Tax evasion, environmental justice, and the right of some to be more equal than others

These days and for the first time, Swiss representatives are taking part in the Fifth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention[1]; reason for the general public to celebrate. However, those with a broader perspective focus on the sixteen years that went by in silence since the country adopted the convention until it finally came to ratification.

No doubt, the Aarhus Convention is one of the more innovative instruments in environmental justice and civil rights. It gives the public broad access to information, forces governments to produce and publish relevant environmental data and most important, it is one of the few international protocols to give the public access to courts and justice. One question becomes thus unavoidable: “why did Switzerland need so much time to ratify the convention which it signed in 1998 and which came into force as early as 2001?”

One can’t help but thinking that the banking state has something to hide, but then Switzerland and hiding something – it doesn’t go together. Not Switzerland, with its highly developed political system which provides citizens with decision power on all levels, a country that is famous for being overly neutral and hosting many peace talk conferences while having very high moral principles (sic!). Mind you.
Few of its citizens know that in its time Switzerland had ambitious plans to be a Nuclear Weapon State. “Neutrality” is a bendable expression, just the same as civil rights and equality. Do you think it’s OK that a head of state and Minister of Economic Affairs has the right to avoid paying taxes on the ground that the competent tax department had previously been notified of his acting?

Back to environmental justice and slow political processes, Switzerland didn’t really meet its Kyoto targets for the period 2008-2012. In fact, it only did so by buying huge amounts of emission reduction certificates.[2] But hold on, how come banking creates so much carbon emission? Is it from the money printing or from the laundering process? The answer is that, as of today, the country’s economy is no longer fed through the miracles of dubious banking secrets. Other nations have been quick to copy the once famous tricks and if you paid attention and clicked on the link further up then you will know that member of the Swiss Federal Council, Schneider-Ammann could only avoid paying taxes in Switzerland because Luxemburg and Jersey have also learned how to bank (or in a more direct language: “launder money”).

Now, one thing you should get familiar with is the very generous tax system that Switzerland has. It is so very democratic, that tax payers can actually negotiate the amount of taxes they are willing to pay. If that is not a wonderful thing?!
Well, there is of course a flip side of the coin. Namely that not everyone can negotiate their tax rate. Not everyone is as equal as others, a reason why in a direct democracy decisions take sixteen years to become effective. On a more practical side there are businesses that give advice on who is eligible for all these democratic benefits.

Cheating on the state is big business in Switzerland, only that it’s legal and hence not called corruption but tax exemptions. The secret to all this is that Switzerland does actually not have one single tax system, but with a total of 26 cantons and around 100 times more municipalities federalism allows for thousands of different tax systems. Everyone with only a slight idea of negotiation processes or all those familiar with the Coase Theorem will guess to where that leads. Simply imagine a village with a population of 140 people[3], a taxable income of about USD 20’000.- per household and hence a total taxable income of 1 million US for the whole municipality; and then a Finnish Geneva resident Gennadi Timtschenko with estimated assets of 9.5 billion Swiss Francs who decides to move to this picturesque country village…..

Back to the missed Kyoto targets: do you still wonder why banking is so carbon intensive? Well, think if Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is likely to drive a Smart or ride his bicycle to the local milk shop and you will be very close to the correct answer. And it’s here that the loop to the Aarhus convention closes. Switzerland has been very successful by denying equal rights to its citizens. While the country has the highest emissions for new cars in Europe, those who pay the Kyoto Protocol bill, are house owners. Switzerland has a very low house owner rate, a fact that makes them a very weak lobby group and a good scape goat in case of now alternatives, particularly since the main features of a direct democracy are slow implementation processes or non-action on the few decisions that are being taken. So towards the end of a deadline things get urgent and solutions little sophisticated.

In the case of carbon emissions, instead of reducing them by meaningful policies and broad ranging adaptations such as general behaviour changes, the Swiss government has decided that expensive adaptation in housing will do the fix for the disproportionate Swiss carbon balance. Once more, twenty years of inaction have been made up for with quick and very short-sighted decisions. And of course the cheque for these actions haven’t been issued by the Bernies and Gennadis who came to enjoy the rural landscape. It’s stupid citizens like me who were forced to invest USD 60’000.- in a new heating simply to avoid roughly 1100 kg of CO2 per household[4] and year, not those who produce the same amount of CO2 in only 5’000 km drive through the idyllic and radioactive test fields alias Swiss country-side[5] in their brand-new SUV.

What if the ionized radiation-exposed and hence cancer prone cyclist eventually gets all the data and access to environmental justice that the Aarhus Convention promises? Maybe then the Swiss government including Schneider-Ammann will have a good reason[6] not just to move their money but also their domicile to Jersey.


[1] By full name: UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters

[2] Mainly from China, Brazil and India!  Still wondering why the banking heaven is one of the first nations to have a free-trade agreement with China?

[3] That’s not a joke. I grew up in such a municipality that until today has been fully autonomous – the village drunk being the mayor, the butcher environmental minister, the village eldest education minister etc…

[4] From 1000 litres of fuel oil per year compared to the same energy produced by the new pellet heating!
Compare this figure with a CO2 emission of 6’000kg per capita in Switzerland or your own country and note that my house in Switzerland already had a combined heating with firewood and oil, and that in the fifteen years since owning the house I have invested (on a voluntarily basis) over 60’000.- USD in insulation of walls, roof, new windows etc. I further didn’t own a car for the last twenty years and do most of my local travels walking, cycling or by public transport.

[5] Switzerland made reservation to the Aarhus Convention, namely as regards ionizing radiation. Those who read the link to Yuri’s blog above, know why.

[6] Assuming that measures such as a mandatory new heating for private households to reduce its environmental impacts must be based on principles of international law such as the Polluters Pays Principle and that the costs of investments should somehow be in a reasonable proportion to the benefits, Switzerland’s completely distorted perception of equality should soon be corrected.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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One Response to Tax evasion, environmental justice, and the right of some to be more equal than others

  1. Pingback: 2014 – The year of change? | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

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