On June 13th, the people of Switzerland voted in a referendum, with the results of one particular vote surprising the nation. The generally progressive citizenry had rejected the government’s carefully crafted CO₂ law that would have committed the country to great reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The margins of the vote’s rejection were close, with 51 percent of voters against and 49 percent of voters in favor. Switzerland is a greener country than most, and many within its borders are concerned about a warming climate’s effects on the country. Included in these effects are their melting glaciers, a highly visible impact of climate change that touches on Switzerland’s identity as an alpine nation.
The government’s legal proposal was part of their plan to abide by the target they committed to under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The Swiss government agreed to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 in comparison to 1990 levels. To achieve significant reductions in carbon emissions, the proposal included taxes on industrial emissions, renovations of buildings, gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and air travel.
Proponents of the CO₂ law argued several points in support of it. Glacier Initiative, a nonprofit organization in favor of the law, has contended that it is a step in the right direction, setting up the country for an environmentally-friendly future and incentivizing economic and scientific innovation. Glacier Initiative implored the public to vote in favor of the CO₂referendum, commenting that reducing reliance on fossil fuels is imperative for a country that is on track to experience greater warming than most others, as Switzerland’s rising temperatures are accelerating at double the rate of the global average. Proponents also argued that the CO₂ law will help to ensure greater climate justice, making those in a higher socioeconomic class, who are also most responsible for emissions, pay taxes for their contributions to global warming.
Opponents of the referendum dismissed supporters’ claims that the CO₂ law is a productive and effective measure. A significant source of opposition came from the automotive, construction, oil, and aviation industries, though some climate activists also opposed the law, citing that it would not be extreme enough. Though some larger businesses supported the CO₂ law because they would gain access to the emissions trading market in the European Union, smaller and medium size businesses were against the law, seeing the taxes as an unnecessary burden and fearing it would have the potential to put many out of business.
The national Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a conservative populist party, framed the issue in a similar way, stating that it put a debilitating financial burden on businesses as well as on working class families, particularly on families in rural areas. The SVP framed the referendum as especially dangerous to the livelihoods of farmers in rural areas because as part of the proposed law, an additional tax of 45 cents per gallon would be added to the price of gasoline and diesel. Rural farmers, fearful of losing their livelihoods, turned out in huge numbers at the polls to vote against the referendum. The unfolding of the Swiss referendum mirrors larger socioeconomic trends in Europe, with strong parallels to the “yellow vests” protests in France as well as similar populist movements in other European countries.
Coincidentally, at the same time that referendum voters were placing their ballots for the CO₂ law, there was also a vote concerning the prohibition of agricultural pesticide use. This led farmers to the polls in support of pesticide use in farming practices which simultaneously increased the votes against the proposed CO₂ law. The rural effect was dominant in the referendum with a clear divide exposed between urban and rural areas; urban cantons (districts) including Basel, Zurich and Geneva voted in favor of the CO₂ law, while rural cantons voted against it.
The SVP successfully campaigned against the CO₂ law by focusing on the inequity it could cause, as the law would force major lifestyle changes and punish people of lower- or middle-class socioeconomic statuses, while richer citizens would be able to continue living and emitting carbon as they previously had been doing. Furthermore, part of the SVP’s messaging focused on the almost counterproductive design of the law. For example, the tax on air travel would not stop richer people, who are also the most frequent flyers, from traveling. Anthony Patt, a professor of climate policy at ETH Zürich’s Institute for Environmental Decisions commented to GlacierHub that a tax on air travel would serve to “unnecessarily punish families finally able to take a post-COVID vacation to Mallorca, without doing much of anything for the climate.”
In addition to unease from small business owners and farmers, other Swiss citizens were worried about the CO₂ law’s potential to disrupt the economy just as it began its recovery from the huge toll it had suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many voters who may have otherwise supported the referendum were swayed by the impact that any economic risk may have had in the wake of an economy that had already been devastated.
The CO₂ law was also widely criticized as being ineffective, especially when considering Swiss contributions to global emissions. Patrick Eperon, a referendum committee coordinator and “Centre Patronal” employers group representative, said “Switzerland is responsible for around one-thousandth of all global CO₂ emissions. The CO₂ law wants to reduce this by half. At a global level, this would amount to a reduction of half of one-thousandth of all carbon emissions. This is practically nothing.”
Eperon elaborated that Switzerland has already demonstrated climate leadership over the past twenty years on the global stage in terms of reducing carbon emissions as well as making leaps in technological advancements of energy efficiency, and resultantly, government intervention in the form of the CO₂ law would be redundant.
On the surface, the June 13 referendum was a blow to Swiss environmentalists. An opportunity to push forward a greener agenda was rejected, but its rejection revealed powerful forces that need to be considered by policymakers in order to successfully enact climate policy. Specifically, the results of the Swiss referendum highlight the importance of considering equity while designing climate policy. The unexpected pushback to the proposed law underscores the importance of considering the lives of those most vulnerable to the environmental, social, and economic effects that the law would have inevitably transformed.