European court ruling puts cautious Swiss in climate bind

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By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Dave Graham

GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland for all its snow-capped mountains and crisp Alpine air has failed to protect its people from the ravages of climate change, as a top European court ruled this week.

Behind the picture postcard exterior, critics say, is a country that has done too little for the planet and acted as a business hub for some of the most powerful international corporations in fossil fuels and mining.

Political analysts and academics also say entrenched conservatism and a political system governed by popular referendums will complicate reform even after Tuesday’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

It found in favour of over 2,000 Swiss women – a third of them over 75 – who said their country’s inaction in the face of rising temperatures puts them at risk of dying during heatwaves.

The ruling cannot be appealed and the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, which represented the government before the court, said it must be implemented. It said it would analyse the ruling to determine the measures the country needed to take.

Immediately after the court decision, the Swiss Green Party called for climate targets for specific industries, including the finanical sector.

“People may have slightly beautiful dreams about Switzerland,” Lisa Mazzone, the party leader, said.

“Switzerland is the country of commodity trading, Switzerland is the country with a strong financial sector with a lot of investment in fossil fuels,” she added.

Swiss-based commodity trading companies handle 40% of all oil trades and 60% of the metal trading business, according to data published by industry association Suissenégoce.

The group of Swiss women known as KlimaSeniorinnen did not make Swiss trading central to their case, although their Greenpeace-backed campaign that lasted many years called for tougher regulation to curb transactions fueling global warming.

REFERENDUMS

A 2022 international study into environmental sustainability ranked Switzerland in the top 10, but government efforts to implement stricter climate goals have so far been limited by the country’s regular referendums.

Leading Swiss newspapers took a sceptical view of the ruling in editorials that said it could undermine democracy.

The largest party, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, said Switzerland should withdraw from the Council of Europe, which seeks to promote human rights in Europe and beyond, calling the court’s judges “puppets for activists”.

Unlike most western democracies where central governments drive political change, Switzerland is governed by a cross-party consensus balancing the interests of its 26 cantons.

Dilara Bayrak, a Green politician in Geneva, said the ruling should still energise climate debate in cantonal parliaments.

FINANCIAL MUSCLE AND TONS OF CARBON

The ruling is also likely to sharpen environmental campaigners’ focus on how Switzerland’s serves global industry through its network of traders and banks.

The financial sector, including the central bank, is already under pressure from environmental groups to curb the number of climate-damaging transactions it processes.

Data published last month by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) showed that its investments were linked to 12 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2023.

Stakes in oil majors Chevron Corp (NYSE:) and Exxon Mobil (NYSE:) are part of its foreign reserves, which stood at 655 billion Swiss francs ($738.28 billion) at the end of 2023.

The SNB said it is reducing its own CO2 emissions, but would not change its investment policy. It declined to comment when asked whether the Strasbourg court ruling would lead to changes.

The actions the ruling say Switzerland must carry out include revising its 2030 emissions reductions targets to align them with the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

It also determined that Switzerland had not complied with its own targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and had failed to set a national carbon budget.

But the country’s deep-rooted tradition of referendums is likely to make reform a slow process.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A cross-country skier is seen in the snow-covered landscape during sunny winter weather near Unteriberg, Switzerland January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Pascal Mahon, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Neuchâtel.

“Switzerland is a country that respects international law rather well,” he added. “Authorities will make sure to (respect) it, but by doing it through the Swiss political system, that’s still relatively slow and conservative.”