Geneva cannot become carbon neutral without the will of its citizens

Alternatiba Léman, the Swiss version of the citizen movement for mobilisation on climate change took place between 21 and 26 september in Geneva (Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi)

While some other cities in Europe like Copenhagen are on track to become carbon neutral as early as 2025, Geneva is still debating whether such ambition is feasible and what conditions need to be met. This was the subject of a provocative conference -”Why is carbon neutrality not possible by 2030?”- organised as part of the sixth edition of Alternatiba Léman.

The Swiss version of the citizen movement for mobilisation on climate change born in France in 2013 took place between 21 and 26 September in Geneva. Antonio Hodgers, state councillor of the Canton of Geneva, Alfonso Gomez Cruz, administrative councillor of the City of Geneva, Yvonne Winteler, co-president of the Alliance Climatique Suisse and Abigail Mackenzie, spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, each in their own style, sought to put Genevans face to face with their responsibilities. Official statistics show that Swiss people are among the worst performers in Europe when it comes to consumption-based carbon emissions. Behind their defeatist accents, sometimes tinged with a hint of cynicism, the panelists wanted to demonstrate that carbon neutrality is in fact a matter of political and popular will. Hodgers:

“The title of this conference is provocative, but relevant. It's possible, but in my opinion, we don't have the majority of the population and elected officials to do it (...) Why can't we do it? Not for technical reasons, but for political reasons.”

Why does it matter ? To reach zero emissions in 2050, we would have to divide our carbon impact by more than 10 down to 1 ton of CO2 per year per inhabitant, according to the panellist. In fact, Switzerland as a country would have to make an even greater effort: all in all, the carbon footprint of the Swiss population reaches around 14 tons per person per year. Plus, this reduction would have to take place on a global scale. Switzerland represents only 1 per 1000 of the world's population and if the rest of the world does not implement reduction measures, the earth will warm according to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)’s worst scenario predictions. Even if drastic measures are taken immediately to stabilize at 1.5 or 2°C, that may still mean, for Switzerland, another 2°C by 2050 in addition to the 2°C already attained, due to its geographical position inland. Hodgers :

"Carbon neutrality is not possible without a colossal, radical and immediate effort. Our objective is 2050 and minus 60 per cent in 2030.”

A smaller reduction in reality because it is calculated in relation to a 1990 baseline.

What can be done to achieve this discounted figure? While consumption, agriculture, transport, trade and energy are of federal and supranational (World Trade Organization) responsibility, a large part of the average 10 tons is under cantonal jurisdiction. Gomez Cruz :

"Cities and municipalities have a decisive role to play. It is our task to initiate this transition. Are we ready for a profound transformation of our lifestyles? Are we ready to sleep at 17°C, to abandon our vehicles, to no longer consume meat, to no longer import coffee and to wear local clothing? We need to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt".


"We're past the point of making big speeches. Carbon is everywhere in our society. So how do we decarbonise Geneva? “

In order to decarbonise Geneva, the city and the canton must imperatively work on several fronts:

  • The “built” environment: a complex task when only 1% of the buildings in Geneva are renewed each year. In Geneva alone - 1.5 million of the total number of residential buildings - 70% are heated with oil and gas. It is mainly the heating system that needs to be replaced. Hodgers :

"At this rate it will take a century to transform our buildings. This output would have to be multiplied by 10 in order to achieve this by 2030: Geneva would be in a permanent state of construction with one building in 10 under renovation, and we don’t even have enough companies.”

  • Mobility: already tilting movements that are not taken into account in the cantonal carbon balance should be accounted for. Hodgers :

"If we count 800,000 people in our conurbation but avoid counting the people who live on the other side of the border and come back by car, it doesn't make sense. It's hypocrisy.”

Moreover, projects take time to be realised: 11 years for the Léman Express, five years for Tram 14.

  • Consumption: Geneva has a good sorting policy, but a very high rate of 700 kilos of waste per year per inhabitant. To have less waste, we must consume less.

  • Energy: reduce our energy consumption and invest in renewable energy.

The Confederation's objectives. According to the latest federal report on negative CO2 emissions released on 2 September, the long-term climate objectives can only be reached through negative emissions. Net-zero, the target to be achieved, is not even a complete zero as the residual emissions have to be absorbed by carbon sinks. Switzerland has residual emissions from industry (cement), agriculture and waste, and could only absorb 10 million tons of CO2 with its forests and methods that are still in the experimental stage. Yvonne Winteler, co-president of the Alliance Climatique Suisse :

"We think it is too late. We have a potential of 6 million and we would seek the difference by buying carbon sinks abroad. The speed of adaptation means that 2030 is too complex and incompatible with climate justice. This will create unemployment and suffering. We believe that we can reach net-zero by 2040...”

Meet the challenge. The city of Copenhagen will be carbon neutral in 2025, Edinburgh will reach net-zero emissions in 2030. Why not Geneva in 2025 ? This is what Extinction Rebellion called for, putting an end to the debate. Indeed, what if the people of Geneva finally took up the challenge before it’s too late?