Switzerland’s strategy to meet its climate targets hit a major roadblock last Sunday, as the majority of voters rejected a law aimed at further reducing the country’s greenhouse gases. The CO2 Law, rejected by 51.6% of the voters of a national referendum, would have enacted new taxes on CO2-generating fuel and natural gas, as well as on airline tickets.
The small land-locked country was the first in the world to submit its formal climate plan for cutting emissions to the United Nations, months before the Paris Agreement was adopted. Under its plan, Switzerland pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2030 and by 70-85% by 2050.
To meet that target, the government introduced a key piece of climate change legislation, the CO2 Act. A draft was first approved by the lower and upper houses of parliament and now had to be summited to a public referendum. The law envisioned various measures, targeting road vehicles, air traffic, industries and buildings.
Now, without the climate legislation, “it will be difficult to achieve the country’s climate targets,” Switzerland’s Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said, speaking with reporters. The Green Party, the main supporter of the new climate rules, said in a statement that “the oil and gas companies and their lobby have won.”
One of the main policies included in the bill was a more significant carbon levy on fossil fuels. Switzerland already has one of the highest prices on carbon in the world at $106 per ton of CO2-equivalent. The CO2 Act would have further increased the levy to $231 per ton. The transportation sector is currently responsible for almost a third of the country’s total climate emissions.
Initial opinion polls suggested the CO2 law had strong popular support of about 60%, but the “no” vote gained significant ground in the final weeks before the referendum. Urban cantons including Basel, Zurich and Geneva voted in favor of the bill. But that wasn’t sufficient, as 21 of the 26 Swiss cantons ended up saying no to the climate legislation.
Those campaigning against the climate policy mainly put forward financial arguments, claiming the law would have resulted in a “massive additional financial burden for the population” and “immense increase in bureaucracy.” They also said the proposal was ineffective as Switzerland’s emissions only amount to 0.1% of the global tally.
The outcome represents a major upset for a country that is disproportionately affected by climate change. Since the beginning of records in 1864, the average temperature in the country has climbed by 1.9°C. In the past 30 years, Switzerland has experienced a concerning acceleration in its rate of warming.
Thomas Schlegel, a climatologist with MeteoSwiss, Switzerland’s meteorological office, told SwissInfo, that this is due to the country’s continental climate, with no sea around it to slow down the build-up of heat. What’s more, due to its latitude the country is affected by a physical phenomenon by which areas closer to the North Pole are heating up more than areas towards the equator.
Alongside the climate bill, Swiss voters also had to vote on a proposal to outlaw artificial pesticides and to improve drinking water by giving subsidies only to farmers who eschew chemicals. Both were voted down by 61%. Supporters had pointed to worrying levels of pesticides in water, but farmers warned the proposals would put them out of business.