Gattinger Election Series Part 1: Canadians Increasingly Want Climate Action But Have Little Confidence Canada Can Reduce Emissions


Climate change and energy are prominent in this year's federal election. This three-part series digs into what Canadians think about climate change (Part I, below), how the parties have positioned themselves on energy and climate (Part II) and the top energy and climate issues for an incoming government (Part III).

Climate change will be a key topic in the leaders’ debates this week. All major parties have put forward climate plans (see Part II of this series) and their leaders will surely duke it out on climate at the debates.

What do Canadians think? How much do they want climate action? How confident are they Canada can reduce emissions?

Recent polling by Positive Energy and Nanos research shows that Canadians’ desire for climate action has surged throughout the pandemic, but most have little confidence that Canada can actually reduce emissions. What’s more, they see government as part of the problem — not the solution. They also see industry as an obstacle.

This is a major challenge for those looking to chart Canada’s energy future in an age of climate change. How did we get here? What can be done?

Start with the numbers. Since summer 2020, Positive Energy and Nanos have been asking Canadians to tell us on a scale from zero to 10 where zero means absolutely the worst time and 10 means absolutely the best, how good a time it is for Canada to be ambitious in addressing climate change even if there are costs to the economy.

As shown below, the percentage of Canadians saying that now is the best time has grown from less than half in June 2022 to almost two-thirds in August 2021. An astonishing 36 per cent of respondents answered that now is the absolute best time (a score of 10), a surge from previous waves (19 per cent of respondents answered 10 in February 2021, 24 per cent in November 2020 and 17 per cent in June 2020).

Those from Quebec, B.C. and Atlantic Canada were more likely to say now is the best time (means of 7.9, 7.3 and 7.1, compared to the national average of 6.9), while those from the Prairies were less likely to do so (mean of 5.5). Women were more likely to say now is the best time (mean of 7.3). Interestingly, so were Canadians 55 and older: mean of 7.2, compared to 6.4 for those 35-54 and 6.9 for those 18-34. These trends match previous waves.

It's not clear whether the surge in climate ambition relates to the extreme weather and wildfires this summer, optimism that growing vaccination rates will tame the pandemic, or something else entirely. What is clear is that Canadians increasingly think we need urgent action. In the most recent survey, when asked why they answered the way they did, more than half of respondents (53 per cent) said we need to act now and climate change can’t wait. This is up from one in five (21 per cent) when we first asked the question last summer. Among those who said now is the best time for action, more than three in four (77 per cent) said climate change can’t wait.

This response has increasingly outflanked those who say we need to wait until the economy has recovered from the pandemic (10 per cent in this latest wave, down from 21 per cent the first time we asked the question) and those who said there are other priorities like health to deal with (six per cent now, down from 13 per cent last summer). For those who said now is the worst time for climate ambition, the most common answer was that we should wait until the economy has recovered (27 per cent).

But Canadians’ climate ambition is not matched by confidence that Canada can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We asked people what most contributes to their confidence that Canada can reduce emissions, and the top answer gives pause: almost one-quarter of respondents (23 per cent) said nothing can contribute to their confidence or that they have no confidence. This was followed distantly by respondents who said people taking action and holding the government to account (15 per cent), green energy (eight per cent), government will, determination and commitments (seven per cent) and awareness that climate change is becoming more apparent (six per cent).

We also asked respondents what most undermines their confidence in the country's ability to reduce emissions. The top two answers are sobering: big business, oil industry interests and lobbying (13 per cent) and government inaction, empty promises and lack of enforcement (12 per cent). This was followed by provinces, politicians and corporations resisting or undermining efforts (seven per cent), a lack of collective desire, will to change and public support (six per cent), and continued investment in and dependence on fossil fuels, pipelines and the oilsands (five per cent).

To unpack confidence a bit further, we asked respondents to rate their level of confidence in citizens, governments and corporations taking action to reduce emissions. Overall, Canadians appear skeptical of anyone changing their ways, reporting low levels of confidence in action from all of these players. The greatest level of confidence is in citizens changing their behavior (mean of 5.4), followed closely by governments creating policies (mean of 5.1). But these are still pretty dismal scores. People had the least amount of confidence in corporations changing their behaviour, with more than four in 10 (42 per cent) saying they have no confidence in industry to act (score of zero to three).

Digging into the industry numbers is revealing. Confidence in industry is highest in the Prairies (mean of 4.8, still a very low score) and lowest in B.C. and Atlantic Canada (mean of 3.7 in both regions). Younger respondents report less confidence in corporations, with those 18-34 reporting the lowest confidence of any age group, region or gender (mean of 3.5). What’s more, almost one in five people (18 per cent) gave a score of 0 on this question. Clearly there is a lot of room for industry to build confidence in its willingness, ability and earnestness to act on climate change. Ditto for governments. Even though they fared better than industry, there is obviously room for improvement.

So what needs to be done?

As we move into the final weeks of the election, climate change will continue to be a key issue. All major parties know Canadians want climate action and are putting their plans in the window (Part II of this series analyzes the plans). But all face a common challenge: Canadians have little confidence that governments will enact policies that do more than just say the country will reduce emissions.

Is there anything different about the current moment? Possibly.

Canadians appear more serious than ever about wanting their governments to act on climate. And industry is also increasingly alive to the challenge, with multiple companies making net zero pledges and collaborating to reduce emissions. The Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative is but one of many examples.

What do governments need to do?

Often what’s missing in Canada is an approach that makes collaboration within and among business, government, academia and society the cornerstone of emissions reductions. Canada also needs an approach that integrates energy, climate and economic imperatives, that twins technical innovation with policy and regulatory innovation, and that moves beyond economic modelling to identify what it takes to effect change in the real worlds of politics, federal-provincial relations, existing energy systems, community support, reconciliation, and energy security.

Parties will need to address these issues robustly if they want to respond effectively to Canadians’ desire for climate action and build confidence in the country’s ability to reduce emissions in the years ahead.

Will they? Part II of this series examines party platforms to see.

Source: Nanos Research/Positive Energy, RDD dual frame hybrid telephone and online random survey, July 30th to August 2nd 2021, n=1,002, accurate 3.1 percentage points plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.

(All charts weighted to the true population proportion; charts may not add up to 100 due to rounding.)


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