Environment minister calls for national solidarity on climate change

Simonetta Sommaruga took up her post as environment minister on January 1, 2019. Keystone

Amid weeks of youth climate protests, the new environment minister Simonetta Sommaruga is calling for the country to unite to tackle climate change. In an interview with the German-language newspaper NZZ am SonntagExternal link, she stressed the need for urgent action on road and air transportation and aligning the financial sector with climate priorities.

This content was published on March 3, 2019 - 14:40

In her first lengthy interview since taking up her post as the head of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications Ministry on January 1, Sommaruga called on politicians to stop burying their heads in the sand in the face of climate change and stop fooling themselves and the population. “When the cows run out of water or the harvest fails, you can’t pretend that everything is in order,” she told NZZ.

Doing nothing costs money, she asserted, pointing to the costs of damage from avalanches, fires, and floods. She asserted that “we should stop seeing climate protection as something that only costs”, adding that we have to act now as it will only become more expensive later.

Taking youth seriously

She empathizes and is impressed with young climate protesters, a delegation of which she met on Wednesday. “I fully understand the concerns and impatience of these young people. It is about their future,” she told NZZ.

Time is of the essence though. While she said there is a need to act now on climate change, she said that the government needs more time to develop measures that help it achieve the goal of CO2 neutrality.

In December 2017, the government adopted revisions to the Law on the Reduction of CO2 Emissions (CO2 Act) to help it achieve its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. But, in December 2018, the House of Representatives rejected the proposal after conservative-right parties weakened the revisions including removing a domestic CO2 emissions target.

Reconciling conflicting messages

Sommaruga recognized the need to reconcile often conflicting messages. For one, she said that “it is contradictory for us to pursue climate protection in Switzerland while at the same time investing in the oil sector, for example, through our pension fund assets and bank loans.” She said she supports efforts by the Senate to include the financial sector in the CO2 Act under discussion.

Transport is another area where the Swiss government has sent conflicting messages. While it is one of the biggest climate offenders, the government has supported the expansion of motorways to six lanes. To this, she said that there is no binding decision on six-lane motorways but many heavy, large cars are sold in the country noting that Switzerland’s new fleet of cars has the highest CO2 emissions in Europe.

Sommaruga insisted that, “we must reduce the emission targets for new cars as much as possible in line with the EU.”

Carrots and sticks

In reference to the recent discussions on an air ticket levy, she said that climate policy which relies on taxes and price signals may be effective but are not always best for society pointing out that low-income groups can be hit hardest when driving becomes more expensive.

+ Read more about the discussions on a tax on plane tickets

She indicated support for efforts such as building renovations that reduce heating costs and also create jobs. With this, she suggested that the county should focus on investing domestically rather than spend CHF16 billion every year on oil and gas abroad.

However, she didn’t downplay the importance of policies that put in place the right incentives for consumers. “We are in the process of bequeathing to future generations environmental problems that are dangerous and costly. And that is why it is also our task to set the right course now.”

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