Florian Skelton – Switzerland’s dead-lock on climate change mitigation

Three months ago, on 12 June, the Swiss people narrowly rejected a landmark law on climate change. Heralded as the most comprehensive bill yet, it would have however still failed to meaningfully reduce Switzerland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, negotiations on how Switzerland can comply with the Paris Agreement are painfully restarting. But no political party is capable of moving legislation beyond the failures of the previous bill.

Florian Skelton is a postgraduate student in Political Theory at the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main.

File:Bern Klimastreikdemo Helvetiaplatz Klimanotstand.JPG

Climate Strike 2019 in Bern, Switzerland

The no vote back in June came as a shock to most established political actors. The so-called “CO2 law” consolidated the intense negotiations of recent years and was widely seen to be the most promising piece of ecological legislation yet to be drafted by the Swiss parliament. By setting the parameters for Switzerland’s climate policies up until 2030 and beyond, the “CO2 law” was considered a landmark success of the current election period.

Left, centre and even right of centre political actors as well as every notable NGO all campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum of June 2021. With the notable exception of the right-wing nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the bill was backed by every major political party at the federal level. The polls predicted a narrow but stable yes vote, but at the ballot box, the bill was rejected with 51.6% of the votes. Given the strength and range of the yes campaign, this no vote can be understood as nothing but a heavy blow to the progressive camp in Europe’s conservative heart.

Yet, the story was not as easy as most pundits cared to tell it. It was not simply a battle between a progressive, science-aware camp against the climate change denying Swiss People’s Party and their befriended oil industry lobbyists. The most obvious objection to this narrative is the opposition the bill faced from parts of the Swiss climate movement. Having successfully pushed climate change to the top of the political agenda, some climate activists were unwilling to lend support for what they deemed a fundamentally insufficient and misguided piece of legislation.

A brief look back and a longer view into the new decade proves the criticism levelled by more radical climate activists right. The consumer-focused policies of financialisation dismissed by Swiss electorate in June are now again being pursued by political parties. Notwithstanding, they will fail to mitigate climate change in any meaningful way during the next decade.

A brief look back

In 2018, the legislature at the time drew up an embarrassingly insufficient bill on climate change mitigation. It was successfully forestalled by the Left and environmental NGOs. The obvious ignorance of the climate crisis expressed in it reaffirmed students in their early protests against the state’s inaction.

Switzerland witnessed two massive waves of social mobilisation during the first half of 2019. The climate movement as well as the feminist strike swept the country and caused Switzerland’s parliaments to become greener, younger, more female and more progressive in the ensuing elections.

Given this new level of politicisation in a country so unaccustomed to social change, hopes were high that the country’s majority will finally tilt in favour of progressives. Last year, the now slightly more left-wing parliament passed the latest bill on climate protection, this time ensuring that both the left parties as well as the main corporate group “Economiesuisse” lent their support for it.

The reactionary Swiss People’s Party as well as less prominent corporate groups managed to capitalise on a concern they certainly do not care about: ordinary people being levied. They massively exaggerated the tariffs which the “CO2 law” would have imposed, even though money would have flowed back to most people via a climate fund.

The debate revolved nearly exclusively around this set of new tariffs on airline tickets, domestic fuel oil and petrol, but the bill was complex on so many more layers. The online journal “Das Lamm” was likely the only publication in Switzerland which examined the bill in close detail. It described the bills intricacies as more complex than the storyline of “Game of Thrones”. It took them eight articles to describe what would happen if the “CO2 law” was accepted or rejected.

The yes campaign focused its resources towards mimicking a sense of action as well as setting the right-wing distortions about the new tariffs straight. Those parts of the climate movement which opposed the “CO2 law” from a left-wing perspective were told to fall in line, but little to nothing was being done to engage with their doubts and criticisms. The task of justifying to both left-wing and right-wing voters how the proposed policies would mitigate climate change was not tackled.

This leads us to one of two main flaws regarding the “CO2 law”. Regardless of whether it is true that people would have been unduly burdened with tariffs – the individualising approach of the bill can neither be described as an effective nor as a socially acceptable set of policies on climate change. Sadly, it is to be expected that future ecological policies will hardly differ, and the currently debated propositions in Swiss politics already proves this suspicion right.

The “consumer principle” disguises responsibilities

On closer inspection, it became clear that the new “CO2 law” leaves numerous backdoors open for companies and does not address the main emitters in Switzerland at all. Rather, it promoted the false understanding that the climate crisis is caused by all of us buying, wasting, consuming and travelling too much. Only under this assumption would the new bill have been a small step in the right direction, which could be followed by more far-reaching policies.

