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Switzerland votes in 2050 Net-Zero Climate Law: A victory and controversy

On June 18th, 59 per cent of Swiss voters approved the Climate Protection Targets, Innovation, and Strengthening Energy Security Act. Switzerland voting “yes” to this new climate law will bind the country to reaching zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This has since been hailed as a climate “victory” for Switzerland since climate law legally binds words to action. This decision comes following not only Switzerland's record breaking hot spring, but years of advocacy led by a group of older women, and debate from the opposition on what this climate law will do to Switzerland's energy crisis and economy. Before delving into the debate over the climate law and past advocacy, the details of this law and where they compare to other European laws must first be explained.

This climate law is being labeled as “multi-pronged” by the Swiss Government as it:

“sets out CO2 emissions milestones to ensure Switzerland meets its international climate commitments and seeks a gradual reduction of imported fossil fuels in favour of Swiss-made renewables to improve energy security.”

If the climate law is fully effective, Switzerland will be parallel to other European countries in its climate commitments.

The European Union’s 2050 net zero target was set in the European Green Deal unveiled by the European Commission on 11 December 2019. As Switzerland is now parallel in strategy, the country’s objectives are now solidified by law instead of just communicated ambitions and long-term strategies to the UN Climate Change Secretariat. Other countries who have voted in a climate law to anchor their long-term strategy are Norway (net zero by 2030), Sweden (2045) and France, the UK and New Zealand (2050), like Switzerland.

Norway’s net-zero by 2030 goal is ambitious in contrast to other countries. Norway entered an agreement to take part in the EU climate legislation from 2021-2030. This law solidified agreement has set Norway on the path to reaching zero emissions and includes an increase in greenhouse gas taxation and potentially taxation on mineral fertilisers to reduce nitrous oxide emissions. Norway’s climate cooperation with the EU includes many more actions that will be taken by 2030 as well. Thus, this country serves as an example of how climate laws lead to action with a quickly approaching timeline. It is also a model for other countries, like Switzerland, who are voting in climate based legislation to combat climate change.

Georg Klingler, an expert on climate and energy at the NGO, emphasizes the law’s importance by stating: “This victory means that at last the goal of achieving net zero emissions will be anchored in law. That gives better security for planning ahead and allows our country to take the path toward an exit from fossil fuels.” This “victory” comes after years of requests for action by a group of Swiss citizens, and even lawsuits against the Swiss government for their lack of action. Switzerland’s past of climate advocacy is rather unique, particularly due to the fact that it was led by a group of elderly women who attracted international attention.

On March 29th, this year, Switzerland and France were accused of lack of climate action in an ECHR hearing. The first lawsuit came from a group of Swiss women known as the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz (Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland). These women are all over the age of 64 and claim they are more vulnerable to heat waves, which are increasing in their frequency. The group’s goal at the ECHR hearing was for the court to order Switzerland to set tougher emission reductions targets and participate in keeping the global temperature rise to below 1.5C. During the ECHR hearing, British barrister Jessica Simor KC, representing the women, claimed her clients were already experiencing the impacts of climate change, which posed “extremely serious threats not just to their health and wellbeing but to their very existence”. It was then asserted that this breaches articles two and eight of the European convention on human rights, “which protect the right to life and to respect for private and family life.” Evidence was also presented regarding the health impacts of heatwaves on the elderly. These accusations request more climate action from Switzerland, as the lack of adequate action is allegedly harmful to the population’s health. While the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz still are awaiting judgement, this climate law targeting net zero by 2050 displays actions by the Swiss Government to slow climate change, and thus protect citizens from climate impacts. Other climate groups have remained prominent throughout the law’s voting process such as Greenpeace, and scientists and other environmental groups who created a campaign. The “campaign by scientists and environmental groups argued the country's melting glaciers would soon vanish completely if greenhouse gas emissions were not reduced.” These groups have been influential in the information supporting the law’s importance, advocating for Switzerland's climate related well being, similar to KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz’s mission at the ECHR hearing.

However, while this law is a victory for some, it has been and still is greatly opposed by the People’s Party, Switzerland’s right wing party. The People’s party has successfully launched a referendum to overturn the law, making several claims on the harm it poses to the population. The referendum stated that “the extreme legislation would effectively mean banning petrol, diesel, heating oil and gas, which represent 60% of energy consumed in Switzerland.” Additionally, it has been asserted that wind turbines would ruin the landscape and that electricity would become significantly more expensive, especially amidst the energy crisis from the Russia-Ukraine war. They stated Switzerland will not be able to generate enough home-grown power, worsening the energy crisis.

Michael Graber, a People’s Party parliamentarian called the climate law “regrettable”. He went on to state that some “rural regions voted “no” because they will be the ones to suffer from reduced mobility and a landscape damaged by new renewable constructions.” Despite the People’s Party’s ongoing referendum, the law will now begin to be implemented. For example, Switzerland must reduce emissions by 75% compared to 1990 levels by 2040 in order to realistically reach net zero by 2050. More specific laws must now be created to define wider goals such as revisions to the CO2 law. Switzerland’s use of environmental law to solidify a net-zero target fits into the current global strategy of countries utilising law to fight climate change, a controversial yet effective initiative governments can take.

With the referendum ongoing and new laws being created to support the passed climate law, this climate victory is ongoing and subject to change and updates.


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