Geneva releases roadmap to carbon neutrality by 2050

Solar panels are installed on the Geneva Stadium’s roof top in 2019. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The canton of Geneva has released ambitious plans to scrap its carbon footprint and leaves the door open for carbon offsetting. 

The canton of Geneva published on Wednesday its newest climate action strategy to keep the globe from heating up any further and protect its citizens from the effects of climate change. The canton wants to shave off 60 per cent of its carbon footprint in the next 10 years and pave the way to carbon neutrality by 2050.

For Augustin Fragnière, researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Sustainability at the University of Lausanne, Geneva’s action plan is “ambitious” and “ahead of the curve”, compared to most such as the Swiss national climate objectives. The national strategy, which aims to reduce emissions by half by 2030, will be decided by Swiss voters when they go to the ballot box on the contentious CO2 law on 13 June.

Despite Geneva’s plan’s praiseworthy aims, Fragnière warns that the canton may risk relying on carbon credits if it can't reach certain targets.

Why it matters. Like many parts of the world, Switzerland is experiencing the effects of climate change. Average temperatures have increased by 2ºC since the end of the 19th century and are expected to increase another 2ºC in the next 30 years, if projections continue down that path. This would cause irreversible damage to ecosystems, have serious consequences for human health and hurt the economy.

To contribute to global efforts to reverse the trend, Geneva aims to tackle the three major emissions drivers,energy, mobility and consumption, which respectively represent 39 per cent, 26 per cent and 28 per cent of the canton’s emissions.

Mobility targets include reducing single motorised traffic by 40 per cent and having electric cars make up 40 per cent of all vehicles. On the energy front, the canton plans to double down on building renovation to improve energy efficiency and ramp up renewable energies to 80 per cent.

Why it’s an ambitious plan. Taking it a step further than the Swiss national climate plan, Geneva’s climate strategy does not only take into account direct emissions, which come for instance from fossil fuels burned by cars within the canton, but also includes its indirect emissions.

These are the ones produced outside the territory when those fossil fuels for example are extracted from the ground and transported to Geneva, or the gases released into the atmosphere from producing imported goods.

According to calculations from 2012 and cited in the report, around half of Geneva’s carbon footprint comes from indirect emissions, a number which is likely to be higher according to a recent study by the University of Lausanne on Geneva’s path to net zero.

“It's much more ambitious when you take indirect emissions, because then you have a bigger carbon footprint and because it is much harder to reduce indirect emissions since they’re linked to consumption patterns,” Fragnière explained.

Reducing emissions by 60 per cent within the next decade is also an ambitious goal, particularly since it would mean a six per cent reduction every year. But despite population growth, Geneva’s carbon footprint has actually been declining in the last 30 years.

The canton has plans to invest 300 million Swiss francs every year for the next decade to achieve its climate targets.

Why it’s complicated. Ambitious goals certainly call for bold measures. One of the focuses of the plan is encouraging a shift in consumption behaviour towards buying better but also less, a topic that has garnered attention in recent years, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently deciding to start looking into this research area.

Read also: IPCC measures up consumer behaviour in next climate report

The canton claims that since it has little authority to influence how consumers behave, indirect emissions reductions will largely rely on voluntary measures such as promoting sustainable food consumption and a circular economy.

If this doesn’t work, then it can turn to carbon offsetting as a plan B. This means buying carbon credits through financing projects in other places of the world that help reduce or trap carbon emissions. As part of its net zero strategy, Switzerland has signed agreements with Peru, Ghana and just last week with Thailand to fund emissions reduction projects and in return offset part of its emissions. For Fragnière, this is not a legitimate alternative.

“It isn’t legitimate to claim carbon offsetting as emissions reduction. You should claim that you're helping others reduce their emissions and through this contribute to reaching carbon neutrality at a global scale, but you shouldn't count this as your own reduction,” he explained.

Read also: 'Switzerland cannot buy its way out of ambitious climate action'

On the other hand, carbon storage and capture is ruled out as an alternative due to the uncertainty surrounding emerging technologies. While Fragnière agrees that it remains a risky solution, he considers that Geneva will have to revisit it at some point.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear now that if we want to reach carbon neutrality at global scale by 2050, and stay below the 1.5ºC or even 2ºC target, we will need to reduce emissions very rapidly, but also to implement carbon removal or negative emissions technology. So the climate plan here is vocal about that, but it doesn't set any targets for the government,” he noted.

Asked also what he thought of the omission of the impact of the finance sector, Fragnière found it “a pity that it's not mentioned”.

“We know that Switzerland generally has a huge climate impact through the finance institutions, that also goes for Geneva, and the same applies to oil and raw materials trading,” he said.

“I'm not saying that they should absolutely include that in the scope of their strategy, but they should at least mention it or measure it,” he added, noting that while it might be a difficult sector to address since it depends on private actors, the canton could for instance encourage the cantonal bank, pension funds and other actors to divest from fossil fuels.