Part 1 In A Series: Canadians Want Climate Action, But See An Important Role For Oil And Gas Now And In The Future

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Since spring 2020, Positive Energy has asked Canadians how good a time it is for Canada to be ambitious in addressing climate change even if there are costs to the economy.

We use a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is absolutely the worst time and 10 is absolutely the best.

As shown in the figure, in the most recent survey asking this question in fall 2023, a majority of Canadians (53 per cent) believe it is the best time (score of 7 to 10 out of 10) for Canada to be ambitious in addressing climate while about one in four (28 per cent) say it is the worst time (score of 0 to 3 on 10). Responses have shifted somewhat over time, but in general, roughly one in two Canadians say now is the best time to address climate change.

Scores on this question diverge markedly along a number of demographic lines. Those in the Prairies and right-leaning Canadians are most likely to provide lower scores (means of 4.5 and 3.0, respectively), while those in Quebec and left-leaning Canadians are most likely to provide higher scores (means of 6.9 and 8.5, respectively).

Political leaders have their work cut out for them navigating these differences.


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When we ask people why they responded the way they did, in the most recent survey, those who think it is the best time most often said we need to act now, climate change can’t wait (49 per cent). Those who believe it is the worst time most often said because there are other priorities like health and basic needs (22 per cent; an increase from 15 per cent in May 2023), followed by the current financial situation, inflation and the belief there is a recession on the way (21 per cent, an increase from 17 per cent in May 2023).

Governments need to navigate these differences thoughtfully.

Canadians increasingly view oil and gas as important to Canada’s current and future economy

While a majority of Canadians want climate action, they are pragmatic about the role of oil and gas in the country’s current and future economy and their views are remarkably aligned on a number of issues.

When asked to rank how important oil and gas is to Canada’s current economy using a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 means not at all important and 10 means extremely important, in January 2024, about three quarters of Canadians (74 per cent) rated oil and gas as important to Canada’s current economy (score of 7-10 out of 10).

As shown in the figure, this number has been on the rise since November 2020, with the highest ranking last summer (78 per cent in August 2023). In the most recent survey (January 2024), about one in three Canadians (32 per cent) gave a rating of 10 on 10.

Views on the importance of oil and gas to Canada’s current economy are broadly shared across the country, with average scores distributed across a fairly narrow range, from 7.4 in Quebec to 8.2 in Atlantic Canada (Ontario, the Prairies and B.C. had mean scores of 7.9, 8.0 and 7.6, respectively). Differences between voters of different political parties are likewise fairly narrow, ranging from 6.9 for those usually voting for the New Democratic Party, 7.0 for Liberal Party supporters and 9.0 for Conservative voters.

Clearly Canadians understand the role oil and gas plays in the country’s current economy.

But what about the future? Perhaps surprisingly, views are quite aligned on the future of oil and gas as well.

When asked to use the same scale to rate the importance of oil and gas to Canada’s future economy, a majority of Canadians rate it as important (score of 7-10) (53 per cent in January 2024), a marked increase from the first time this question was asked in November 2020 (41 per cent). In the most recent survey, over one-quarter of Canadians gave a rating of 10 on 10 (26 per cent).

Average responses across the country are again distributed across a fairly narrow range, from a low of 6.0 in Quebec to a high of 7.0 in the Prairies (Atlantic Canada, Ontario and B.C. have means of 6.7, 6.8 and 6.3, respectively).

For this question, partisan differences are more marked, with means ranging from 4.8 for NDP voters to 5.6 for Liberal Party voters, and 8.6 for Conservative Party voters.

When respondents were asked why they gave the response they gave for each question, the top answers related to the economy, to the importance of oil and gas to the energy system, and to views on the availability and pace of replacements for oil and gas.

For the ‘current economy’ question, the top responses were that oil and gas contribute to the Canadian/provincial economy, exports, jobs and subsidies (26 per cent), that they’re needed for our lifestyle and the cold weather for transportation and heating (10 per cent), and that we are still reliant/dependent on them (10 per cent).

These responses suggest a greater level of understanding on the part of Canadians of the importance of oil and gas to the country’s current energy system than some might think. 

Differences in opinion emerge for the ‘future economy’ question, notably between those who ranked oil and gas as important to the future economy (scores of 7 to 10) versus those who gave neutral (score of 4-6) or not important (score of 0-3) ratings.

