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OPINION: Are the Swiss finally going to get serious on tackling the climate crisis?

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected]
OPINION: Are the Swiss finally going to get serious on tackling the climate crisis?
A photograph shows a slope amid snowless landscape in Switzerland. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Switzerland is particularly vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis but the Swiss have so far failed to respond adequately to the growing emergency. Clare O’Dea looks at whether a breakthrough is finally on the cards.

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On June 18th, voters will have the chance to accept or reject Switzerland's climate protection law, which sets out a path to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The referendum to potentially block the law was called by the populist Swiss People’s Party.

Parliament passed this climate law in September 2022 but the conservative right People’s Party quickly gathered enough signatures to call a referendum. The party did the same thing the last time a government plan for climate measures was approved by parliament, winning the argument at the ballot box in June 2021.

Partly as a result of these delays, Switzerland has slipped down several places to 22nd in the Climate Change Performance Index, performing worse than the EU average in the latest rankings. 

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As an Alpine country, Switzerland is particularly vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis, with temperatures rising at twice the global average. Droughts and heatwaves in recent years have accelerated the melting of Swiss glaciers

Read more about the impact of the climate crisis in Switzerland

The new climate protection law takes a rather soft approach to industry and consumers. It has the backing of economic and farming lobby groups, as well as all political parties, bar one. 

But it still plots an ambitious course. Switzerland currently imports three-quarters of its energy needs. The goal is to increase energy independence by pivoting away from imported fossil fuels completely. 

The measures include emission reduction trajectories for industry, transport and buildings, to reduce energy consumption, but the law stops short of introducing any new taxes or bans.

The carrot for homeowners is two billion francs to support the replacement of gas and oil heating systems or electric heaters with cleaner alternatives. Another 1.2 billion francs is promised to companies investing in climate-friendly technologies.

The People’s Party is hoping it can convince voters to torpedo this law, as it managed to do successfully with the more robust “CO2 Law” in 2021. 

The rejection of the CO2 law, which was based on the “polluter pays” principle, came as a shock to the government, because the swing to a narrow “no” (51.6 percent) came near the end of the campaign after a strong start for the “yes” camp. Voters were ultimately swayed by fears of higher costs to their household budgets. 

This aerial picture taken on September 13, 2022 at Glacier 3000 resort above Les Diablerets shows the Tsanfleuron pass free of the ice that covered it for at least 2,000 years next to blankets (L) covering snow from the last winter season to prevent it from melting. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The argument of “an explosion in electricity prices” has been revived for this year’s vote. Concerns about energy security are also front and centre, with the tagline “too extreme and much too expensive”. 

In addition, the perceived negative visual impact on the landscape of renewable energy installations – wind and solar –is being highlighted. 

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The issue of energy security is the subject of a recently published white paper by the Energy Science Center at Zurich’s ETH. The modelling shows that “a complete de-carbonaisation of Switzerland’s energy system is compatible with a high degree of energy security under certain conditions.”

What’s needed, according to the research, is a rapid expansion in renewable electricity production and the efficient integration of Switzerland into the European electricity market.

The law being voted on next month is the outcome of the so-called Glacier Initiative which was launched by the Swiss Association for Climate Protection in 2019. It provided for a ban on all fossil fuels by 2050, if there were no “technical alternatives”.

The association withdrew their initiative when they saw the government’s indirect counter proposal. This is a common dynamic in compromise-driven Swiss politics. Activists bring forward a referendum with radical goals that may or may not pass at the ballot box. 

To avoid the risk, the government crafts a compromise or watered-down version of the proposed legislation, which is then accepted by parliament, prompting the initiative committee to drop their campaign. 

The tug of war can be dragged out if there is a third party opposed to the watered-down version; in the current case, Swiss People’s Party. By objecting to the new law, they can reignite the debate and stall the whole process.

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The climate debate rumbles on in Switzerland, with some taking a fatalistic view that the country is too small to make any difference, so why bother? 

With the support of Greenpeace, a group of older women known as the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz (Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland) are bothering – by taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  

Their aim is to boost climate action in Switzerland through a lawsuit against the government that argues their health, as older people, is being put at risk by government inaction. Theirs was the first such case to come before the ECHR. 

READ ALSO: Climate change 'transforming Switzerland into Tuscany'

Other more attention-grabbing protests are taking place in Switzerland. Most recently, on May 23rd, a group of 100 protestors from various groups, carried out an action at Geneva airport, targeting private jets that were on display as part of a fair. 

Just before Easter, activists from Renovate Switzerland blocked southbound holiday traffic by glueing themselves to the motorway surface near the entrance of the Gotthard Tunnel.

In another protest last month, a man glued himself to the podium of a televised political debate after local elections in Geneva, to the indignation of the presenter and the crowd, who booed as he was removed. 

Amid the apparent lack of consensus in Switzerland on how or whether to take action against global warming, the upcoming vote on June 18th has the potential to provide some badly-needed direction to the country and its citizens. 

 

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