Switzerland will reduce its CO2 emissions without increasing vehicle fuel tax under a government-approved plan to be put to the next session of parliament.
The proposed measures are largely supported by business circles and by the centre-right parties but have run into a storm of criticism from environmentalists.
The cabinet announced on Wednesday it would follow the European Union's target for 2020 to cut emission levels by 20 per cent in comparison with those of 1990. Should the EU increase its target to 30 per cent, Switzerland will follow suit.
It wants to achieve the emissions cut through a mix of measures focused on buildings and transport.
Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger has said in the past that Switzerland should set an example to other countries, but after consulting a range of interested parties, the cabinet has taken a more cautious line.
The Swiss business federation, economiesuisse, is one of the groups which have broadly welcomed the government proposals. It described a 20 per cent reduction as an "ambitious, yet realistic" goal.
"Given that at 5.8 tonnes per head of population its greenhouse gas emissions are already low, Switzerland will remain among the leaders as far as climate protection is concerned," it said in a statement.
But the environmental organisation WWF Switzerland described Switzerland as playing only a token role in climate protection and relying on others to do better. It believes a cut of 40 per cent in emissions is essential.
"The government is evidently hoping that other countries will take more than their fair share of the burden so that dangerous climate change can be avoided despite everything," it said.
The organisation's head of climate policy, Patrick Hofstetter, told swissinfo.ch that the government's latest climate proposals "will lead us into a climate disaster".
Incentives and technology
WWF and economiesuisse agree on the importance of protecting the climate from harmful emissions. They also agree that price policy and the adoption of new technology have a role to play.
But economiesuisse strongly supports the continuation of voluntary incentives, while WWF wants a CO2 tax imposed on vehicle fuels immediately.
"We have to ensure that vehicles become cleaner and more efficient overall," Urs Näf of economiesuisse told swissinfo.ch.
"That's why we have proposed that the government and the cantons should give tax incentives to ensure that by 2020 ten per cent of the total fleet will consist of very low emission vehicles. Having the correct vehicles is much more important than the number of vehicles."
Great hopes are being placed in the increasing use of electric vehicles in particular. Although the government has not ruled out the imposition of a tax on vehicle fuel at a later date if targets are not met, Leuenberger hoped that a breakthrough in technical developments could make the issue redundant.
Cheaper in Switzerland
But Hofstetter told swissinfo.ch that WWF deplored the fact that the government has put off indefinitely the introduction of the CO2 tax. The organisation wants to see higher prices for both heating fuel and vehicle fuel to cut the amount used.
"We know how much CO2 we can emit in the next 50 years, and what is used now will not be available later when it is really needed," Hofstetter said.
"For example, flying is an area where at the moment there are few alternatives and every tonne that we burn for heating fuel when we don't need to will not be available for aircraft later. So it is makes real economic sense to make drastic reductions now using the technology we already have."
Vehicle fuel is currently much cheaper in Switzerland than in neighbouring countries. WWF wants the price to be increased to the same level, but Näf believes there are good reasons for the difference.
"Conditions here are a not quite the same. We are a country with a lot of peripheral areas, with mountains, with snow in winter, so public transport isn't so easy and people need bigger, stronger vehicles," he said.
WWF hopes the Swiss will vote in favour of a popular initiative it is backing to promote further climate protection measures. Polls have shown that a large majority of the population is convinced that climate change is indeed occurring and is ready to try to tackle it, Hofstetter said.
As for the impact of the new proposals on the economy, the rightwing Swiss People's Party, which opposes them on the ground that they go too far, warns that they could make Switzerland less competitive.
However, the WWF - opposing them because they do not go far enough - says that investment in climate protection would create jobs and improve competitiveness.
Näf of economiesuisse told swissinfo that Switzerland was much too small to solve the problem by itself. Although Switzerland has some niche businesses in this area, its main innovative strengths today lie in other fields. International cooperation is essential, he said.
Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch
Temperatures in Switzerland have risen by an average of 0.57 degrees Celsius each decade since 1970. The increase is twice as much as the average for the northern hemisphere.
Carbon dioxide is one of the major gases responsible for the greenhouse effect and global warming. In Switzerland it represents around 80% of harmful emissions. Other gases include methane, nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons.
Despite ambitious emission targets, greenhouse gas emissions have actually risen by 0.4% in Switzerland since 1990.
The government proposals
The government is setting binding target to reduce greenhouse gases by 2020 by at least 20% in comparison with 1990 levels. It aims to do this by:
· Keeping the CO2 tax on heating fuel;
· Using SFr200 million ($176 million) from the heating fuel tax annually to finance climate protection measures in buildings;
· Introducing regulations limiting CO2 emissions of new cars registered in Switzerland based on those in force in the EU;
· Obliging vehicle fuel importers to compensate for the CO2 emissions of some of the imported fossil fuel through measures at home or abroad;
· Preserving the possibility of imposing a CO2 tax on vehicle fuels, although it will only be introduced if cuts cannot be achieved by other means;
· Preserving and extending the national system of emissions trading.