Dozens of climate activists protested outside of the offices of Switzerland’s largest banks this past week, blocking the entrances to the UBS and Credit Suisse in Zurich’s financial district. Around 200 protesters were estimated to have attended the climate protest in the early morning hours of 2 August. About 83 were eventually taken into temporary police custody by midday after refusing to disperse from the entrances of the banks. With bikes and barrels, climate activists staged the sit-in protest in front of the UBS and Credit Suisse, to take a stand against the banks’ funding of fossil fuel projects in the country.
Frida Kohlmann, a media spokesperson for Rise Up for Change, one of the groups that helped organize the climate protest along with ClimateStrike Switzerland and Extinction Rebellion, made a statement. “[S]o far, Credit Suisse and UBS have not reacted adequately to the climate crisis… That’s why the climate justice movement is occupying the headquarters of Credit Suisse and the branch office of UBS today to draw attention to the consequences of… inaction.” Kohlmann also expressed demands for “Swiss financial institutions change to a socially and climate compatible course and implement our demands.”
Last Monday’s climate protest wasn’t the only one staged against Swiss banks in recent weeks. As part of a series of protests in Switzerland, climate activists also organized a hoax outside the same Credit Suisse headquarters in Zurich on 26 July. Dressed as Credit Suisse representatives, a man and a woman announced that the bank would cut funding for their fossil fuel projects by the end of 2021, and become more transparent about its financial spending by August, according to Reuters.
UBS, Credit Suisse, and other large Swiss banks are being accused of financing environmentally damaging fossil fuel projects and investing billions of dollars in non-renewable energy sources such as coal, gas, and oil. A Bloomberg survey cited by Finews showed that between 2016 and 2020, UBS issued around $11.4 billion in oil and gas bonds. It is a number almost double the $5.8 billion issued for green energy bonds, while Credit Suisse issued around $26 billion in oil and gas bonds, reaching almost four times the $7 billion issued by the bank for green energy bonds. Emma Müller, a spokesperson for the Action Alliance explained that “[T]he big banks and other financial institutions are putting the lives of millions of people around the world at risk by contributing to the current climate crisis and fuelling another 4-6°C of global warming.”
In Switzerland, the climate crisis has worsened for quite some time. Sonia Seneviratne, a climate researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich pointed out that between 1864 and 2017, the rise in temperature in Switzerland was significantly higher than the world average. Based on this data, Seneviratne predicted that global warming rates in Switzerland would grow to be two times the global average. MeteoSwiss and the ETH Zurich predicted that between now and 2060, the rise in temperatures in Switzerland could range between .7 and 3.3°C, compared to 1981-2010 data.
While being exacerbated by fossil fuel energy production, increased global warming also poses a threat to the famous, picturesque, and yet environmentally sensitive region of the Swiss Alps. Rising temperatures have contributed to the rapid melting of glaciers in the mountain range, which has reportedly created more than 1,000 lakes in what used to be glaciated regions of the Swiss Alps, according to a study by the Eawag Remote Sensing Group. Daniel Odermatt, head of the group, noted that “80 [lakes] have been added in the last decade alone.”
Reuters reported that UBS released a statement in response to the protests, saying that “[C]limate protection is a top priority at UBS … We are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions across our business to net zero by 2050, with science-based interim targets for 2025, 2030 and 2035.” Meanwhile, Credit Suisse refused to comment directly on the protest and the staged hoax from a week earlier, but said that “Credit Suisse is committed to climate protection and achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.”
In an interview with Finews from June, amid pressure to go green and combat climate change, Credit Suisse stated that it was aiming to invest at least 300 billion Swiss francs ($334 billion) in sustainable financing over the next 10 years. The bank also planned to cut funding to companies that rely on coal for more than 25% of their revenue unless the funding was used for the company’s path toward decarbonization. UBS stated in the same interview that its carbon-related assets have been decreasing, starting with 2.8% by the end of 2018 to 1.9% (equivalent to around $5.4 billion) by the end of 2020.
Despite the banks’ long history of fossil fuel investments, Credit Suisse and UBS have made public statements that they would work towards a greener and more environmentally friendly world. However, whether these are baseless claims made to satisfy the opposition, or if they actually hold any truth at all is questionable. In a press release sent out by ClimateStrike Switzerland after last Monday’s protest, the group noted that Swiss financial institutions like Credit Suisse and UBS are responsible for contributing to 2% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Consequently, people are suffering and dying from the climate crisis around the world – whether it be due to flooding, wildfires, heat waves, tornadoes, or other extreme weather events. Therefore, we cannot see a significant improvement in the climate crisis without the banks’ full withdrawal from fossil fuel projects.
Climate activists in Switzerland still haven’t given up their fight for climate justice, especially during this week of action. A “climate camp” was to be held in Zurich from 30 July 30 to 6 August. These camps, which are set up outside of businesses that are contributing to global warming and environmental degradation, such as Credit Suisse and UBS, are meant to educate and train activists while protesting for the cause at the same time. During that same week on 4 August, an open dialogue was planned between climate activists and representatives working in the financial sector to discuss the concerns and demands of the climate justice movement. Lastly, another protest was scheduled for 6 August in Bern. This garnered around 1,500 protestors, demanding that the Swiss National Bank (SNB) divest from fossil fuel companies.
All in all, Monday’s sit-in in protest in Zurich’s financial district, along with the many other efforts by climate activists in Switzerland to confront the banks and bring awareness to the climate crisis, have been crucial for the growth of the movement. We shouldn’t expect change to happen overnight, but the voices of the people together can place enough pressure on those responsible for there to be concrete change in the future. While banks like Credit Suisse and UBS have reacted to pressure to go green, which is a positive development, the promises and changes they plan to make are not sufficient enough for members of the climate justice movement. Banks and institutions must become more transparent about where exactly their money is going and work harder to stop funding fossil fuel projects. The need to shift towards cleaner, greener, and more sustainable energy sources is a critical step that must be taken to improve our planet’s future. It’s up to the people to take a stand and for our institutions to divest.