Switzerland: Climate emergency declarations critisised for being political rhetoric

In Switzerland, politicians and media commentators are discussing whether the climate emergency declarations and resolutions that have been declared in eight of the country’s cities and municipalities will lead to action at an entirely new level or eventually be overlooked as fluffy, non-binding policy statements about future intentions and possibilities.

“Zurich City Council supports the demands of the Youth Climate Alliance: It calls on the government to declare a climate emergency. The local government voted in favour of a resolution with 90 to 84 votes, supported by SP, GLP, Greens, EPP and AL,” reported Tages Anzeiger on 13 May 2019.

The resolution was written by three GLP politicians in response to the school strikes, some of the world’s biggest having occurred in Switzerland, including more than 65,000 students. The students ask their government to declare a climate state of emergency and implement policies to be carbon-zero by 2030.

Zurich City Council’s resolution instructs council staff to prepare a climate action plan over the next year. A resolution will then again be submitted to the Councillors, for a decision to be made in the chamber as to whether a climate emergency should be declared or not, reported Blick on 13 May 2019:

“With this resolution, the Zurich Cantonal Council also makes four concrete demands on the Swiss government:

• Businesses that mitigate climate change or its consequences should be given priority

• The government must develop a climate action plan

• In the fight against climate change, the government must act in accordance with the IPCC and follow the scientists’ recommendations to reduce carbon emissions quickly.

• The government must provide the population with comprehensive information on climate change and climate protection measures.

Apart from this, hardly anything would change because of the climate emergency declaration. Effectively, this has little to do with a “state of emergency”, but rather is to be understood as a political statement. The declaration of the climate emergency has no legal consequences,” commented Joel Probst in Blick.


On 20 February 2019, Basel City Council – as the first in the country – adopted a similar resolution which recognises limiting climate change as top priority. The Swiss cities of Olten, Yverdon-les-Bains, Delémont, Liestal, Canton Jura and Canton Vaud have since declared a climate emergency, all together the home of more than one million residents, 13 per cent of the population.

Demands for a local government climate emergency declaration have also been made in other Swiss cities, including Bern, Geneva, Lucerne, St Gallen, and Zug.

Basel was the first continental European city to declare a climate emergency. Its resolution was passed with a two-thirds majority in Council, stating the following:

“On Saturday, 2 February 2019, according to the police, around 8,000-10,000 people from the Basel region responded to the appeal of numerous committed students and took to the streets. They demanded and will continue to demand that Parliament and the government act immediately and efficiently so that the impending climate catastrophe can be averted.

The students speak out, which we all have long been aware of. It is time to act: Humans have already caused climate change with irreversible consequences, which are felt worldwide. Global temperatures have risen globally by 1 degree Celsius since the pre-industrial era, as the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has risen from 280ppm to over 400ppm. In order to prevent uncontrollable global warming with unpredictable consequences, it is essential to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.

Already 1.5°C of global warming lead to, among other things, that rising sea levels will make huge coastal areas uninhabitable. The World Bank estimates that over the next 30 years, the number of climate refugees will rise to over 140 million. Climate change will also be felt in Switzerland where, for example, agriculture and winter tourism will be directly affected by the consequences.

Climate change is therefore not just a climate problem: it is an economic, security, animal welfare and peace problem.

It can not and should not be expected that the solution of this problem will be achieved solely by personal responsibility and by individuals. It now needs practical measures at municipal, cantonal, national and international level to counteract this impending catastrophe. The current plans and measures are not sufficient to limit the warming to the desired 1.5°C by 2050. That’s why it’s now more important than ever to act fast!

• The Basel Council declares a climate emergency, recognising the need for mitigating climate change and its serious consequences as a task of the highest priority.

• The Basel Council will consider the impact on the climate in any business and, whenever possible, prioritise those businesses that mitigate climate change or its consequences.

• The Basel Council is guided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on future climate change mitigation, particularly in terms of investment in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

• The Basel Council demands that the Government provides the citizens with comprehensive information on climate change, its causes and effects, and measures taken to combat climate change.”

