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View from Brussels: Swiss miss the opportunity to go green

Switzerland held one of its frequent referendums this weekend. On the ballot: an updated climate law that aimed to halve emissions by 2030. But voters decided the green plan was asking too much of the wealthy European country and turned it down.

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

But the Swiss didn’t want to hear about it, and nearly 52 percent said ‘no’, ‘not’ 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 meet its target of halving CO2 emissions by 2030 from a 1990 baseline, and jeopardizes its commitments under the Paris Agreement to curb climate change.

Under a plan supported by a majority of the Swiss government, airline tickets would have been taxed extra and local carbon taxes on petrol, diesel, heating oil and fossil gas could have been imposed.

The revenue generated by the additional costs would have been largely returned to Swiss citizens through discounts on health insurance, and a large portion would also have been used to fund green technologies.

Government estimates calculated that the average Swiss family would have paid an extra 100 CHF (£78) per year if lifestyle changes had not been made. The goal of the green plan was, of course, to accelerate the lifestyle change.

Opposition groups, including the far-right Swiss People’s Party and fossil fuel lobbies, estimate higher costs to citizens, not including health care cuts, and political parties supporting the measure have not campaigned enthusiastically for the measure.

dr. Robert Rohde, a researcher at Berkley Earth – a climate nonprofit organization – tweeted that the “pro” parties only managed to reach a compromise that left most of them dissatisfied, explaining the “lukewarm” campaign.

Green politicians felt that the law did not go far enough, while liberal legislators had problems with the structure of the green fund to be established. The political fudge eventually became unpalatable to almost everyone.

The result means that Switzerland’s “CO2 law” was one of the first carbon tax measures in the world to be put to a national public vote, but also the first to fall on the chopping block.

Soured public opinion is the bête noire of climate policymakers because it can make or break flagship initiatives like the EU Green Deal, which is full of language like ‘just transition’, ‘green jobs’ and ‘no one left behind’.

Switzerland’s climate failure, which could take years for the government to recover, is a lesson to other countries looking to step up their green policies.

It is especially instructive for the EU, which is currently following the same path. The main flaw of the Swiss proposal has been that it failed to make a strong case for the benefits of increased climate action, whether that be a focus on the jobs it can create, the biodiversity it can save or the improved health it can guarantee.

By the time the vote was taken, the only consequence Swiss citizens had in mind was the additional cost that the updated law would incur in the short term. This is the same mentality that created the gilets jaunes movement in France.

In a massive overhaul of all its climate and energy legislation in the summer, the EU risks triggering the same response if the argument isn’t structured smarter. Until now, the Green Deal was a series of ideas on paper, nothing too tangible. That time is nearing its end.

The main policy that could undermine the Green Deal is the idea of ​​including road transport in the bloc’s wildly successful emissions trading system, which could raise fuel prices and hit drivers hard at the pumps.

Most climate analysts maintain that CO2 reduction targets and engine standards are the right tools to clean up transportation, not emissions trading. If the EU review does not strike the right balance, drivers will be hit by higher costs, but CO2 emissions will not be reduced.

The most important lesson the EU will learn from the Swiss case – not that it had to be re-learned – is that complex policy decisions should not be voted on publicly. Fortunately, the EU does not have to go back on that, because the Green Deal does not rewrite the treaties that underpin European law.

Nevertheless, if people don’t buy the green agenda, it’s not going anywhere. Switzerland, meanwhile, must go back to the drawing board and keep an eye on a ticking climate clock.