Liberals wrestle with the challenge of promoting cap and trade
As it prepares an ad campaign tackling cap and trade, Premier Kathleen Wynne's government is aware that it'll be tough to convince Ontarians to pay more to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
March 12, 2016
To many, climate change is the gravest crisis facing the planet.
But convincing Ontario residents to pay more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may be the most daunting communications and marketing challenge the provincial government has ever tackled.
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cap-and-trade system puts a price on carbon, making gasoline, natural gas and other fossil fuels more expensive.
The first polling on the scheme unveiled in the Feb. 25 budget suggests Ontarians are skeptical about paying 4.3 cents more per litre of gasoline and forking over another $5 a month on natural gas bills, at least until they learn all proceeds will fund greenhouse-gas reduction measures.
That’s why Queen’s Park is currently working on an advertising blitz to begin as early as next month.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray is mindful of the missteps other governments have made when trying to encourage people to cut emissions — and of the minefield that could loom.
“The energy ministry in the U.K. ran one that scared the hell out of people . . . so a lot of people have been rolling it back,” said Murray.
“I can’t give the details, but it’s very impactful,” he said of the forthcoming Ontario ad that is still being finalized.
Murray said the province is “taking a similar kind of approach” to a commercial the Quebec government, its cap-and-trade partner along with the State of California, ran last year.
“The Quebec ad on climate change was very grey, bleak rainy days with kids looking out the window at flooded lands and this is the future for these kids and then it flips to all of the new technologies and we’re driving electric vehicles and the solutions to it,” he said.
“It’s a very sobering ad on one hand; on the other hand, it’s an optimistic ad.”
Alan Middleton, assistant professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business and one of Canada’s leading experts on advertising, cautioned the Ontario government against using images of extreme weather to illustrate the fallout of climate change.
“I wouldn’t do that — bad news,” Middleton said firmly.
The ad guru said the Liberals must clearly explain how they will spend the $1.9 billion being collected annually through cap-and-trade levies.
“You will not be able to fight the total negative. What you can do is mitigate its pressure by showing where it’s going and what effect it can have,” said Middleton.
“This is classic marketing and communications: make people feel part of something positive, even though there’s a negative attached to it. It balances the benefit-to-cost equation a little bit,” he said.
Scott Reid, a principal at Feschuk Reid and one of the country’s top communications professionals, noted “they did a smart thing by enshrining it in law” that the windfall must go toward reducing emissions.
“Now, you’ve got to do the hard work of making certain that the paying public sees and knows that,” said Reid, who has done work for the province though not on the environment file.
Murray insisted Ontarians will get the message that “we couldn’t legally subsidize a deficit or build a highway” with the new money.
“We have $1.9 billion that we can only spend on this stuff. That’s going to go back to Ontarians — into their cars, their homes, and into their businesses,” the minister said.
According to a Forum Research poll conducted two weeks ago, 68 per cent of people disapprove of higher fuel prices while 22 per cent approved and 10 per cent weren’t sure.
Asked specifically about cap-and-trade, 59 per cent disapproved, 27 per cent approved and 14 per cent had no opinion.
But when informed any money collected from carbon pricing would bankroll greenhouse-gas reduction, 46 per cent approved while 42 per cent disapproved and 12 per cent didn’t know.
The interactive voice-response survey of 1,148 people is considered accurate to within three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Internal Liberal research shared with the Star echoed those findings.
“In focus groups, Ontarians are much more interested in and supportive of cap-and-trade when it is understood that the money collected would be reinvested into green projects such as clean tech research, public transportation and home energy efficiency improvement rebates,” according to the government pollster’s analysis.
“Many who were opposed became more interested and supportive when it was made clear that the money would not go into general revenue, but rather a dedicated ‘green’ fund to be used only on green projects and initiatives.”
What is cap and trade?
Ontario has entered into a cap and trade system with Quebec and California that puts a price on carbon. Under such a regimen, businesses have greenhouse gas emission limits — or caps. Those who pollute less can sell or trade credits, creating an economic incentive to reduce emissions. In time, an industry’s overall cap will be lowered in order to cut pollution.