Everyone wants a clean environment and climate neutrality, as long as they don’t have to pay for it. This would summarize the results of the Swiss referendum in one sentence. On June 13, a referendum was held in Switzerland on several important issues. Among other things, the Swiss had to decide whether they were willing to impose a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas and airline tickets.
Also in the same referendum, they voted on whether to ban artificial pesticides, synthetic herbicides and even the import of food produced with these agents. It also had to be decided whether to withdraw state support for Swiss farmers from the use of pesticides and antibiotics for farm animals and whether farmers could only keep as many animals as their own land could support.
According to farmers and the companies involved, the introduction of bans would reduce crop yields, lead to job losses, increase the country’s dependence on imports and ultimately raise food prices. Opponents of the climate tax have also argued that prices will rise and that the planned measures would hamper economic recovery after the coronavirus epidemic.
The main argument was that the country’s exposure to the effects of climate change is much greater than the country’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. With Switzerland emitting only 0.1 percent of global carbon emissions, opponents say it is better to help adapt to change than to put it to the vote. Although the Swiss government justified the need for the measures on the grounds that the country could only fulfill the commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement by these measures, the people eventually rejected the initiatives, with 51.6 percent voting against climate protection measures and 61 percent against measures concerning efforts to ban pesticides.
The BBC reported on the developments in a dramatic tone. The result of the vote, according to which voters rejected the government’s “carefully crafted” plan, was a “huge shock”. The result is “undermining Switzerland’s strategy” and is a “devastating blow” to environmentalists. However, the Swiss government, which supported the initiative, read the result differently.
According to Swiss Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, the result of the referendum is “not a rejection of climate protection, only of a law we voted on”. The minister was right in her assessment as it cannot be said at all that the Swiss don’t want to protect the environment.
What lessons can we learn from what happened? In my opinion, the formula is simple: people want change, but they don’t want to bear the negative consequences. Everyone wants a more livable environment for themselves and their children, but the road to it should be attractive. Even in one of the most affluent countries in the world, Switzerland, it does not seem sensible for the population to reach deep into their pockets and make a serious sacrifice on the altar of the fight against climate change, while large, polluting companies continue to charge the bill to the population.
If this decision was made in the Gambia, Armenia or Moldova, everyone would just shrug. Naturally, where per capita GDP and living standards are low, people are reluctant to sacrifice what little they have. However, this decision was made in one of the richest countries in the world. That is why the Swiss example should serve as a warning to decision-makers.
It is a clear signal where the Swiss have stated that politics must find a different solution to the problem, as they are unwilling to pay the costs of climate protection alone. Perhaps the time has come for a paradigm shift, where leaders should present a climate protection bill not only to the public, but rather seek out the largest polluters.
The author, Máté Litkey is the director of the Hungarian Climate Policy Institute.