Many countries are attempting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to meet fast-approaching targets to combat climate change. Doing so will require developing politically expedient policies for nearly every sector of modern life. An often-overlooked source of GHG emissions are the homes in which we live. Residential buildings are responsible for 17 per cent of global GHG emissions and six per cent of Canada’s emissions.

These emissions largely come from heating and cooling – processes that often rely on natural gas-fired and/or oil-powered furnaces and boilers. Canadian governments have implemented a multitude of policies to support transitioning off fossil fuels-based heating, including incentives to switch to low-carbon alternatives, educational programs and broader decarbonization policies such as carbon pricing, renewable natural gas (RNG) mandates and emissions regulations. However, current projections show that existing policies are insufficient to meet climate targets. To make up this difference, governments will have to either increase the stringency and scope of decarbonization policies or introduce new policies. In either case, understanding public support for that approach is essential to ensuring long-term political endurance and effectiveness in mitigating climate change.

Until recently, the levels of support for specific home decarbonization policies had not been identified and the factors that might explain support or opposition were not well-understood. Our new study attempted to collect this information to help better tailor policies and thus increase the chances of success of home decarbonization efforts.

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We found that a strong majority (80-82 per cent) of Canadian homeowners support voluntary policies, such as subsidies for heat pump purchases or energy-efficiency retrofits, low-interest loans and educational policies. Compulsory policies – such as carbon pricing, RNG mandates or emissions regulations – were less popular, with carbon pricing in particular drawing strong opposition (33 per cent). These findings are consistent with research in other sectors of the economy showing public preference for voluntary policies over compulsory policies and especially over carbon pricing.

Interestingly, Quebec had some of the highest levels of support across the range of all tested policies, in contrast to Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario. This may be because Quebec is the most electrified province for home heating, implying that carbon pricing and regulations have minimal costs for homeowners. As expected, colder and rural regions that are dependent on the resource industry, such as Alberta and Ontario, are less likely to support home decarbonization policies, especially loan and financing programs.

We found that various factors matter for policy support, including values and beliefs, home characteristics and socio-demographics. For example, altruistic values, concern about climate change, trust in scientists, positive perceptions of heat pumps and levels of education are all associated with consistent support for most policy types.

But support for some specific policies is explained by unique characteristics. For instance, homeowners with environment-oriented lifestyles are more likely to support only compulsory policies, such as carbon pricing, RNG mandates and building emissions regulations. Those who trust the fossil fuel industry are more likely to oppose all policy types except RNG mandates, which reveals a perceived continuity in the use of natural gas that is appealing to those personally invested in the fossil fuel sector.

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We also found that Canadian homeowners can be reliably divided into three distinct groups: those who support all policy types (43 per cent), those who do not support any policy (37 per cent), and those who are moderately supportive of voluntary policies (such as subsidies and education) but opposed to all others (20 per cent). The supportive policy group tends to be young, female, college-educated, wealthy and living in urban areas. In contrast, the policy unsupportive group is the least worried about climate change, has the lowest trust in scientists and government but has the highest trust in the fossil fuel industry. Those in the voluntary support group tend to be older and male-identified homeowners.

These findings have valuable implications for national and sub-national policy efforts to reduce home emissions:

1. Although support for voluntary policies is higher, these policies are already in place in many jurisdictions. Compulsory policies (taxes and regulations) are necessary to make rapid reductions in emissions. It is therefore imperative that policymakers investigate how compulsory policies can be designed to achieve increased levels of support, improve communication and implementation and increase the effectiveness of existing voluntary policies. For example, delivering carbon taxation refunds to people via a highly visible carbon dividend may help reduce opposition to that controversial policy. Subsidies, on the other hand, could be income-based to avoid free-ridership for those who can afford to switch technology.

2. Policymakers should consider the key factors behind support or opposition to each policy type when designing home decarbonization policy. For example, positive perceptions of heat pumps are more likely to increase policy support than policy knowledge, so it may be more effective to promote heat pump technology rather than the policies themselves.

3. The unique relationships that exist between individual factors of support, specific policy types and support-based groups indicate that policymakers could benefit from tailoring policies or communication tactics to target specific populations. For example, regions where people are traditionally opposed to compulsory climate policies could be targeted with RNG mandates that emphasize the perceived continuity of values and infrastructure necessary to decrease emissions while accommodating the preferences of the people of that region.

In Canada and around the world, climate targets are coming up fast and no economic sector can be overlooked. Home heating causes a substantial portion of emissions, with low-carbon alternatives ready and waiting to be used to greater effect. Tailoring policies to public preferences can accelerate home decarbonization and help in the battle against climate change.

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Severin Odland
Severin Odland is a researcher who specializes in the intersection of climate change and community engagement. His research focuses on climate policy support and the perceptions of decarbonization in fossil fuel-dependent communities.
Katya Rhodes
Katya Rhodes is an assistant professor at the University of Victoria and a climate policy expert analyzing low-carbon economy transitions and climate policy designs. Her research examines effective and politically acceptable pathways to mitigate climate change using energy-economy modelling, citizen surveys and comparative policy analyses. 

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