Bluffs Advocate

Opinion Optics

Slow-moving Support for Cap-and-Trade

Canadians are close to supporting cap-and-trade, in a half-hearted way

By Marc Zwelling

            When Premier Kathleen Wynne announced last month that Ontario would join a cap-and-trade market, she had an increasingly stiff wind of public opinion at her back. Wynne and Québec Premier Philippe Couillard signed a deal to link their provinces with California in a cap-and-trade market to curb greenhouse gas emissions. After Ontario imposes a limit (or cap) on emissions, companies and other polluters that discharge too much greenhouse gas can buy permits to emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from polluters that have cut their emissions.

Slowly growing public pressure to deal with climate change is behind the support for cap-and-trade in Ontario.

In a December 18-20 Abacus Data national poll, 54 per cent agreed that "when it comes to Canada's record on the issue of climate change Canada can and should do more." Four in ten people in Ontario supported "introducing a national carbon tax that would be phased in over time" while four in ten opposed it. In an Oracle Research national poll conducted March 12-30, 60 per cent said it would be important or very important in deciding how they would vote if a federal candidate or party promised "to legally enforce a cap or limits on carbon pollution."

Although environment groups have promoted cap-and-trade since the 1970s, millions in Ontario haven't heard of it. Voters certainly aren't going to demand cap-and-trade if they don't know what it means.

In a poll by Innovative Research conducted April 24-26 across the province, just 47 per cent said they are familiar with the idea. Only 10 per cent claimed to have "a detailed understanding of the cap-and-trade system."

Before cap-and-trade was defined for poll respondents, 33 per cent had a favourable impression of it, 34 per cent an unfavourable impression. After it was explained, 54 per cent said they support cap-and-trade.

The survey told respondents that cap-and-trade "creates a market for emissions, which motivates companies to meet or come under their allotted limit—the less they emit, the less they pay, so there is a financial incentive to reduce emissions." Just 18 per cent were opposed. Nonetheless, only 19 per cent said they "strongly" support it, and the poll didn't present the arguments of cap-and-trade opponents.

Right-wing politicians generally oppose cap-and-trade and call it a disguised tax. But some right wingers believe conservatives need a climate change remedy for the sake of their credibility. Reform Party founder Preston Manning likes it. He said in 2010 that he prefers "talking about pollution pricing…. I don't like the word 'tax' because it turns the public off."

Canadians would like to cool the planet but wish someone else would pick up the cheque.

Faced with three choices in a Nanos Research poll last October, 53 per cent said they would prefer "a new tax on businesses based on the volume of greenhouse gases they emit, the proceeds of which would be used to fund projects which help reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions

Just 11 per cent favour "a new five per cent tax on energy items such as electricity and gasoline, natural gas and heating oil… to fund projects which help reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions." Another 29 per cent prefer "no new taxes on fossil fuels such as gasoline, natural gas and heating oil or on businesses that emit greenhouse gases."

Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies, published by Wiley (2012).