Vaud Canton

The Council of the French-speaking Vaud Canton passed a climate emergency declaration motion with 110 in favour, 10 against, and 13 abstaining. A translation of an excerpt of the resolution to English was kindly provided by Fossil Free Switzerland:

“By this resolution,
• The Grand Council of the Canton of Vaud declares the climate emergency and recognises the need to mitigate the climate change and its serious consequences as one of the top priority tasks.

• The Grand Council of the Canton of Vaud will examine the impacts on the climate of any object to be dealt with and affecting the climate and, as far as possible, will give priority to the treatment of objects that mitigate climate change or its consequences.

• The Grand Council of the Canton of Vaud will base its future measures to combat climate change on the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in particular with regard to investments aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

• The Grand Council of the Canton of Vaud invites the government [in Switzerland called the ‘Council of State’] to contribute to providing detailed information to the population of the Canton on climate change, its causes and effects, as well as on the measures taken to combat it.”

See the resolution (PDF)

Media coverage

→ Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, SRF – 13 May 2019:
Zurich City Council declares climate emergency (2 minute video in German language)
“The Council approves proposals from SP and GLP and calls for the government to make a climate report.”

→ Tages Anzeiger – 13 May 2019:
Zurich Council calls for the declaration of a climate emergency (Article in German language)
“After Basel, the demands of the Youth Climate Alliance also find a majority in the newly constituted Zurich Council.”

“The Zurich Council adopted the two climate emergency resolutions by 90 votes to 84 and 89 votes to 84 respectively. But has the Parliament, as the title of an initiative suggests, then called out the climate emergency? No. The expression does not exist in the cantonal constitution. The council can, however, take measures in an emergency situation even without a legal basis. But that’s not what the signers are concerned with. They believe it is a moral obligation, as Sonja Gehrig said, to send a signal. So, only symbolic politics without concrete effect? The canton of Zurich can not save the global climate alone, it can only make a tiny contribution to the solution. Politically, however, the decision clearly shows that the wind in the Cantonal Council has turned.”

→ Neue Zürcher Zeitung – 13 May 2019:
Climate policy: a lot of symbolism, to the advantage of Martin Neukom (Article in German language)
“The Zurich Cantonal Council supports two resolutions to declare a climate emergency. The previous council had rejected them. However, the new building director gladly accepted the order.”

→ Tages Anzeiger – 11 May 2019:
Cantonal Council declares climate emergency urgent (Article in German language)
“The climate caused a strike at today’s council meeting. Conservatives accuse leftists of campaigning and manipulating with the use of ‘child soldiers’.”

→ SwissInfo – 15 March 2019:
Saving the planet and saving UBS – which is the emergency?
“Young people are going on strike across Switzerland, demanding that the government declare a state of climate emergency. Unfortunately for them, the climate is not a bank that can be bailed out.”

→ SwissInfo – 7 April 2019:
Thousands across Switzerland rally for climate action
“Tens of thousands of protesters took part in youth-led climate strikes across Switzerland on Saturday. The movement demands action against climate change and global warming.”

→ Basel Landschaftliche Zeitung – 28 February 2019:
Also Liestal now officially cares about the climate (Article in German language)
“As the second Swiss city after Basel, Liestal yesterday passed a resolution on the climate emergency.”

→ The Peterborough Examiner – 22 February 2019:
Students demand speedier action on climate change
“Adam Scott Collegiate students hold protest at Peterborough City Hall; worldwide student strike planned March 15”

→ Conviva – 20 February 2019:
Swiss city declares a climate emergency (Article in German language)

→ Neue Zürcher Zeitung – 20 February 2019:
Basel is the first Swiss city to announce the “climate emergency”. What does that mean? (Article in German language)
“With the support of the conservative parties, the City Council is sending out a signal about the fight against global warming – the question is with what effect.”

List of Swiss councils and regions

→ Cedamia: CED regions in Switzerland
List of local council and other regions in Switzerland that have declared a Climate Emergency, in chronological order.