OTTAWA — Focus groups conducted last summer and fall for the federal government suggest the Liberals' marquee carbon pricing policy is poorly understood and generates contradictory reactions.
The survey found a mistaken belief that some form of carbon taxation currently exists across all of Canada and found "low awareness" of what carbon pricing actually means.
"Climate change, renewable energy, water and air pollution and recycling were top-of-mind environmental considerations, although awareness and knowledge of related terms were moderate at best," says the report by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, which interviewed 20 groups of eight to 10 people in nine cities.
The work was part of a wider, $112,509 survey commissioned by the Privy Council Office to assess "views on current issues," including innovation policy, the environment and culture and heritage. It was delivered to the government Nov. 4.
A pan-Canadian climate policy, including the promise of a national floor price on emissions of carbon dioxide, was the signature move of the Trudeau government last fall and dominated the government agenda.
In October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that, starting in 2018, provinces must have a minimum price of at least $10 a tonne on carbon, rising $10 annually until the price hits $50 in 2022, when the plan will be reassessed.
However, four provinces, effective this month, have priced emissions already — either through direct carbon taxes, such as B.C. and Alberta, or through a cap-and-trade market, as in Quebec and Ontario.
Nonetheless, participants surveyed from June to September last year believed carbon taxes were already being applied coast-to-coast.
"Most were surprised to find out that not all provinces applied carbon pricing and believed that, to be effective, it should be applied nationally," says the report.
Focus group respondents also harboured conflicting views about putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions, with strong agreement the policy will encourage companies to innovate and pollute less, but also a general sense that it will make Canada less appealing to business and investment.
"The potential out-migration of businesses was one of the potential impacts from implementing carbon pricing across Canada according to a few in each location, even among those who support the idea," said the report.
Some also suggested businesses will simply treat the carbon price as another operational expense, "without recognizing their responsibilities to impact change."
"Participants indicated that they needed to see evidence of success to fully support this approach."
Much of the public policy debate around carbon taxation has involved the notion of revenue neutrality, in which carbon tax revenues are used to reduce personal income taxes or corporate rates, as in the British Columbia model.
Yet the report is silent on this option, with focus groups instead suggesting revenues raised should fund new green technologies or, alternatively, social programs.
Some of the focus groups were asked to assess a series of short analogies for pricing carbon.
Two that were well received involved comparing carbon taxes to fees charged for using a dump, which encourage people to produce less garbage and cigarette taxes that discourage smoking.
Comparing carbon pricing to putting winter tires on your car didn't go over as well, said the report.
"Very few suggestions were provided (by participants) for other alternate analogies to explain carbon pricing, other than comparing it to the junk food tax, or saying that 'the more you pollute, the more it will cost you.'"
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the studies were conducted in November