Swiss seek compromise amid ‘lack of will’ at climate talks

The Swiss “office” at COP25

This year, the signal from the scientific community has been loud and clear on climate change: something needs to be done, and soon. But leadership at the United Nations’ annual climate conference appears less clear-cut, and the head of the Swiss delegation is frustrated by hesitation to move ahead.  

This content was published on December 10, 2019 minutes
Paula Dupraz-Dobias in Madrid

At the vast congress center in the outskirts of the Spanish capital where this year’s UN climate talks are taking place, protesters from around the world, including youth groups and indigenous people, angrily express their frustrations with the official international process now in its 25th year. 

Most countries represented at the talks agree that their national pledges to curb emissions must be improved. Now, the official focus is to reach consensus over carbon markets and how to support countries harmed by climate change. 

Continuous questioning 

As the second week of COP25 got underway, Switzerland’s chief negotiator at the talks, Franz Perrez, said that time is running out to clarify these issues. As in previous talks, he thinks some countries may be attempting to delay decision-making time. 

“What hits me once again is the lack of will to continue work on what was agreed upon beforehand, and to continuously question what was already decided,” said Perrez, who has led the Swiss delegation since 2010. 

Perrez said that several countries, particularly those who have been reluctant to cut emissions, have called for “workshops” to allow more in-depth discussion on issues including so-called response measures taken when countering climate change may have adverse impacts on a nation. For example, Saudi Arabia has long pushed for recognition that oil-producing countries should be compensated for decreased fuel sales. 

Carbon credit compromise 

For its part, Switzerland has been eager to establish clear directives on the use of carbon credits which allow countries to buy into emissions-cutting projects elsewhere to offset their own carbon output. Specifically, the Swiss delegation wants to avoid the double-counting of such credits and does not want those agreed under earlier schemes to be carried over after 2020. Some countries such as Brazil, whose president Jair Bolsonaro denies the existence of climate change, have remained firm in rejecting such proposals. 

“Switzerland is trying hard to find a good compromise,” Perrez said. But he insisted that it was important that an agreement not fall below a “certain threshold”. 

Compared to earlier climate summits, transparency has been more of an issue in Madrid. Delegates are coming up with a method for countries to report on how their climate change reduction efforts are taking shape at home and abroad. One chart would present emissions reductions, while another would show how funds are spent. It’s part of a “comprehensive approach” to try to achieve “full trust in the system,” said Lydie-Line Paroz, senior policy advisor at the Swiss environment ministry and deputy head of the Swiss delegation. 

“It will be long night,” Perrez said as he returned to talks together with Paroz, hoping to turn the page on some of the issues needing to be finalised. 

Finance ministries at the table 

Meanwhile, Daniela Stoffel, Switzerland’s state secretary for international finance, met with representatives of other finance ministries in Madrid as part of a newly formed coalition.External link She presented the panel with concerns for the finance sector, such as the fact that prices should be set for environmental and climate risks within the insurance sector. Additionally, she noted that current pension funds for people who will retire in 2050, many of which are investing in fossil fuels, will not be compatible in thirty years by which time Switzerland has committed to become a carbon-free economy. 

The state secretary also pointed that climate-related risk needed to be taken into consideration, or “priced in”, to assure the stability of financial markets. Lessons learned from the 2008 financial crisis of institutions being “too big to fail” had made such concerns relevant. 

“Ministries of finance and financial regulators have a responsibility,” said Stefan Marco Schwager, climate finance advisor to the Swiss delegation, who accompanied Stoffel to the panel. “It is not altruism. If we don’t fix [the climate crisis], everything goes down the drain, including central bank assets.” 

Calls for solidarity 

Not everyone is satisfied with the role Switzerland has played so far in the talks. 

“We want countries like Switzerland to speak a lot more about what people are facing on the ground. On the issue of loss and damage it has not been very proactive,” said Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for the NGO ActionAid. 

“There needs to be solidarity in the system. Poor people in developing countries did not create this crisis.” 

Hot topic: carbon credit distribution 

How should carbon credits be used over time? Under the Paris Agreement, signatories can purchase carbon credits that allow them to emit a certain amount of carbon into the atmosphere over a 10-year period. Switzerland opposes allowing those signatories to use all the credits they may have purchased at once, for instance in the final year of the agreement, 2030. South Korea, one of Switzerland’s negotiating partners in the Environmental Integrity GroupExternal link, has for example said it would like to be able to use its credits in the final year. 

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