May 21, 2009
Why Canadians are not yet ready for environmental pricing reform
American climate policy advocates should watch our neighbor to the north closely. With social and political values not too distant from our own and an economic makeup broadly similar, Canada's experiments with climate policy - particularly carbon pricing schemes - offer a real-world laboratory we would be wise not to ignore. While Canadians are broadly supportive of actions to address climate change, proposals at both the federal and provincial levels to establish a price on global warming pollution have met with difficulty. We covered the failure of the national Liberal Party's "Green Shift" carbon tax proposal in the October 2008 elections here, and have watched closely as British Columbia battles over their controversial, first-in-North American carbon tax system. Now, social values research firm Environics (the sister firm to our colleagues at American Environics) has new research findings that shed light on the difficulties facing 'environmental pricing reform' proposals like carbon taxes, cap and trade, and congestion pricing. Environics' Keith Neuman presents their findings in this piece, originally posted at Green Business...
By Keith Neuman, Ph.D.
Environmental pricing reform (or EPR) is the term now used to describe the various types of market mechanisms (e.g. carbon pricing, cap and trade, congestion fees) which are now being given serious attention as the most promising strategy for addressing climate change and other pressing environmental challenges such as water scarcity and traffic congestion. This concept has been around for some time, and is now finally receiving serious attention on the North American policy agenda. Economists have long been making a persuasive case for harnessing market forces to achieve environmental objectives, but only recently has this cause been adopted by major players, such as the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy. The idea that society puts a monetary price on environmental "goods" and "bads", and then letting market forces do their work (as they do with most other forms of business and consumer behavior) is compelling.
Governments and industry now seem ready to move forward with environmental pricing strategies, but is the Canadian public ready to buy in? The limited experience to date is hardly promising. Over the past year, the B.C. provincial carbon tax has been implemented but remains highly controversial (it has become a major issue in the current provincial election), and the Federal Liberal Party's touted "Green Shift" election platform failed spectacularly with the electorate. These early examples suggest there is sufficient citizen resistance to make EPR a difficult political sell. Why should this be the case, given the clear evidence that EPR can be an effective environmental policy? There are three central reasons.
First, is it axiomatic that consumers prefer not to pay more for goods and services, and will resist at varying levels when asked to do so. This is the most commonly understood basis for resistance to EPR, and many policy makers mistakenly believe it is the overriding obstacle. But in fact this dilemma is by no means limited to environmental policy, and has not prevented other successful economic policy measures that shifted costs to consumption, such as the GST and the Ontario Health Premiums. Such measures do not succeed because they are popular, but when they are deemed acceptable given their purpose by a sufficiently critical mass of relevant constituents.
Second, the public is skeptical about the effectiveness of EPR, in terms of how paying more for gasoline, water or consumer goods will actually benefit the environment. Research has shown that public resistance to B.C.'s carbon tax has as much to do with doubts about its effectiveness in reducing the province's greenhouse gas emissions as it does with paying a few more cents per litre at the pump. Consumers can readily understand how stiffer regulations or new technologies can make a difference in cleaning up pollution, but it requires a greater act of faith to believe that higher prices or trading systems will accomplish the same goals. Such faith requires confidence in both the intentions and efficacy of governments and industry, and neither has been seen to have done much to justify this level of confidence. Moreover, there continues to be a widely-held public sentiment that market-based environmental policies, such as cap and trade systems, favour industry by giving it a "license to pollute."
Third, at a deeper level environmental pricing reform is not currently well-positioned in terms of how it fits within Canadians' social values and broad world views. This conclusion comes from a research study Environics recently completed for Sustainable Prosperity, a multi-stakeholder non-profit initiative dedicated to promoting EPR policy in Canada (www.sustainableprosperity.ca). This research revealed that Canadians generally view environmental pricing mechanisms in narrow economic terms (akin to other conventional financial levers), without much appreciation of the broader principles of "polluter pays" and the positive force of the market to achieve important social goals.
The research identified distinct segments or groups of the Canadian population, based on their orientation to EPR and their broader social values. It found that among supporters of EPR, there is only a very small group (4%) who understand and support EPR in the same way as the economists and policy-makers who promote it. Most of the Canadians who express support for EPR (13% of the population) do so for very different reasons - they put much less priority on environmental solutions but rather are pro-market enthusiasts who accept the inevitability of market forces whatever their effect (e.g. they are very strong on a social value Environics defines as "social darwinism", and weak on one called "primacy of environmental protection"). While this latter group is on-side with environmental pricing, they are hardly the kind of supporters sought by EPR advocates.
On the opposite side of the issue, the strongest opponents of EPR are those Canadians who make up the most vulnerable parts of society, including women, older Canadians, and those with the lowest levels of education. This group (21% of the population) sees EPR more as a threat than as a solution to anything. They may care about the environment, but tend to be more focused on day-to-day concerns. There is little potential for building support for environmental pricing initiatives within this group, but it is hardly one that can be ignored if EPR policy is to succeed in Canada.
In the middle is a sizeable group (33%) which is on the fence about EPR. This group (we call them "responsible citizens") has a high degree of social responsibility and concern about the environment. These Canadians are open to the potential of market mechanisms to offer solutions to issues like climate change because they are truly worried about these issues and feel strongly that progress is essential. But they are also concerned about how EPR might affect those more vulnerable than themselves; they are unlikely to support pricing policies that do not treat everyone fairly and make provisions for those who are disadvantaged. The size and composition of this group makes it a critical constituency for building public support for broad-based environmental pricing initiatives, and attracting its support will require demonstrating how such initiatives address social and economic equity issues.
What does this research tell us about what it will take to build the necessary public support in Canada to move forward with environmental pricing reform? EPR will continue to be a tough sell to consumers until such market mechanisms are framed in ways that are more in tune with Canadians' social values, and in particular address the discomfort many citizens have with using market forces to address environmental objectives. This cannot be accomplished through facts and arguments alone (which rarely sway established public attitudes), but through developing a new narrative that more effectively defines EPR in what it will accomplish, in meeting broadly held environmental, economic and social aspirations.
Keith Neuman (email@example.com) is Group Vice-President, Public Affairs, for Environics Research Group Ltd.