Switzerland, one of the world’s richest nations, has an ambitious climate goal: It promises to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
But the Swiss do not intend to reduce emissions by that much within their own borders. Instead, the European country is dipping into its sizable coffers to pay poorer nations, such as Ghana or Dominica, to reduce emissions there, and give Switzerland credit for it.
Here is an example of how it would work: Switzerland is paying to install efficient lighting and cleaner stoves in up to five million households in Ghana; these installations will help households move away from burning wood for cooking and rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
Then Switzerland, not Ghana, will get to count those emissions reductions as progress towards its climate goals.
Veronika Elgart, deputy head of international climate policy at the Federal Office for the Environment in Switzerland, said these sorts of arrangements could bring on additional climate action while benefiting the host countries.
Still, there are questions over whether this mechanism is fair, an issue at the heart of discussions at this week’s United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
One of the main diplomatic sticking points centers on the extent to which rich nations should be compensating poorer countries for the damage caused by climate change, and helping them adapt, particularly since the wealthier world is disproportionately responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions warming the world.
Critics say that if other nations follow Switzerland’s lead, it could delay climate action in wealthier parts of the world while shifting the work of reducing emissions towards the global poor.
In addition, it could take advantage of projects in poorer countries that would have proceeded anyway, with or without foreign funding.
“It is a way of passing on the responsibility to reduce emissions,” said Crispin Gregoire, a former ambassador to the UN from Dominica, a tiny island nation of 72,000 people that made an agreement with Switzerland last year.
“Instead of reducing emissions itself, Switzerland is going to other countries, ones that have very low emissions, to fulfill that obligation.”
At last year’s global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Bolivian President Luis Arce called the idea tantamount to “carbon capitalism”.
The 2015 Paris Agreement tentatively allowed countries to cooperate in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
And nations have made progress in laying down some of the rules at global talks, for example, creating guidance to make sure that emissions reductions are not double counted.
But much of how that would actually work still needs to be fine-tuned, including how projects will be assessed and monitored. The issues are part of a wide-ranging agenda for climate negotiators gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Switzerland has been explicit that it will not reach its emissions reduction targets on its own and that it needs to look for at least one-third of its cuts elsewhere.
It already generates the bulk of its electricity using renewable energy, namely, hydroelectric and nuclear power, making further emissions cuts difficult.
Switzerland has so far signed pacts with eight nations, Peru, Ghana, Senegal, Georgia, Vanuatu, Dominica, Thailand and Ukraine, and is in talks with at least three more nations.
Japan and Sweden have said they intend to pursue similar arrangements.