Professor Monica Gattinger is director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, and chair of the university’s Positive Energy initiative. Nik Nanos is the chief data scientist at Nanos Research, and chair of the Positive Energy Advisory Council.
If you watched the federal leaders’ debates last week, you would think Canadians are hopelessly polarized on energy and environmental issues. Parties are using pipelines, carbon pricing and climate action as wedges, repeating the pattern of recent provincial elections.
But new survey data reveal that Canadians are not as divided as our electoral politics suggest. A study undertaken by Nanos Research and Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa shows strong agreement among Canadians on a broad range of energy and environmental issues.
Party leaders often pit the oil and gas industry and the environment against each other, but many Canadians are pragmatic, don’t see things in such stark terms but do recognize that as a country we are not very good at finding solutions.
Almost eight in 10 Canadians agree (45 per cent) or somewhat agree (32 per cent) that Canada’s oil and gas sector can play an important long-term role if it operates in an environmentally responsible way. And two- thirds agree (35 per cent) or somewhat agree (31 per cent) that oil and gas exports can contribute to combating climate change if they displace energy sources in other countries that are more damaging to the climate.
But Canadians are also looking for climate action. While more than half support (29 per cent) or somewhat support (26 per cent) growth in the oil and gas sectors, six in 10 would be more supportive of fossil-fuel energy if Canada had more proactive climate policies.
As to carbon pricing and energy affordability, two of the largest wedges in the campaign, over six in 10 Canadians support (39 per cent) or somewhat support (23 per cent) new fuel taxes if the revenues go to green projects. And nearly six in 10 support (31 per cent) or somewhat support (28 per cent) meeting Canada’s climate commitments even if it means higher energy prices.
Canadians are also united in their views of government performance on these files. Almost half of Canadians say the country has done a poor (28 per cent) or very poor (20 per cent) job of developing a shared, long-term vision for energy. A meagre 17 per cent say Canada has done a good (15 per cent) or very good job (2 per cent). A smaller number (13 per cent) still believe that Canada has done a good or very good job at building public confidence in energy decision-making. Only 17 per cent think Canada does a good (15 per cent) or very good job (2 per cent) of ensuring that the benefits of energy projects are distributed equitably across the country. These results are consistent with previous surveys we have conducted and point to a breakdown of trust in energy and environmental decision-making.
Canadians are also increasingly united on where they want decision-making to come from. They expect federal leadership on these files. Seventy-one per cent think the federal government should lead decision-making on major pipeline projects, and the same number think Ottawa should lead on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Majorities across all regions support these positions.
Additionally, likely in response to what some might consider a dysfunctional, politically charged context, a growing number of Canadians are prioritizing the national interest in decision-making for energy projects. A majority think the national interest matters more than local, Indigenous or provincial interests when it comes to energy projects (majorities of 64 per cent, 61 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively). And the majorities have increased since we first asked these questions in 2015.
Energy is, and will remain, a very important fixture of the national conversation. Ninety-five per cent of Canadians say they are interested (75 per cent) or somewhat interested (20 per cent) in energy issues. They understand how high the stakes are, and they understand the urgency. Informed reform of our policies and regulatory processes to provide clarity to provinces, Indigenous communities, municipalities and other stakeholders is essential to ensuring Canadians trust energy and environmental decision-making.
Canada is at a moment in time characterized by the desire for action and disappointment with the job that we, as a nation, are doing to reconcile our environmental aspirations with prosperity. Whichever party forms the next federal government has a tremendous opportunity to move the country toward a shared vision and hit the reset button on Canada’s energy and climate dialogue.
The Positive Energy/Nanos survey of 1,000 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, was conducted between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4, 2019. The margin for error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The complete survey results are available on the Positive Energy website.
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