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Switzerland has its word to say in Copenhagen

BR Leuenberger

BR Leuenberger


Swiss Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger says he is travelling with cautious optimism to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark.

The talks in the capital, Copenhagen, take place from December 7-18 and are considered key in sending a global message about reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Leuenberger is hoping for binding measures on emissions reduction and welcomes the increasing commitment from China and the United States in climate protection. You are the longest-serving environment minister in Europe. How big will your influence be in Copenhagen?

Moritz Leuenberger: Switzerland’s influence, if you look at its population and size, is quite significant because we head a negotiating group which also includes South Korea, Mexico, Liechtenstein and Monaco.

Thanks to our group we have access to crucial negotiations. We also have some very able scientists, for example Thomas Stocker, who is on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). So Switzerland’s contribution is really quite strong. The conference is discussing, among other things, CO2 emission reduction targets up to 2050. How binding can such contracts be?

M.L.: In theory, countries can make commitments for 2050; they did the same in Kyoto for the period 1990 – 2012. I don’t know of any politician from the time who is in office now.

You can and should make pledges for dates a long way in the future. What we are now talking about is a binding undertaking up to 2020 but I fear that this will not be achieved in Copenhagen.

However, there will be many countries and groups of countries which, independently of an international accord, will make commitments on climate protection goals, for example the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, Brazil and South Korea. And the whole world does at least accept the scientific call for a reduction of at least 50 per cent by the year 2050. China and the US are among the largest consumers of resources and main producers of environmental pollution. Until now, the US has been very reluctant to come on board. Could it block an agreement?

M.L.: The [US] election changed many things. Before it, the US did not want to make any commitments, but now there’s talk of a 17 per cent reduction of CO2 by 2020 compared with 2005.

Compared with our reduction of 20 per cent from 1990 levels, this is relatively little, it is true. But we shouldn’t forget that until Obama took over the presidency, George W. Bush was at the helm and that CO2 emissions increased sharply in his term of office. How do you interpret the relatively ambitious reduction goals put forward by China?

M.L.: China is an emerging nation in a particular situation. We believe that such countries also have to play their part. They have made progress compared with the situation in the past. China wants to keep the growth of its CO2 emissions lower than its economic growth.

Other emerging countries have approved national programmes on the climate front: for example Brazil as far is deforestation is concerned, and India has also been making moves.

Unfortunately emerging nations do not have the will to commit themselves to these aims in an international agreement. Switzerland recognises the responsibility of the old industrial countries. How should this be put into reality? And what do you expect from developing countries?

M.L.: We have two main aims. One is the reduction of CO2 emissions, the other is so-called adaptation, in other words, payment for the damage which has already been caused by changes in the climate.

Switzerland has proposed that this damage should be paid for according to the principle that those responsible should foot the bill with a global CO2 tax.

This polluter-pays proposition allows enables developing countries, even if they have small CO2 emissions, to receive the means to deal with the consequences of climate change.

The consequences are particularly difficult for them. The polluter-pays principle is the fairest system that you can imagine. It has also been accepted and recognised by the other countries. The IPCC has woken up the world in the last few years with its reports and possible scenarios. But in 2008 Switzerland enjoyed a beautiful winter with plenty of snow. How can you convince the Swiss that the Earth has a grave climate problem?

M.L.: There will be an enormous amount of media attention focused on Copenhagen, and every type of media will be looking at all sides of the problem; that will have an impact. The history of our own national climate policy shows it too. Every environment minister certainly has a number of ambitions, but is constantly being brought back to earth and harsh realities. How do you live with this?

M.L.: The end result is seldom what the minister concerned would have wanted. That is quite clear. Every politician goes through this kind of thing. The finance minister would like to see figures in the black, the transport minister wants a few more billion for his infrastructure. But I have the impression that in Switzerland there’s a growing awareness in favour of a strong climate policy.

swissinfo: You said recently that you don’t expect miracles from Copenhagen. So what do you expect?

M.L.: I want as many important countries as possible to set binding pledges on reducing their C02 emissions to a determined level. And secondly, I would like the “polluter-pays” principle, which I mentioned earlier, to be accepted. If these goals are achieved, I could be happy with Copenhagen.

Gaby Ochsenbein and Pierre-François Besson, (adapted from a text in German by Robert Brookes)

Conference in Copenhagen

At the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen from December 7-18, about 200 countries will be trying to reach a global climate agreement, as a successor or extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which runs out at the end of 2012.

The aim of the climate conference is to prevent the climate from warming up two degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial times.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that greenhouses gases by industrial states has to be reduced from 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 from levels of 1990.

Swiss authorities are proposing a reduction of at least 20 per cent by 2020 of emissions compared with levels of 1990. Switzerland is prepared to increase this reduction to 30 per cent depending on the outcomes of the climate conference in Copenhagen.

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Moritz Leuenberger

Born in Biel on September 21, 1946.

He studied law in Zurich. He was the head of a lawyers’ office until 1991.

1972 – 1980: President of the Social Democratic Party of the city of Zurich.

1974 – 1983: Member of the city parliament.

1979 – Election as a member of the House of Representatives.

1991 – 1995: Member of the government of canton Zurich.

September 27, 1995: Election to the Swiss government. He has since been head of the Swiss ministry for environment, transport, energy and communications.

In 2001 Leuenberger was elected to the rotating position of Swiss president and took the office again in 2006.

Leuenberger has published a series of books and in 2003 was awarded the Cicero prize for the best political speech given in the German-speaking world.

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