For those who said oil and gas are important to the future economy, the top response was that oil and gas remain the main energy source and nothing can replace them (31 per cent), followed by oil and gas remaining a large part of the economy (22 per cent) and that the switch to clean energy is far from ready and there will be demand for oil and gas for years to come (16 per cent).

For those who gave neutral or not important scores, by far the top response was that we are moving towards clean energy and reducing reliance on fossil fuels (46 per cent for neutral scores; 44 per cent for not important scores). The second top answer, particularly for those who gave neutral scores, was that the switch to clean energy is far from ready to replace oil and gas and there will be demand for years to come (13 per cent and six per cent, respectively). The third top answer, especially for those who gave ‘not important’ scores, was that we need to shift energy sources to control climate change (10 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively).

These findings reveal there are important differences in opinion among Canadians about the pace of change and what is possible when it comes to the future of the country’s energy system. This is perhaps not surprising: the future is always uncertain and even expert opinion diverges over what’s possible and at what pace when it comes to transforming energy systems to lower emitting configurations.

These differences of opinion might be something that governments can do something to address. More on this later.

For now, what about opinions on oil and gas exports?

Canadians support oil and gas exports for energy security and to help combat climate change

When asked whether Canada should expand oil and gas exports to help the world have more secure and reliable oil and gas supplies, a majority (52 per cent) of Canadians agree or somewhat agree (31 per cent agree; 21 per cent somewhat agree). Support for this proposition declined in January 2024 compared to previous years, as shown in the figure.

When people are asked whether Canada’s oil and gas sector can contribute to combatting global climate change if exports displace energy sources in other countries that are more damaging to the climate, support is stronger, with more than six in 10 Canadians agreeing (34 per cent agree; 27 per cent somewhat agree). As shown in the figure, support for this proposition held steady over the last two years but it is down from much higher support in 2018 and 2019.

Regionally, there is a higher level of agreement in the Prairies and Ontario with the security question than in other parts of the country (60 per cent and 59 per cent agree/somewhat agree, respectively), and there is more support in the Prairies, Ontario, and B.C. than in other regions for the question about exports combatting climate change (67 per cent, 65 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively).

Differences across voter intention are large for these questions, with Conservative Party supporters highly supportive of both propositions (79 per cent and 80 per cent agree/somewhat agree with security and climate contributions, respectively), Liberal Party supporters agreeing less with the security question than with the climate question (47 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively) and NDP supporters the least likely to agree with either proposition, and in particular, with the security question (26 per cent and 43 per cent).

So what can we make of these findings?

First, action on climate is essential to a majority of Canadians. Governments need to address this issue. But they need to do so with care. People who aren’t ambitious on climate have other preoccupations — other policy issues or concerns over affordability — that governments need to address.

Second, there is growing recognition of the importance of oil and gas to Canada’s current and future economy. Canadians understand the role these resources play now and in the future, and the level of awareness is broadly shared across the country. This is encouraging.

Third, when it comes to oil and gas in Canada’s future economy, differences in opinion along partisan lines emerge, and Canadians have different assumptions about the pace of change and the availability of alternatives to oil and gas.

Governments could help foster greater alignment and shared understanding of the future with thoughtful approaches that try to find common ground. Meeting Canadians where they are at and understanding the assumptions and ideas they bring to the table will be key. So will avoiding actions that stoke further differences between Canadians along partisan or regional lines.

The next part of this series helps to shed more light on Canadians’ views of the country’s energy future with polling asking them to rank core attributes of energy in the future (affordability, reliability, low emitting energy and safety), to share their intentions when it comes to electrifying more of their energy needs and to assess their level of concern about energy affordability.


Sources: Nanos Research, RDD dual frame hybrid telephone and online random surveys, accurate 3.0 percentage points plus or minus, 19 times out of 20. Survey dates and sample sizes:  January 29th to 31st 2024, n=1114; October 29th to 31st 2023, n=1071; July 30th to August 2nd 2023, n=1081; April 30th to May 3rd 2023, n=1080; January 27th to 30th 2023, n=1054.

Complete survey results available at: https://www.uottawa.ca/research-innovation/positive-energy/publications

Notes: charts weighted to the true population proportion; figures may not add up to 100 due to rounding.


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