A major referendum is coming up in Switzerland with the potential to shape Swiss climate law and policy for the foreseeable future. On June 18, the Swiss will vote on a key piece of climate legislation: the Federal Act on climate action objectives, innovation and energy security, which would create a legal obligation to use carbon dioxide removal to reach the national climate goals by imposing a greenhouse gas neutrality target by 2050.
This Climate Change and Innovation Act, as it is more informally called, is in response to a counter-proposal by the National Council to a popular initiative (the “Glaciers Initiative”), which aimed to include net greenhouse gas neutrality in the Swiss Constitution. It included an article regarding the phasing out of fossil fuel use by 2050.
Compared to the “Glaciers Initiative,” the Climate Change and Innovation Act is more lenient and stipulates that the consumption of fossil fuels must be reduced as far as technically possible and economically justifiable. Moreover, the passing of this Act would have broad ramifications for the carbon-dioxide removal landscape in the country.
Swiss climate policy in context
Until now, Swiss climate policy has mainly been defined by two key legislations: the CO2 Act which provides the legal framework for and the CO2 Ordinance which in turn guides the Act’s implementation.
The CO2 Act and Ordinance are revised regularly as Swiss national and international climate commitments evolve. The latest revision of the Swiss CO2 Act adopted by the Parliament in June 2021 got rejected through a referendum. It therefore only exists in a crippled version to this day.
The important power of the referendum is enshrined in the Swiss Constitution and, alongside the popular initiative, is one of two democratic procedures inherent to the Swiss system. The latter gives the power to any Swiss citizen to propose a partial or full revision of the Swiss Federal Constitution. The former gives them the power to reject any newly adopted law at the Federal level.
The vote on June 18 is a referendum, meaning the Swiss Parliament passed the law but it faced popular opposition. The national-conservative, right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) initiated the referendum. As a consequence, the Swiss people is voting on whether they want the Climate and Innovation Act to be formally adopted in Swiss law.
Implications of the Climate Change Act for CDR
The Climate Change and Innovation Act proposes that domestic, residual, and hard-to-abate emissions would be fully offset by 2050 with CDR projects in Switzerland and abroad. The option to implement CDR abroad comes as no surprise as Switzerland has already pioneered the conclusion of a number of bilateral treaties for CO2 offsetting projects with other countries in line with the Paris Agreement’s Article 6.2). For CDR and CCS, Switzerland could require international collaboration both for the geological storage of CO2 captured at Swiss point sources, and for the implementation of high-quality CDR such as direct air capture and storage (DACS). The location of DACS projects depends on the abundance of renewable energy to fuel the energy-intensive technology and favourable geological conditions for the long-term storage of CO2. Currently, northern Europe and the Arabian peninsula are among the most-favoured regions for these projects.
Article 10 of the Climate and Innovation Act requires the Swiss Confederation and the cantons to act as role models in climate action. The central federal administration is to take on a model role and be climate-neutral as early as 2040. In doing so, it should also take into account those emissions that are generated by goods and services purchased by the administration. This requirement anchors a relevant impetus for the public procurement of removals. For example, contracts for the construction of public buildings could be tied to the use of carbon-storing building materials, such as wood or mineralized recycled concrete. On a municipality level, biomass carbon removal and storage (BiCRS) could be mobilised to produce several million tonnes of CDR per year via investments in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and related infrastructure, i.e., at publicly owned waste-to-energy, biogas and wastewater treatment facilities.
As for the private sector, the Climate and Innovation Act introduces an obligation for companies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 for Scope 1 and supports them in this endeavour with subsidies. Industrial and commercial companies that use innovative climate-friendly technologies benefit from the support of 200 million Swiss francs per year. This support is limited to six years. How much of these funds would be available for scaling CDR and CCS remains to be seen. In general, and for CDR in particular, the Climate and Innovation Act sets high-level targets, and the details still need to be clarified in the regulation in an iterative process.
After 2050, more greenhouse gases are to be removed from the atmosphere than are still being emitted at that time, achieving “net negative emissions”.
Swiss climate policy at a crossroads
If the Act were to be rejected by the public vote, Switzerland would remain without a legally binding net zero target. In this case, the government and administration could still move forward according to their legally non-binding roadmap for CCS and CDR published in May 2022. However, doing so would face considerable political and commercial difficulties, especially when it comes to funding and planning security.
In a nutshell, the Swiss Climate Act Vote on June 18th will decide whether Swiss law acknowledges the need for substantial investments in climate mitigation, or not. A rejection would mean years lost, not just for Swiss mitigation ambitions, but also for the position of Switzerland as a CDR pioneer and leading innovation location.
Founded in 2021 by the Risk Dialogue Foundation, the Swiss Carbon Removal Platform (CDR Swiss) brings together the Swiss CDR ecosystem. The aim of the platform is to support the long-term development of CDR in a joint and sustainable manner, foster exchange between practitioners and researchers, and facilitate an informed public debate. We welcome institutional members from administration, business, industry, research and civil society who want to advocate for a sustainable implementation and scale-up of CDR methods in Switzerland and by Swiss actors.