Fuel station Switzerland

View from Brussels: Swiss miss chance to go green

Image credit: Dreamstime

Switzerland held one of its frequent referendums this weekend. On the ballot paper: an updated climate law that aimed to cut emissions in half by 2030. But voters decided that the green plan asked too much of the rich European country and struck it down.

Switzerland emits roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as Ireland, and a new plan put to a public vote on Sunday aimed to scrub more emissions from the environmental accounting books, particularly from the Alpine nation’s transport sector.

But the Swiss were having none of it and nearly 52 per cent said ‘no’, ‘non’ and ‘Nein’ to a government-backed proposal. The same referendum also opposed a ban on artificial pesticides.

The result means that Switzerland is unlikely to hit its target of halving CO2 emissions compared to a 1990 baseline by 2030 and puts in jeopardy its commitments under the Paris Agreement to curb climate change.

Under a plan backed by a majority of the Swiss government, airline tickets would have been subject to additional charges and local carbon taxes on petrol, diesel, heating oil and fossil gas could have been set up.

The revenues generated by the extra charges would have been largely returned to Swiss citizens through health insurance rebates, and a large chunk would also have been used to fund green technologies.

Government estimates calculated that the average Swiss family would have paid an extra 100CHF (£78) per year if no lifestyle changes were made. The purpose of the green plan was, of course, to accelerate lifestyle change.

Opposition groups, including the far-right Swiss Peoples’ Party and fossil fuel lobbies, estimated higher costs for citizens, which did not include the healthcare rebate, and the political parties that did back the measure did not campaign enthusiastically in favour of it.

Dr Robert Rohde, a researcher at Berkley Earth - a climate non-profit - tweeted that the ‘pro’ parties only managed to agree a compromise that left most of them dissatisfied, which accounted for the “lukewarm” campaigning.

Green politicians felt the law did not go far enough, while liberal lawmakers had issues with the structure of the green fund that would be set up. The political fudge ended up being unpalatable to almost everybody.

The result means that Switzerland’s ‘CO2 law’ was one of the first carbon tax measures worldwide put to a national public vote but also the first to fall on the chopping block.

Souring public opinion is the bête noire of climate policy-makers because it could make or break flagship initiatives like the EU Green Deal, which is filled with language like ‘just transition’, ‘green jobs’ and ‘nobody left behind’.

Switzerland’s climate failure, which may take the government years to repair, is a lesson for other countries aiming to ratchet up their green policies. It is especially educational for the EU, which is heading down a similar road at the moment.

The main failing of the Swiss proposal was that it failed to make a strong case for the benefits of increased climate action, whether that is a focus on the jobs it can create, the biodiversity it can save or the improved health it can guarantee.

By the time it came to vote, the only consequence Swiss citizens had at the forefront of their minds was the extra costs the updated law would impose in the short term. This is the same mentality that created the gilets jaunes movement in France.

Under a mass review of all of its climate and energy legislation in the summer, the EU risks triggering the same backlash if the argument is not structured more shrewdly. So far, the Green Deal has been a series of ideas on paper, nothing too tangible. That time is drawing to a close.

The main policy that might undermine the Green Deal is the idea of including road transport within the bloc’s hugely successful emissions trading scheme, which could increase fuel prices and hit motorists hard at the pumps.

Most climate analysts insist that CO2 reduction targets and engine standards are the right tools to clean up transport, not emissions trading. If the EU review does not get the balance right, motorists will be hit by higher costs but CO2 emissions won’t be reduced.

The main lesson the EU will learn from the Swiss case - not that it needed to be relearned - is that complex policy decisions should not be put to a public vote. Thankfully, the EU does not have to resort to that because the Green Deal does not rewrite the treaties that underpin European law.

Nevertheless, if people do not buy into its green agenda, it won’t go anywhere. Switzerland, meanwhile, has to go back to the drawing board and keep one eye on a ticking climate clock.

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