OPINION: Are the Swiss finally going to get serious on tackling the climate crisis?

Switzerland is particularly vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis but the Swiss have so far failed to respond adequately to the growing emergency. Clare O’Dea looks at whether a breakthrough is finally on the cards.

OPINION: Are the Swiss finally going to get serious on tackling the climate crisis?
A photograph shows a slope amid snowless landscape in Switzerland. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

On June 18th, voters will have the chance to accept or reject Switzerland’s climate protection law, which sets out a path to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The referendum to potentially block the law was called by the populist Swiss People’s Party.

Parliament passed this climate law in September 2022 but the conservative right People’s Party quickly gathered enough signatures to call a referendum. The party did the same thing the last time a government plan for climate measures was approved by parliament, winning the argument at the ballot box in June 2021.

Partly as a result of these delays, Switzerland has slipped down several places to 22nd in the Climate Change Performance Index, performing worse than the EU average in the latest rankings. 

As an Alpine country, Switzerland is particularly vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis, with temperatures rising at twice the global average. Droughts and heatwaves in recent years have accelerated the melting of Swiss glaciers

Read more about the impact of the climate crisis in Switzerland

The new climate protection law takes a rather soft approach to industry and consumers. It has the backing of economic and farming lobby groups, as well as all political parties, bar one. 

But it still plots an ambitious course. Switzerland currently imports three-quarters of its energy needs. The goal is to increase energy independence by pivoting away from imported fossil fuels completely. 

The measures include emission reduction trajectories for industry, transport and buildings, to reduce energy consumption, but the law stops short of introducing any new taxes or bans.

The carrot for homeowners is two billion francs to support the replacement of gas and oil heating systems or electric heaters with cleaner alternatives. Another 1.2 billion francs is promised to companies investing in climate-friendly technologies.

The People’s Party is hoping it can convince voters to torpedo this law, as it managed to do successfully with the more robust “CO2 Law” in 2021. 

The rejection of the CO2 law, which was based on the “polluter pays” principle, came as a shock to the government, because the swing to a narrow “no” (51.6 percent) came near the end of the campaign after a strong start for the “yes” camp. Voters were ultimately swayed by fears of higher costs to their household budgets. 

This aerial picture taken on September 13, 2022 at Glacier 3000 resort above Les Diablerets shows the Tsanfleuron pass free of the ice that covered it for at least 2,000 years next to blankets (L) covering snow from the last winter season to prevent it from melting. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The argument of “an explosion in electricity prices” has been revived for this year’s vote. Concerns about energy security are also front and centre, with the tagline “too extreme and much too expensive”. 

In addition, the perceived negative visual impact on the landscape of renewable energy installations – wind and solar –is being highlighted. 

The issue of energy security is the subject of a recently published white paper by the Energy Science Center at Zurich’s ETH. The modelling shows that “a complete de-carbonaisation of Switzerland’s energy system is compatible with a high degree of energy security under certain conditions.”

What’s needed, according to the research, is a rapid expansion in renewable electricity production and the efficient integration of Switzerland into the European electricity market.

The law being voted on next month is the outcome of the so-called Glacier Initiative which was launched by the Swiss Association for Climate Protection in 2019. It provided for a ban on all fossil fuels by 2050, if there were no “technical alternatives”.

The association withdrew their initiative when they saw the government’s indirect counter proposal. This is a common dynamic in compromise-driven Swiss politics. Activists bring forward a referendum with radical goals that may or may not pass at the ballot box. 

To avoid the risk, the government crafts a compromise or watered-down version of the proposed legislation, which is then accepted by parliament, prompting the initiative committee to drop their campaign. 

The tug of war can be dragged out if there is a third party opposed to the watered-down version; in the current case, Swiss People’s Party. By objecting to the new law, they can reignite the debate and stall the whole process.

The climate debate rumbles on in Switzerland, with some taking a fatalistic view that the country is too small to make any difference, so why bother? 

With the support of Greenpeace, a group of older women known as the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz (Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland) are bothering – by taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  

Their aim is to boost climate action in Switzerland through a lawsuit against the government that argues their health, as older people, is being put at risk by government inaction. Theirs was the first such case to come before the ECHR. 

