Democracy and Net Zero: Lessons From the Swiss Climate Referendum

UK Policy Net Zero

Democracy and Net Zero: Lessons From the Swiss Climate Referendum

Posted on: 18th June 2021
Tim Lord
Associate Senior Fellow | Net Zero

Swiss voters rejected a proposed new climate law in a referendum – what are the lessons for the UK?

Critics of the UK’s net zero target often argue that it doesn’t have a true democratic mandate.

And they have a point.  The target, set in legislation in the summer of 2019, was introduced without prior electoral consent – it wasn’t even mentioned as a possibility in any party’s manifesto for the 2017 election. The legislation was subject to minimal debate - MPs, in recognition of strong cross-party support, chose not to push it to a Parliamentary vote.  And there is limited public understanding of what delivering it will require – the government’s own polling shows that only 3% of people claim to have a good understanding of what net zero means.

There is, of course, a counter-argument. Polling consistently shows that the proportion of people concerned about climate change is high and rising; that concern is increasing across all demographics; over 95% of voters supported parties committed to net zero at the general election in December 2019; and, in any case, it is relatively rare in the UK to see a specific democratic mandate for an individual policy.  There was never a referendum on, say, the introduction of the NHS, or of a publicly funded school system – but few would argue that they don’t have democratic support.

Whichever view you take, it’s certainly true that formal democratic endorsement of net zero is limited. Which brings us to Switzerland.  The Swiss approach to democracy includes a much heavier emphasis on direct public consent, and last week they held a referendum on support for a new climate law. The referendum asked the public whether they supported proposed legislation entailing a series of measures designed to meet the country’s greenhouse gas emissions targets – including higher carbon taxes on heating and transport fuels.

In an outcome which might ring a few bells in the UK, strong cross-party support for a “yes” vote wasn’t enough. The outcome was “no” – by (of course) 52 to 48%.

Lessons for the UK

In Switzerland, there is evidence that the parties supporting a yes vote fell into the trap of failing to put their argument in a way that resonated across the political spectrum – focusing on complex arguments, and on advocates without broad political appeal. Opponents of the law were, by contrast, ruthlessly strategic – focusing a targeted campaign on potential costs and risks, and arguing that the proposals were those of a wealthy elite acting against the interests of ordinary people.  As for Brexit, the outcome was that some parts of the electorate - particularly high-income, urban voters – were more likely to vote yes than voters with different backgrounds, priorities and values[1].

This split has the potential to be a major problem for those advocating for net zero. Delivering the changes that are needed for net zero is a complex task, and it cannot be achieved without public support for both the overall goal, and the policies required to get there. This cannot mean everyone supports every measure; but it must mean that consent is drawn from a broad base. Net zero has to be based around a politics of unity, not division.

But here in the UK, as in Switzerland, the argument that climate action is by and for “elites” will of course be used to argue against climate action– indeed, it already is. While there is irony in this – as it is the poorest who will be most severely affected by unconstrained climate change – there is also a real challenge in delivering the net zero transition in a way that is fair and delivers tangible benefits to people and communities across the country. And that means that the political scope for turning net zero into an “us and them” issue is easy to see.

That descent into division is not inevitable – but it is a real risk. As our Polls Apart report argued, there is significant unity across the electorate on the need for climate action, but also scope for polarisation, particularly on the basis of their values.  Those with liberal or “open” values are significantly more likely to support climate action than those with authoritarian or “closed” values.

So while the democratic process in Switzerland is different to that in the UK, the lessons must be heeded by those who advocate for action to deliver net zero. That means engaging people and communities in developing solutions, rather than assuming that they will sign them off at the ballot box; tailoring messages and messengers to appeal to different groups of voters, rather than retreating to a “core vote” approach; recognising and dealing with trade-offs in an honest way, rather than hiding them behind rhetoric that climate action is all “win-win”; and placing fairness at the heart of policy design. 


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