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Can a referendum help save Switzerland’s fast-melting glaciers?

Can a referendum help save Switzerland's fast-melting glaciers?
Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Climate change has become a major issue in Switzerland, not least because of the country's receding glaciers. But the battle is on to save them and the public will have a say in it.

As per the Swiss laws regarding direct democracy, when a popular initiative gains more than 100,000 signatures it must be put to a vote, subject to debates by the Federal Council and the executive. 

If the government chooses to accept the initiative, it will be put to a popular vote as it appears. If it is disputed, the government can put a counter proposal to the vote alongside it. 

What do we want? When do we want it?

The initiative calls for an ‘ambitious climate policy’, including ending fossil fuel usage and reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2050. 

A group of at least 300 supporters will present the policy to the Federal Chancellery in Bern at 6pm on Wednesday evening after a lantern-lit march through the Swiss capital. 

READ MORE: Swiss plan mock funeral for 'dead' glacier

Among the demands of the Swiss Association for Climate Protection – which is behind the initiative – is to completely remove reliance on fossil fuels by 2050, along with making Switzerland carbon neutral by that time. 

Although the Federal Government has indicated it is on board with some of the demands – such as cutting carbon usage by 2050 – the specific requirements of the initiative would represent some of the most ambitious climate-focused reforms anywhere in the world. 

Climate change has become a major issue in Switzerland. As we discussed in our October 2019 election preview, it was the most important issue on the minds of voters. 

A number of initiatives have found government favour, including putting higher taxes on domestic flights and increasing the cost of petrol. 

50,000 Swiss march against climate change

A citizens’ initiative 

Marcel Hänggi, a Climate Policy Officer with the Swiss Association for Climate Protection, told The Local that he was confident the initiative had the public support to succeed.

“I don’t think it is possible to anticipate (the result), but if we had the vote today, we would have a pretty good chance of winning,” said Hänggi. 

“So far it has been successful when you compare it with other initiatives. It was a really good result – we made (100,000 signatures) in less than six months, when we had a time frame of 18 months.”

People take part in a ceremony to mark the 'death' of the Pizol glacier. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

One major factor standing in the way of the vote is the slow-moving Swiss political system, which has the potential to halt the momentum of the movement. 

Although the signatures were collected quickly, the vote is unlikely to happen for the next three years, as enough time must be given for its provisions to be debated. 

“Everything in Switzerland is really slow,” Hänggi told The Local. 

“We will need 12 months for the government to discuss it, while it will take around 18 (more) months for parliament to do so.” 

‘If I didn’t believe we could win I wouldn’t take it on’

Although Hänggi said it would be difficult to determine the political climate when the vote is held in three months time, those within the movement were confident of a positive result – particularly if weather conditions remained extreme. 

“We’ve had an extremely dry summer last year and it was extremely hot this year – and it will unfortunately go on like this, but that might contribute to make people aware of the crisis we face.

“If I didn’t believe we could win I wouldn’t take on the initiative – it was a lot of hard work – and I only started it because I thought we would have a chance.”

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