Switzerland will rely on domestic measures alone to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent – if parliament endorses a decision by the Senate for a tax on petrol.
The move earlier this week was hailed as a step in the right direction by environmental groups, but opponents have made their reservations clear.
“It is turning our back on efforts for an international climate policy and sends a strong negative signal to the European Union about a coordinated approach,” said Dominique Reber of the Swiss Business Federation (economiesuisse).
The pressure group is concerned in particular about an implied refusal by parliament to grant Swiss companies optional access to the European market of emission rights.
Under the so-called cap and trade system, the authorities allocate firms emission permits for pollutants. Companies that cannot meet the criteria can buy permits from those who don’t use up their emission quotas.
The Business Federation is also categorically against the introduction of CO2 tax on petrol, as approved in principle by one of the two parliamentary chambers.
Instead it says Switzerland should continue to pursue the existing emissions policy, based on a tax on heating oil and gas as well as voluntary measures by the business community.
“We must avoid unrealistic goals. The system in place has been a resounding success and is unique,” said Reber.
More than 2,000 firms have been participating in a non-mandatory levy to help reduce Switzerland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by four million tons, he added.
Nevertheless, economiesuisse says it stands behind the target of a 20 per cent reduction in harmful emissions, in line with the government’s proposal.
Environment Minister Doris Leuthard warned Senators on Tuesday of setting overambitious targets without agreeing realistic measures.
For environmental groups, including WWF Switzerland, parliament is not bold and forward looking enough in its efforts to tackle energy policy in the future, when all available fossil fuel resources have been used up.
Still WWF welcomes the Senate’s decision for a 20 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions through measures inside Switzerland.
“It is a small step in the right direction, if parliament does not water down the reform in further debates,” said Patrick Hofstetter of WWF Switzerland.
The Senate decision is part of an ongoing debate on overhauling national legislation beyond 2012.
“We think it would make sense for the House of Representatives to fall into line with the Senate,” said Hofstetter.
He dismisses allegations that the planned CO2 tax on petrol will inevitably result in higher fuel prices.
Switzerland has lower fuel prices than other European countries and an alignment is inevitable, according to Hofstetter.
“Car owners from neighbouring countries come to Switzerland to fill up. This does not make sense for a country that has to import all its fossil fuel,” he argued.
Even if parliament were to make a U-turn in the next session in June, Hofstetter is confident that he can count on Swiss voters.
Environmental groups collected enough signatures to force a nationwide vote on Switzerland’s climate policy. They are calling for a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Hofstetter is heartened by a poll conducted last November which showed that nearly two out of three citizens were in favour of the climate initiative.
Under the system of direct democracy voters might even be asked to choose between the initiative and the parliamentary proposals.
Opponents of an emission levy on petrol announced they are considering challenging the final decision by parliament.
Cutting CO2 emissions
As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, Switzerland in 1997 committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In an initial phase CO2 emissions were to be reduced 10% over 1990 levels by 2010.
The government foresees raising the target to at least a 20% cut in emissions by 2020, partly through a CO2 tax, an emissions trading system and compensation measures outside Switzerland.
Parliament approved the 20% target, but wants cuts to be achieved through measures within Switzerland only.
Discussions are continuing on extending the CO2 tax from heating oil ,gas and coal to also include petrol.
Environmental groups collected enough signatures for a nationwide vote on separate proposals for a 30% cut in emissions as well as for a ban on SUVs.
The EU, which does not include Switzerland, has also set a 20% emission cut. The 27-nation bloc has set targets for individual member countries and approved a number of measures.end of infobox
(With input from Renat Künzi), swissinfo.ch