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Acid test for Swiss climate policy

09.04.2021 – THEODORA PETER

Switzerland is aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2050. The CO2 Act is the first step towards this goal – provided voters give their approval on 13 June.

As a signatory of the Paris Agreement, Switzerland is committed to combating global warming. To achieve this objective, parties to the agreement must significantly reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century. The Federal Council defined Switzerland’s long-term climate strategy at the beginning of this year, setting out guidelines for reaching the net-zero emissions target by 2050, i.e. the stage where Switzerland no longer emits more greenhouse gases than can be absorbed naturally or by technical means. The country’s building and transport sectors are to be emission-free. This will require more clean energy, of which greater amounts – namely geothermal, solar, wind and wood – will be produced domestically.

Higher tax on petrol and fuel

The CO2 Act, which parliament approved last autumn, provides the initial basis for a climate-neutral Switzerland. “We are laying the groundwork for Switzerland to achieve the net-zero target,” says environment and energy minister Simonetta Sommaruga (SP). Specific elements in the CO2 Act include tighter CO2 emission limits for vehicles as well as tax increases on petrol and fuel. Air passengers will also be obliged to pay a CO2 tax on airline tickets. The car and petroleum industries are particularly opposed to these green measures. A campaign group representing various economic, transport and energy interests, with the backing of the SVP, consequently forced a referendum opposing the CO2 Act.

According to the group, the CO2 Act is “costly and ineffectual”. Taxpayers, business and industry should not be forced to pick up the tab again, it says. But the powerful business federation economiesuisse is in favour of the CO2 Act. It has drawn up its own climate master plan for the Swiss economy to show that innovation and efficient technology are key in helping businesses to be “part of the solution”. Many companies hope that investment in renewable energy will boost their order books. The federal government expects investments of up to 1,400 billion Swiss francs over the next 30 years.

Two “climate angels” in front of the Federal Palace, showing their support for a climate tax on airline tickets. If voters approve the CO2 Act, this levy will be one of the measures implemented. Photo: Keystone

Criticism from the green lobby

However, the CO2 Act has attracted criticism from climate campaigners in French-speaking Switzerland who say that measures to cut greenhouse gases do not go anywhere near far enough. In their view, the legislation even perpetuates the “environmentally destructive and inequitable structures” that already exist. But the group was only able to collect 7,000 signatures for a referendum opposing the CO2 Act. This was due to a lack of support from the national climate strike movement, which is reluctant to jeopardise the CO2 Act’s “baby steps” but continues to advocate net-zero emissions by 2030 – 20 years in advance of the Federal Council’s own deadline.

According to Sommaruga, Switzerland will lose further precious time in the race against climate change if voters reject the CO2 Act. The government would then have to take even more drastic action in future to meet the climate goals agreed in Paris.