Could Switzerland take a leading role in climate change reform?

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This content was published on November 6, 2014 - 17:00

With its latest climate report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raises the question whether the world will actually be able to act on climate change. Despite being generally optimistic, Swiss leading climate physicist Thomas Stocker also remains realistic.

In order to reduce the devastating impact of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut drastically – in fact by as much as 40% to 70% by 2050. These are the findings of the latest UN IPCC report. According to StockerExternal link, who significantly contributed to this report, reaching this latest climate target will be difficult, but not impossible. In its latest synthesis report, the IPCC has called for immediate action. It also states that with the appropriate measures there is still time to stop global warming. What does this actually mean?

Thomas Stocker: First of all, we need to realise that such reports always come with the precondition for our global society to make an effort to reach a climate target at all. This means that we’ll have to keep global warming down to 2°C, compared to pre-industrial times.

The target to avoid damaging human influence on the climate system is laid down in paragraph 2 of the UN Framework Convention, which has been in force since 1994. Many nations have been trying to reach the 2°C target since 2009. With this report, IPCC only informs us what to do to reach this target.

Climate physicist Thomas Stocker University of Bern The scientific community has done its job. Now it’s up to the political decision-makers to do something. How confident are you that more progress will be made?

T.S.: I’m basically pretty optimistic, as there is no alternative. However, we have to be realistic too, and science provides us with this realism. We’ve seen that it’s already pretty difficult – but not impossible – to reach the 2°C target. The time frame in which we still have this option is also getting shorter with every year emissions increase. And at some point in time we’ll miss this climate target. We’ll lose half a degree of the climate target with every decade these high emissions continue.

I’m optimistic because the findings of the latest climate report show more clearly where the changes are happening and in which direction climate change is heading. Another reason for my optimism is that we now have more influential sectors of society on board, like the business community and the financial sector. This has been a positive development since the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, when no binding agreement was reached. The UN climate summit in New York on September 23, for example, called for setting a global price for CO2 emissions. What will happen if we actually miss this time frame?

T.S.: I guess we’ll have to acknowledge that the political decision-makers as well as society have waited too long and failed dismally. We should really adjust this target and revise it upwards. However, that doesn’t mean that reaching the target is going to be easier. It only implies that we’ve missed five to ten years to take the necessary steps to reach a climate target. In 10 years’ time a 2.5°C target will be as ambitious and difficult as the 2°C target is today. Is there any hope that nature will adapt to climate change?

T.S.: ... and solve our problem? No! Of course, nature and ecosystems will adjust to a certain degree. However, there are ecosystems that will not be able to adjust to such quickly changing climates, and will disappear. This is more evident on planets that are not inhabited. However, on earth the working ecosystems make sure that we can grow food and rely on natural resources, such as water. If these ecosystems are no longer available or only have limited capacity, it will be pretty difficult. In certain regions, such adjustments will get tougher or even impossible. You’re calling for an industrial revolution: for "renewability". What does this mean for Switzerland’s climate targets?

T.S.: This is actually a great chance. As with all previous industrial revolutions – mechanisation, electrification and digitalisation –fundamental changes have also generated wealth and brought about new opportunities. New jobs were created and old ones disappeared.

The comparison to industrialisation should illustrate that this is not a problem which can be solved in four years; it’s a task for many generations all over the world. All previous industrial revolutions have spread across the world in a relatively short time as they very quickly proved the advantages of new and sensible developments.

In this particular case, we also have to come up with something better, such as recycling materials, reducing the waste of scarce resources which we need for batteries or mobile phones, or using less phosphorus for fertilisation. These resources are limited. During the presentation of the report in Bern, IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri spoke about the possibility of Switzerland taking a leading role. Is this realistic?

T.S.: Nothing is realistic if there is no will. However, if there is a will then such plans can certainly be realised. Switzerland is pretty well positioned; its innovative drive is very high, and so is its research performance. This means Switzerland has an excellent starting position. And if we don’t take over the lead, then someone else will. What critical message does the latest IPCC report send to the upcoming meeting in December in Peru and to the climate summit in Paris in 2015?

T.S.: It was important that this message came from the scientific world, even though it’s only part of the information political decision-makers reflect on during such summits. It’s still an imperative and fundamental message, which is non-negotiable. For this reason I think the scientific world has done an excellent job.

How the individual countries will perceive it and which consequences they will draw from it will become clear in March 2015, when they will publish their own contributions to climate change. 

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