But beyond such clichéd proclamations about the cause of climate change, the yes campaign did not demonstrate whether this law is even going in the right direction to deal with what is probably the greatest threat of the 21st century. The Left seemingly stuck to defending the purpose of double-digit levies on airline tickets.

Time to mitigate climate change is incredibly pressing, as even politicians right of centre now admit. Surpassing the planetary boundaries can only be prevented if drastic changes occur in the coming years. Therefore, the biggest levers – the major polluters – must be tackled immediately. In Switzerland, the biggest CO2 emitter by far is the Swiss financial industry. Its global investments in climate-damaging projects cause 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the whole of Switzerland and steer the global climate towards overheating by 2 to 4 degrees.

Banks, insurance companies and pension funds, however, were exempted from their responsibilities by the now rejected law. Their role remained limited to pushing “green investments” and trading CO2 certificates; a business model which a growing part of the financial industry has been keen on for years now. This leads us directly to the bill’s second fundamental problem.

The financialisation of climate change mitigation

It is not only the individualising view of the “consumer principle” on the climate crisis that is problematic. A second core fault is the expansion of a system that attempts to price CO2 emissions and thus incorporate them into the market as a commodity. Perhaps capitalism cannot be pushed back in the next few years in terms of climate policy, but that does not mean that the Left should deepen it by increasing the commodification of nature. By means of emissions trading, CO2 certificates, compensation payments and the climate fund, however, efforts to mitigate climate change would have been further financialised.

No political party engages in the question whether the climate crisis can be tackled at all with a system of pricing and trading greenhouse gas emissions and new tariffs. To the contrary, emission certificates are handed out for free to companies which fulfil some low targets such as adding (not replacing) electrical cars to their fleet of petrol-driven vehicles. The readily invoked “humanitarian tradition of Switzerland” plays no role when discussing the possibility of letting corporations become supposedly “climate neutral” by means of cheap offsets in the Global South.

Climate change mitigation cannot consist of retroactively ratifying what parts of the financial industry have already agreed on: new investment opportunities, further expanded market mechanisms, new compensation payments, in short: more commodity character. What would have to change fundamentally instead would be incomparably more material: the mode of production entangled with consumption, the supply chains as well as the working and living conditions in their entirety.

The embarrassments of the “CO2 law” culminated in the failure of not even complying with the Paris Agreement. The historic compromise that nation states were able to agree on in 2015 was discarded, legalising climate destruction as a result. But the clichéd “good Swiss compromise” cannot be reached with the climate.

Ecological politics in the 2020s

Politics on climate change have gained significant momentum during the last few years, but only to arrive at a dead end now. The case of Switzerland is a vivid example of this, where the restarted negotiations are currently going in strenuous circles. Switzerland’s dead-lock on climate change mitigation is mirrored by the consternation and dejectedness of many elites all over the Global North.

The flawed approach to climate change mitigation sketched above will continue to dominate state policies during the 2020s. They will have as little a chance in honouring the Paris Agreement as they did in meeting the emission targets of the previous decade: none.

The state, corporate groups, unions and political parties can only envisage the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by means of new tariffs, more extensive emissions trading, compensation schemes and offset procedures. But redirecting payment flows and realigning market mechanisms cannot produce an ecologically sustainable, let alone a socially just, mode of production.

Such liberal proposals paint an ideal world in which goods are priced at their “correct” cost. If only greenhouse gas emissions could be internalised into the market at correctly priced “negative costs”, this thinking goes, nothing else would have to change and we can continue like this forever.

It is the utopia of a world in which corporations, thanks to financial incentives and (too cheap) compensation payments, would be allowed to be certified as “climate neutral” without having to change their production. A world that would be ecologically sustainable because an accounting principle at best commits to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. A world in which the greenhouse gases emitted by the Global North are offset by means of often dubious compensation projects in the Global South. But none of these proposals forestall emissions in the first place.

To sum up, let us take an example to illustrate: Why should airline tickets only be increasable by means of new tariffs? Simple trade union demands for higher wages, less working hours and better working conditions would achieve this in a far more just way. If one does not demand this, one tacitly accepts the further subsidisation of air transport with precarious and underpaid work.

In contrast, the climate justice movement has advocated the need for social relations with nature to be overturned in their entirety. It has made it clear that neither emissions alone nor individualised consumption are central problems. Only a radical ecological politics that recognises capitalist relations as the driving force behind the overexploitation of nature can succeed in achieving a socially stable, socially just and democratically secured ecological world in the long term.

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