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Will anything change in Switzerland after European Court's climate ruling?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Will anything change in Switzerland after European Court's climate ruling?
ECHR's headquarters in Strasbourg, where the ruling was handed down. Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay

In a landmark decision, Europe's top rights court ruled that Switzerland was not doing enough to tackle climate change, condemning the country to pay a hefty fine. But will anything change?


The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECHR)  issued its decision on Tuesday after a Swiss association of Elders for Climate Protection — 2,500 women aged 73 on average — argued that the country’s government was not doing enough to mitigate the effects of global warming. 

The ECHR ruled that Switzerland had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the "right to respect for private and family life,” and ordered the government to pay the complainants a fine of 80,000 euros (78,555 francs), according to AFP.

Is Switzerland really lagging in implementing climate protection measures, as the court ruled?

It depends on who you ask.

According to the Federal Office for the Environment, the country “pursues an active policy on reducing greenhouse gases and making its contribution to the international goal of limiting global warming to two degrees."

But environmental activists — including the group which brought the case to the European Court — disagree, arguing that “Switzerland is doing too little to protect its population from the consequences of the climate crisis,” Greenpeace pointed out.

If it is true that Swiss authorities are dragging their feet in implementing pro-active climate protection measures, it may not be entirely their fault.

If anyone/anything is to blame, at least partly, it is the system of direct democracy.

Here is just one example:

In September 2020, the Swiss parliament passed the so-called CO2 Act, aiming to achieve the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement by halving Switzerland’s CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to 1990.

Its ultimate goal was to no longer emit any greenhouse gases by 2050 — the so-called ‘net zero target’

However, in a referendum held on June 13th, 2021, Swiss voters narrowly rejected this measure which, according to the then Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, meant that "it will now be difficult to achieve the climate targets.”


So will it change anything?

It will be up to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to supervise the measures Switzerland will have to take to remedy this ‘shortcoming.’

The Swiss government said it would examine measures it should take following the ruling.

Alain Chablais, the lawyer who represented Switzerland in court, warned it might take "some time".

Anne Mahrer, a member of Elders for Climate Protection, said the association would be "watching very closely" to make sure the government complied.

But Joie Chowdhury, a lawyer from the Center for International Environmental Law, said the ruling was "historic".

"We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond," she said.

It "leaves no doubt: the climate crisis is a human rights crisis, and states have human rights obligations to act urgently and effectively... to prevent further devastation and harm to people and the environment," she said.


But among certain Swiss MPs there reaction was different.

Switzerland's biggest political party demanded a withdrawal from the Council of Europe after the decision.

The hard-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) slammed the verdict, calling the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg "scandalous".

"Switzerland must withdraw from the Council of Europe," the SVP said in a statement, adding that the court's job was to "dispense justice and not make policy".

They "did not even consider the fact that Switzerland is exemplary in reducing carbon dioxide emissions", the SVP said, adding: "Switzerland has had almost CO2-neutral energy production in the past with hydropower and nuclear power."

The SVP's Jean-Luc Addor questioned the court's this judgment, as well as the fact that foreign judges have ruled on Swiss matters.

“What is the legitimacy of the ECHR to pronounce such a 'condemnation'? Is it now going to send the European army to Switzerland?," he said.

If anything is to happen then, various federal departments— including the Justice Ministry and the Federal Department of the Environment — will have to step in, as well as cantons and MPs. 

In Switzerland the will to counteract climate change is there, at all levels of the government and population at large.

However, unlike many other countries, elected officials in Switzerland can only do so much to get new laws implemented.

That’s because any measures hatched in the parliament could eventually be rejected when voters have their say at the ballot box.


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George 2024/04/10 13:20
So basically unelected politicised body can decide policies in a foreign country disregarding sovereign democratically elected government, parliament. Hence why bother with parliaments, elections and suchlike let’s just have sovereign dictatorships and dictators ruling Europe. Why did we bother to fight the wars and dictators.

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