COMMENTARY: When it comes to energy and climate change, Canadians want it both ways – National | Canadian

In the past year, global events have thrust the issue of energy to the forefront of Canadians’ minds. From the war in Ukraine and the energy shortage facing Europe to rising costs of energy here at home, Canadians have been bombarded by news and commentary about what our energy future should look like.

At the same time, global concern about climate change remains very high, and is higher in Canada than it is in other countries.

In April of this year, Ipsos found that Canadians are concerned about the impacts of climate change at home and abroad but have little faith that Canada has the necessary plans in place to tackle climate change over the next decade.

Climate change is not a new issue. It has been percolating near the top of Canadians’ worries for years, and in fact, during the 2019 federal election, was briefly one of the top three issues. COVID-19 and the resulting economic fallout, and the war in Ukraine changed all of that. Suddenly, Canadians were not only worried about climate change, but also about where their energy was coming from, and how much it was going to cost them.

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A recent Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News drove home this point. Despite more than half of Canadians (52 per cent) agreeing that climate change is an emergency that must be stopped, no matter what it costs, only two in five (40 per cent) say that the world needs to get off oil and natural gas, even if some people suffer as a result.

Worries about energy costs aside, there’s also a concern about the feasibility of non-fossil fuel alternatives, with less than half (44 per cent) of Canadians saying they’re confident that renewable energy sources alone will cover most of our energy needs by 2050. Strong support for alternatives starts to look a little more lukewarm when we see that Canadians’ support for developing more natural gas (66 per cent) is just 10 points lower than support for developing more renewables (76 per cent).

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Compounding all the feelings about climate change and energy sources is a very human desire to help our allies in Europe reduce their dependency on Russian oil and natural gas, supported by 55 per cent of Canadians. A similar majority (52 per cent) believe Canada must do its part for global energy security by exporting more natural gas to Europe. Canadians want to fight climate change and help others, even if it means, for some, missing our targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at home.

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As a country with abundant energy sources — especially oil and natural gas — Canada is in a unique position to help Europe with natural gas exports. But years of stalling, regulatory hurdles, and the complexity of navigating reconciliation with Indigenous peoples have meant that Canada cannot help when help is needed most.

We have spent the last 10-plus years watching two sides — adamant energy proponents who want to develop more of Canada’s energy as quickly as possible, and adamant opponents who want an immediate end to fossil fuels — hurl accusations at each other. The truth of the matter is a classic Canadian, middle-of-the road compromise with neither side getting a clear mandate to proceed.

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We value the contribution our natural resources provide to the economy and are proud of what Canadian energy can offer the world. There is also a clear commitment to fighting climate change. The question of an energy transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy and achieving “net zero” emissions by 2050 is no longer a question of if, but of when and how. The new question is how it will be achieved, and who will pay for it.

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On the payment front, Canadians are clear: not them. Half of Canadians are willing to pay absolutely nothing more per year to fight climate change. While this may be partly due to inflationary pressures, that measure is unchanged since we last asked this question in July 2021. An additional 21 per cent are willing to pay up to $100 more per year, and six per cent say they’d pony up to $200 annually. Put another way, three-quarters of the population are willing to pay between $0 and a measly $200 a year to personally help the fight against climate change.

That means Canadians are looking to businesses and government for solutions, and to provide the financial resources necessary to carry them out. The federal government certainly believes it is acting, even if nobody knows exactly what it is doing. In August, Prime Minister Trudeau announced a new hydrogen deal to help supply Germany with Canadian-made “green” hydrogen to replace Russian-made natural gas.

The only problem? The production and export facilities don’t yet exist and producing green hydrogen — which emits no greenhouse gas emissions — is not yet economically feasible. Transporting hydrogen across the ocean poses further challenges. Green hydrogen may be part of the answer, someday. But today it’s just another magic solution, promising to solve today’s problems tomorrow.

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Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Democrats under President Joe Biden passed the largest climate change bill in history, leapfrogging Canada’s efforts and firmly positioning the United States’ commitment to climate action over the next 10 years. The U.S. bill focuses heavily on investing in the technologies required to develop fossil fuel alternatives, even as the U.S. continues to recognize it needs to produce and consume oil and natural gas in the immediate future.

The climate solution was always going to need to come from the U.S., and it was always going to be a science, rather than policy-based solution, requiring private sector investment from the very companies that currently produce GHG-emitting energy. And it was always going to take time.

Canadians are paying more attention to energy and climate change issues, and many people are only now tuning in to what these challenges mean for them personally. The great missed opportunity for climate activists is that they never transitioned from yelling at the deniers and playing identity politics, to the next step of educating and informing people about the choices we need to make as a society.

They also made this a zero-sum game, positioning all fossil fuels as evil and insisting that they must be shut down immediately. The war in Ukraine illustrated — in a clear and immediate way — why this is impossible. In this respect, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack may turn out to be a turning point for the climate change movement. Since it has mobilized Europe and the U.S., the rest of the world will follow in the search for cleaner and greener energy solutions. We have no choice, really.

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For Canada to actively embrace climate action, a middle-of-the-road approach is needed, and that seems to be exactly what Canadians themselves want. Currently, that would include supporting our allies now (using our oil and natural gas reserves to our advantage), while planning concrete and measurable ways to make our future energy cleaner and renewable.

However, in the transitionary period, and beyond, everyone — government, energy producers, environmentalists, and citizens — are going to need to be much more realistic about their needs and wants, and be prepared to invest in the solutions.

Canadians want it both ways, and right now, they are unwilling to make the tough choices that will be necessary in the long run. We will see if government and industry are up to the challenge of reconciling Canadians’ conflicting priorities and helping to define the tough choices that lay ahead.

Gregory Jack is vice president of public affairs (Canada) with Ipsos. He is also currently completing a master’s of science in energy policy at the University of Sussex.

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