In the eyes of policymakers and the environmental lobby, an emissions trading scheme is touted as essential economic structural reform. But terms such as “reform” carry nuances that do not go unnoticed by the public, and especially so during an economic downturn.

Perhaps by happy coincidence to some, the debate about the practical implementation of an emissions trading scheme has unfolded at the same time as the global financial crisis. Economic imperatives have meant the lofty ideals around climate change have been called to account.

While our research still demonstrates the steadfastness of public opinion on climate change — in the sense that “something needs to be done” — public opinion on precisely what needs to be done remains unclear, as does the “price” people are prepared to pay for climate change actions that may not, in the end, provide any real practical benefit.

Past survey results have indicated that people are fully supportive of setting targets for reduced carbon emission levels. Some surveys have recorded upwards of 80% of the population favouring initiatives such as emissions targets. But such absolutist sentiment is starting to wane.

Woolcott Research has found that while there has been little change in environmental sentimentality, below the surface, public opinion on reducing CO2 and other emissions is increasingly tempered by economic considerations.

While people place greatest value on their job, the environment is not that far behind. According to our recent survey of 1360 Australians, 88% of respondents nominated unemployment as their most important concern, followed by climate change (81%) and interest rates (76%).

But these results are reasonably predictable. It’s when you ask people what they are prepared to sacrifice to advance their environmental beliefs, that things start to get interesting.

Public opinion begins to divide considerably when we drill down into the whys and wherefores of emissions trading. And while debate hasn’t narrowed to one of environment verses jobs, public opinion increasingly recognises that in order for something to be gained, something must be conceded. But what else, besides jobs, to concede?

The speed of change, for one. A recent Newspoll highlighted a turnaround in the level of community support for Australia to lead the way, and ‘go early’ on a carbon emissions trading scheme, ahead of December’s Copenhagen climate change conference.

In September last year, 61% of those surveyed wanted action taken as soon as possible. But according to the most recent Newspoll survey, that figure has dropped to 41%. The survey also found 45% now want the scheme delayed until after Copenhagen, and another eight per cent oppose the scheme altogether.

In terms of concessions, our polling suggests the public is reluctant to accept what they believe will adversely impact the economy. This is demonstrated when we canvass the public’s views on the cost of fuel — an issue that most people can relate to. They understand higher fuel prices and how it impacts their personal spending.

When asked to consider the importance of fuel availability for heavy transport — the stuff that keeps planes in the air and trucks on the road — people begin to gauge its economic significance.

In fact, 50% agreed it’s more important to maintain the availability of heavy transport fuel than reducing greenhouse emissions. In the same survey, 59% of respondents acknowledge that we will be dependent on oil and diesel for long distance transport until at least 2050. So as much as the community is aspirational for the environment, they are pragmatic as well.

Then there’s the issue of “confidence”. The general public’s cynicism, it seems, is on full display when it comes to the much lauded emissions trading scheme. While a majority of Australians support the Federal Government’s target of a 60% CO2 emissions reduction by 2050, only 47% believe that will be achieved. Read into that what you will.

The global energy landscape is complex and dynamic. It is human nature to protect the things we value — jobs, economic security, the environment — in favour of unknown experiments with unknowable consequences.

As far as Australians are concerned, the pro-environment verses pro-jobs dynamic no longer flies. They know economic prosperity and environmental advancements are not mutually exclusive. It seems they want the best of both worlds.

The veracity of environmental debate in Australia is a good thing. Any emissions trading scheme must stand up to public scrutiny. We will be poorly served by simple solutions. The public understands this. Pollsters are learning this. The next step is to have policy makers understand this dynamic as well.

Ian Woolcott is Managing Director of Woolcott Research, one of Australia’s largest independent market research companies which has been working extensively with corporates and Federal and State governments for more than 30 years.