As Throne Speech Focuses On Managing COVID-19, Canadians Indicate Broad Support For A Green Recovery

BY Sara Roberton

This week, the Trudeau government laid out a roadmap of priorities that will guide their work as Canada moves into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some commentators had anticipated an ambitious – perhaps transformational – plan for a green recovery, the government has instead focused on efforts to manage the here and now of COVID-19; and provide targeted support to specific areas of the economy as the pandemic enters a second wave.

While the environment was certainly not the centrepiece of the Throne Speech, the government did take the time to lay out several future climate-related initiatives. It renewed its promise to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, pledged more investment in clean energy, and committed to modernizing Canada’s Environmental Protection Act. The government appears to have heeded the warnings of critics that a climate-focused recovery plan could seem out-of-touch at a time when so many Canadians face joblessness and pressing economic fears.

What does public opinion data tells us about how Canadians are likely to react to the government’s restrained tone on climate and the environment? Do Canadians think that addressing climate change should be a bigger priority in the government’s plans for economic recovery? Or does the public agree that government and business should tackle one crisis at a time – focusing first on recovery from COVID-19, and worrying about the climate crisis only after the economy has stabilized?

Environics’ data collected a week before the Thone Speech through our Environmental Barometer, a biannual tracking study that provides subscribers with insights into Canadian opinions on energy and the environment, indicates Canadians are broadly supportive of a green recovery. Eight in ten believe federal aid for business and industry should be tied to efforts to protect the environment and address climate change; however, only 26 percent express strong support, suggesting the potential for public opinion to shift as they learn what a green recovery entails. And the idea of tying federal aid to green initiatives attracts lower levels of support in Alberta (67%) and among Conservative supporters (62%).

Despite the economic pain caused by COVID-19, we’ve seen no decline in Canadians’ willingness to personally pay for climate action.

Some have argued that it would seem out of touch for the government to focus on the environment at a time when Canadians are under extraordinary stress from the health and financial impacts of the pandemic. The public doesn’t seem to see it that way. Despite the economic pain caused by COVID-19, we’ve seen no decline in Canadians’ willingness to personally pay for climate action. For years, Environics has asked Canadians whether it’s reasonable to ask households to pay $100 a year to help address climate change; acceptance of this idea has actually increased in 2020, with 58 percent expressing willingness to pay, up from 52 percent last year. Perhaps not surprisingly, the figure is lower among those with lower incomes – but even among those with household incomes under $40,000, about half (51%) are willing to pay $100 a year toward climate action.

These findings suggest that, to date, the pandemic has not shifted the public’s view that Canada needs to act on climate change. Indeed, even as they reckon with the major impacts of pandemic-driven shutdowns, Canadians are supportive of tying economic recovery to environmental objectives.

However, the government is right to be sensitive to the needs of Canadians who are more vulnerable or have lower incomes. It’s clear that the impacts of the pandemic are not equally distributed across society; gender, income, employment, neighbourhood, ethnicity and other factors all shape the risks Canadians face. The same is true of climate change. Everyone will be affected, but some are better equipped to absorb the near-term impacts and to contribute financially to the solutions. The government seems to be taking steps to ensure that those who have been most affected by the pandemic will not be unduly burdened by policies designed to address climate change. 

In taking a cautious approach to pandemic recovery, the government may have underestimated Canadians’ readiness for dramatic climate action. As the effects of the pandemic persist – and likely deepen – over the months ahead, we’ll learn whether Canadians come to appreciate the government’s incremental approach or begin to wonder whether their leaders have let a crisis go to waste.

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