argued.

In a statement this month, Ms. Aglukkaq's department said she hopes Paris will lead to a climate deal that "includes meaningful and transparent commitments from all major emitters," saying the Paris conference is part of a push for "a new international post-2020 climate change agreement," referring to the Copenhagen target that Canada is not on track to meet.

The Ipsos poll was conducted online last week with a sample of 1,005 Canadians, and is considered accurate within 3.5 percentage points.

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