READ ALSO: Climate change ‘transforming Switzerland into Tuscany’

Other more attention-grabbing protests are taking place in Switzerland. Most recently, on May 23rd, a group of 100 protestors from various groups, carried out an action at Geneva airport, targeting private jets that were on display as part of a fair. 

Just before Easter, activists from Renovate Switzerland blocked southbound holiday traffic by glueing themselves to the motorway surface near the entrance of the Gotthard Tunnel.

In another protest last month, a man glued himself to the podium of a televised political debate after local elections in Geneva, to the indignation of the presenter and the crowd, who booed as he was removed. 

Amid the apparent lack of consensus in Switzerland on how or whether to take action against global warming, the upcoming vote on June 18th has the potential to provide some badly-needed direction to the country and its citizens. 

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Climate crisis: ’90 percent’ of Europe’s ski resorts face critical snow shortages

Ski resorts in the Nordic countries and the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps might have a future by relying on artificial snow but even that is not sustainable, researchers say.

Climate crisis: '90 percent' of Europe's ski resorts face critical snow shortages

At current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, which would see Earth’s surface warm nearly three degrees Celsius above
pre-industrial levels, 90 percent of Europe’s ski resorts will eventually face critical shortages of natural snow, researchers have warned.

Even if the world caps global heating at the Paris climate treaty target of 1.5 degrees Celsius — a very big if — a third of the continent’s 2,234 resorts would still be highly vulnerable to snow scarcity, they reported in the journal Nature Climate Change.

At this lower temperature threshold, ski spots at higher altitudes and latitudes such as in Nordic countries and the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps can reduce climate risk through mechanical snowmaking.

But this will be of little use to resorts further south and in lower altitudes, according to the study, the first to factor in the cost and carbon footprint of consuming additional energy and water to produce manufactured snow.

“Snowmaking involves investment and operating costs that expose resorts to economic failure risk,” lead author Hughes Francois, a researcher at France’s National Institute for Agronomics Research, told AFP.

Skiers are seen on an artificial snow slope near the Bavarian village of Ruhpolding, southern Germany, on January 11, 2023. Many ski resorts across Europe suffer under the lack of snow and high temperatures as Europe has seen what experts have said is “extreme” warm winter weather. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

Even where artificial snow can be produced cheaply enough to keep a resort open and turn a profit, however, it also contributes to a vicious circle by increasing global warming due to its energy demands, the study showed.

Half of the world’s ski resorts are in Europe, where they generate about $30 billion (28 billion euros) per year and play a key role in sustaining local economies.   

Francois and colleagues identified 18 distinct zones, some within a single country’s borders and others transnational in scope.

Less snow, more rain

Using average snowfall during 1961-1990 as a reference, they combined regional climate models with data on conditions for snowmaking as well as geo-spatial data on mountain areas, resorts and individual ski pistes.

The study looked at how resorts across Europe — from the British Isles to Turkey, and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean basin — would be affected by different levels of global heating: 1.5C, 2C, 3C and 4C.

Earth’s surface has, on average, already warmed 1.2C, amplifying extreme weather across the globe.

From the Rocky Mountains to the Alps, ski resorts — especially those at or below 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) — already experience foreshortening skiing seasons and declining ski conditions, with snow sometimes replaced by rain.

Scientists predict that the planet could see its first full year at or above 1.5C within a decade.

“In all mountain regions of Europe, future climate change will lead to degraded snow conditions in ski resorts compared to the last decades,” said senior author Samuel Morin, a scientist at Meteo-France and France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.

If the world warms 3C above mid-19th century levels and without artificial snow, 100 percent of ski resorts would face a very high risk of insufficient snow supply — every other year, on average — in the German and Austrian Alps, and in Turkey, the study found.

The corresponding figure for the Swiss Alps is 87 percent, 70 percent in the Nordic Mountains, and 91 percent in the Carpathian Mountains.

If the rise in temperatures is held to 1.5C, the rate of “very high risk” is only 4, 5 and 7 percent in the Swiss, French and Austrian Alps, respectively, rising to 20 percent in the German Alps, and 48 percent in the Nordic Mountains.