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Public opinion research for Natural Resources Canada shows many Canadians are giving the federal government poor grades on key goals in the fight against climate change.

The executive summary of research report Natural Resource Issues in a Low-Carbon Economy says more Canadians rate the federal government’s performance as poor, as opposed to good, on implementing a plan to get Canada to net-zero emissions and striking a balance between environmental and economic considerations.

The split is 37 per cent to 25 per cent on net zero, and 37 per cent to 24 per cent on economic considerations, according to the online survey in December and January by Environics Research.

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The research was delivered to the federal department in March and posted to the government’s website. It’s an update on a similar 2018-19 poll of the same name.

The latest findings were released in a year when a federal election appears likely, and climate change is expected to be a major issue as parties vie for support.

Net zero, according to a government website, refers to the economy either emitting no greenhouse-gas emissions or offsetting its emissions through actions such as tree planting or technologies to capture carbon before it is released. Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a virtual climate summit with world leaders that Canada will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent of 2005 levels within the next decade.

The poll also shows that a lower percentage of respondents rate the federal government’s performance as good compared to 2018-19 in promoting the economic growth of natural resource industries (31 per cent now versus 35 per cent then), investing in clean energy and clean technology (29 per cent versus 35 per cent), and making sure natural resources are developed in a way that respects the environment (29 per cent versus 37 per cent).

But there is support for a key federal initiative, with “majority-level agreement that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will create economic opportunities and good quality jobs,” according to the research.

In 2018, the federal government purchased the pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia from its U.S. owners for $4.5-billion as part of an effort to facilitate its expansion.

The new natural resources research – combining focus groups and polling – is described by the federal department as part of a bid to understand how Canadians situate natural resource sectors, and what they understand about the challenges and opportunities of these sectors in moving toward a low-carbon economy.

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It was conducted through a $168,430.57 contract awarded in mid-September and delivered on March 31. The research described in the eight-page summary consisted of two pieces.

The first was an online survey of 3,457 Canadians 18 and over from Dec. 17, 2020, to Jan. 5, 2021. The second was a series of 20 online focus groups conducted across Canada in 2020 between Oct. 19 and Nov. 4, 2020.

The research also indicates that respondents were occasionally grappling with understanding key pieces of the debate over climate change.

For example, the summary says focus group participants were only somewhat familiar with the term “low-carbon economy,” and few had heard the term “net zero by 2050.” Canada, like other countries, is working to get to net zero by 2050.

On the issue of net zero, “Several participants felt they needed more information about the 2050 goal in order to form an opinion.”

Among the findings, “validating the findings of the focus group research” is the conclusion that more than half of respondents say they are at least somewhat familiar with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, a low-carbon economy and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

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“But only one in 10 are very familiar with any of these topics,” the summary says.

Focus group participants suggested “the government of Canada use clear and positive communication to help Canadians understand the implications of climate change, the importance of a low-carbon economy, and what more individuals can do to effect change.”

Asked about the public understanding of climate change, Natural Resources Canada noted that public opinion research like this project will help inform future communications and marketing strategies.

Environics vice-president Sarah Robertson, who signed off on the research, declined comment on its findings.

Greg Lyle, founder and managing director of the national public opinion research and strategy firm Innovative Research Group Inc., said he found the research valid.

After reviewing the summary, he said he does not think people are necessarily confused. “What’s more likely is that most people have conflicting attitudes that they have not taken the time to resolve because they are not that engaged in the issue,” he said.

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Asked about the relevance to those involved in public policy, including campaigning politicians, Mr. Lyle said, “If you’re someone who cares about the issue and you read something that says everyone agrees with this or everyone agrees with that, be very suspicious because how can everyone agree when many people don’t know what they are talking about?”

Political scientist Matthew Hoffmann, co director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the University of Toronto, said it would be a “politically savvy thing” for government to more assertively inform or educate the public on these issues.

“When people can envision and understand the pathways towards a low-carbon society, and see themselves living the ‘good life,’ it is easier to build political support for those policies,” he said in an e-mail exchange.

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