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Switzerland backs net-zero climate law in referendum

June 18, 2023

Almost 60% of Swiss voters have backed plans to severely cut emissions by 2050 despite opposition from the right-wing Swiss People's Party. In a second vote, 78.5% supported a minimum tax of 15% for multinational firms.

Commuters look at a screen promoting the climate law referendum at Zurich main station on June 6, 2023
An ad for the climate protection law referendum calls on voters to "Upset Putin with your voice"Image: Michael Buchholzer/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

Swiss voters on Sunday supported a new climate bill aimed at combating the melting glaciers and requiring the country to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Leading Swiss glaciologist Matthias Huss, who has closely followed the glaciers' decline, tweeted that a "strong signal" had been sent, adding he was "very happy the arguments of climate science were heard."

Socialist Party parliamentarian Valerie Piller Carrard also welcomed the result as "an important step for future generations."

A full 59.1% of voters back the new law, which will require Switzerland to slash its dependence on imported oil and gas and scale up the development of greener, more homegrown alternatives.

Voters also backed adopting a global minimum tax rate of 15% for international companies in a second referendum, with 78.5% in favor of the new, higher rate.

Right-wing opposition to climate bill

Parliament already passed the climate law, which aims to make Switzerland climate-neutral by 2050 and reduce the impact on the country's iconic glaciers, which are melting away at an alarming rate.

But the right-wing conservative Swiss People's Party (SVP) had refused to back it, arguing that cutting climate-damaging emissions by 75% by 2050, compared to 1990, would cause energy prices to explode.

SVP leader Marco Chiesa last month criticized the "utopian" vision behind the bill, maintaining it would drive up energy costs by 400 billion Swiss francs (€447 billion, €4.08 billion) while having basically "no impact" on the global climate.

The SVP collected sufficient signatures to force the referendum vote under Switzerland's system of direct democracy.

Tourists walking on the Tsanfleuron pass free of the ice that covered it for at least 2,000 years in Switzerland on September 13, 2022
The famous glaciers of the Alps are being hit hard by a warming planetImage: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Alpine glaciers melting fast

Backers of the plan argue that Switzerland will be hard-hit by climate change and is already seeing the effects of rising temperatures in the Alps.

Swiss glaciers experienced record melting last year, losing more than 6% of their volume and alarming scientists who say a loss of 2% would once have been considered extreme.

Opinion polls indicate strong support for the proposed law, the most recent by pollster gfs.bern put public backing at 63%.

Subsidies for renewable heating systems

The Swiss government is keen to promote the departure from fossil fuel use in heating with financial incentives.

Companies will also be supported to help them convert to climate-friendly technologies

Over a period of 10 years, 3.2 billion Swiss francs are available for this purpose.

Switzerland still imports about three-quarters of its energy and the need to transition has been made more urgent by unstable supplies from Russia due to the Ukraine war.

In an attempt to bring down that share, the government is planning to allow companies to build large solar panel parks in the Alps, along with more wind turbines.

Climate activists had initially wanted to push for a total ban on all oil and gas consumption in Switzerland by 2050.

But the government balked at the so-called Glacier Initiative, drawing up a counter-proposal that scrapped the idea of a ban but included other elements.

Meteorologists have warned that climate change may exacerbate natural disasters in the Alps and hurt tourism revenues.

Corporate taxes to rise in line with rest of world

In the case of corporate taxes, the issue is the implementation of a decision by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to require international companies with sales of at least $750 million to be taxed at a rate of at least 15%. 

Many of Switzerland's 26 cantons have imposed some of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world, in what they often said was needed to attract businesses in the face of high wages and location costs.

The government estimates that revenues from the supplementary tax would amount to between 1 billion and 2.5 billion Swiss francs in the first year alone.

Basel and Zug, where large pharmaceutical and trading groups are based, would benefit most from higher tax revenues.

jsi, mm/sms (AFP, AP, dpa)