Environment crusader David Suzuki says ordinary Canadians are far ahead of politicians when it comes to fighting climate change -- and that they're ready and willing to pay for it.

Fresh from a cross-Canada tour in which he heard from thousands of people in more than 40 cities, Suzuki told CTV's Question Period on Sunday that Canadians are ready for a carbon tax that would punish those who waste energy and reward those who conserve.

"We met over 30,000 Canadians. They recorded over 500 personal statements about what they would do if they were minister for the environment," Suzuki told Question Period co-host Craig Oliver.

"And I'm telling you, they want carbon taxes."

In a Friday Globe and Mail column that he co-wrote with automotive consultant Dennis DesRosiers, Suzuki said politicians are hanging on to a quarter-century old, outmoded view of the carbon tax -- that is, Joe Clark's 18-cents-a-gallon gas tax that helped bring his minority government down in 1979.

But that was then, argued Suzuki, and today, the public's anxiety over pollution and climate change means a majority of people are much more receptive to taxing polluters and to paying a levy on fossil fuels.

Asked about Conservative claims that meeting Kyoto targets would cause a deep recession, Suzuki said global warming would cost the economy more than two world wars combined and bring about a severe global depression.

A Tory government study released Thursday said the Kyoto emissions-cutting targets for Canada could be met only by introducing a massive $195-per-tonne carbon tax that would eliminate thousands of jobs and undercut our quality of life.

'Knee-jerk' response

Suzuki on Sunday called this an extreme, "knee-jerk" response from the government and some members of the business community.

"Of course if we start paying $195 a tonne, it'll be economically disastrous. Nobody's saying that," Suzuki told Question Period.

He added that the Conservative report takes the most "extreme suggestion about what it will cost to pay for what carbon dioxide will be worth, $195 a tonne, which no environmental group says is what the cost is going to be."

Liberal Leader Stephan Dion also rejected the $195 figure as excessive, saying that his party proposes a $20-per-tonne "deposit" instead of a tax.

"It's a deposit that the companies will have to give to the environmental bank -- and they will have this money back if they decrease their emissions," Dion told Question Period co-host Jane Taber.

"It's like when you have your bottle of Coca-Cola and you bring it back to the grocery store. You get your money back. It's not a tax."

Dion called his plan a "great incentive" for Canadians to reduce emissions while not harming the economy.

Suzuki, other environmentalists and opposition members also say the Tory study is flawed because it doesn't take into account the benefits of cutting emissions -- such as reduced energy costs and a more stable climate. 

"Do (the Tories and business leaders) ask the question, how many jobs will be created by taking this seriously?" said Suzuki. "How many jobs in the whole alternative energy area? No, they do not do that."

Baird defends plan

Appearing on the show ahead of Suzuki, Environment Minister John Baird defended the grim economic picture his report painted if Canada were to comply with Kyoto. He again criticized the Liberal's Bill C-288, that would force the government to comply with the Kyoto targets.

Members of all three opposition parties demanded to know on Thursday when the Tories would bring their Clean Air Act to the House for debate and a vote -- and whether it would include mandatory emissions reductions targets for industry.

Refusing to say exactly when, Baird said on Sunday that the government will "very shortly" bring forward a reasonable environmental plan that won't destroy the economy.

"We also have brought forward a partnership with the provinces. We've got all the provinces rolling together towards cleaner air and reducing greenhouse gases," said Baird.

He noted that the final part of his government's plan will be an industrial emissions strategy.

"We're going to be for the first time in Canada regulating industry," Baird said. "We're going to regulate the entire industrial sector for both greenhouse gases and pollution. We want to make sure it's tough."

The Kyoto Protocol calls for Canada to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. As of 2003, those emissions had increased by 27 per cent above 1990 levels.

If Canada doesn't meet its treaty obligations, it faces a 30 per cent penalty under the next phase of the Kyoto accord.

In addition, the opposition parties have forced the government to rewrite its Clean Air Act, which didn't mention the word Kyoto.

Baird has said the government will adopt intensity targets, which require cuts in emissions per unit of production, but allow overall emissions to go up if production rises.

Environmentalists have blasted that approach, saying GHG emissions from sectors like Alberta's oil sands could rise dramatically.

Asked if he's ready to go into an election campaign on the issue, seeing as how neither the Liberals nor Conservatives appear ready to compromise, Baird said he hopes the government's industrial regulatory strategy is unveiled and working for Canadians "long before an election is held."

"I think it would be wrong to simply put it off to the next parliament. We're going to act. You know, industry has been fighting tough regulation for years, and being very successful with the Liberals," said Baird.

"Environmentalists want perfection. Do you know what? The debate is about to end and the Canadian government's going to act."

Suzuki, meanwhile, said politicians have been aware of the debate and the urgency behind it for almost two decades.

"In 1988, George Bush ran for president of the United States and said, 'you vote for me, I'll be an environmental president,'' said Suzuki. "What a joke. And you know why he said that? Because the American public was there."

In Canada, Suzuki pointed to prime minister Brian Mulroney's appointment of Lucien Bouchard as environment minister to show that the environment was a high priority for his Conservative government.

"I interviewed Lucien Bouchard two months after he was appointed, and I said, Mr. Minister, what is the most important issue we face? Right away, he said global warming. In 1988! I said, how serious is it? And he said it threatens the survival of our species."

Suzuki said he will be campaigning ceaselessly for his cause whenever the next election campaign starts, although he won't be doing so for a particular party.

"I can't. ... because I have a charitable foundation. We're always running on that narrow ledge there about whether you're being too political. And unfortunately, I can't say anything as an individual.

"But it must be the political issue of our time."

With files from the Canadian Press