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Business Commentary Do we support Liberal carbon policy? Broadly, but the devil’s in the details

Tony Coulson is group vice-president and Sarah Roberton is a senior associate in corporate and public affairs at Environics Research.

In Canada, measures to stem carbon emissions seem to be on a roll. British Columbia has a carbon tax, Quebec has cap and trade, Alberta has launched a Climate Leadership Plan that includes carbon pricing and Ontario has introduced a climate-change strategy and will join Quebec in a cap-and-trade system. Canadians have been concerned about climate change for years, and this proliferation of emissions-reduction strategies signals a shift in policy that is consistent with public opinion.

Not only do people feel a sense of urgency about climate change, but they are convinced that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand. The idea that the environment and the economy must be pitted against each other has never truly resonated with Canadians.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently hosted a first ministers' meeting to discuss ways to grow the economy and reduce the emissions that cause climate change. The first ministers committed to work in four areas:

  • Clean technology, innovation and jobs
  • Carbon-pricing mechanisms adapted to each province's and territory's specific circumstances
  • Specific mitigation opportunities
  • Adaptation and climate resilience

The federal budget later contained initiatives in each of these areas. How is the government's approach likely to be received?

Broadly speaking, Canadians are onside with the idea that environmental protection efforts can contribute to economic growth. Our research shows that nearly three-quarters of Canadians feel that protecting the environment improves economic growth and provides new jobs, compared to one in four who believe environmental protection reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

A closer look at the data supports this general picture of a public that is receptive to green initiatives but not always keen to foot the bill.

Clean technology, innovation and jobs

Canadians are optimistic that a shift can be made from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Our survey found that three out of four Canadians believe this shift is possible and most think this can be achieved within 25 years. Government incentives are considered key to unlocking the potential of green energy, more so than financial penalties such as fees or taxes on polluters, or leaving it to the free market to produce incentives to become sustainable.

Large majorities of Canadians also support specific policies to expand renewable energy and reduce the reliance on fossil fuels in their province. Favoured policies include tax incentives for use of electric vehicles; more wind-power facilities and solar-energy farms; expanding public transit; and new programs to promote home energy conservation.

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At the same time, there is evidence that the public's willingness to pay for clean energy is softening. Just half of Canadians now express willingness to pay higher prices for green energy, down from two-thirds in 2011 and six out of 10 in 2012.

Carbon pricing

The Canadian public is more supportive of than opposed to carbon taxes. For example, a 2015 survey by the Environics Institute reveals that six out of 10 B.C. residents support the existing carbon tax in their province, and residents of other provinces support the introduction of a similar tax in their own jurisdictions.

Our research suggests that support for carbon pricing is hindered in two ways. First, the public lacks a good understanding about climate change (only one in four feel very well informed), undermining their grasp of how this type of mechanism will make a difference. Second, Canadians lack confidence that carbon levies will have the desired effect. (Only 10 per cent feel this approach will be very effective at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.)

Mitigation vs. adaptation

As recently as 2011, more than twice as many Canadians believe the focus of climate-change policies should be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation: 60 per cent) rather than on preparing for the consequences of climate change (adaptation: 28 per cent).

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Canadians continue to recognize that consumers need to play a role in addressing climate change, but there is limited will to make immediate and substantial lifestyle changes. Key barriers to changing behaviours at home and on the road include inconvenience, cost and a lack of alternatives – particularly with public transit.

Clearly, Canadians want government to address climate change, but as with many complex issues, the devil is in the details. On this issue, there is a foundation of public support on which to build, and our survey findings provide direction in terms of what the public will find acceptable and where information and education will be helpful in resolving public ambivalence. The public supports action but remains uncertain about the benefits and effectiveness of various climate change policies.

Canadians don't need convincing that something must be done, but there is work ahead to provide them with confidence that the specific initiatives in play are contributing to meaningful change.

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