More green economy, less poverty

Friday, 20 April 2012

Article by Ambassador Franz Xaver Perrez, Head of the Swiss delegation at the Rio+20 Conference

We’ll happily embrace many of the vast number of Swiss clichés. After all, we’re not disputing the fact that the Swiss produce top-quality watches, chocolate and cheese. And we’re keen to associate reliability and punctuality with Swiss values. The Alps are indeed high (even though taller mountains do exist), and the air also lives up to expectations. Other clichés are rather more annoying and laughable. No, cuckoo clocks do not come from Switzerland. We don’t manufacture them, nor do we hang them on our walls. Everyone knows that Switzerland is an affluent country and plays an important role in the finance sector. However, fewer people realize that this prosperity is not just owing to the banks, but predominantly the country’s extremely strong industry sector. In this sense, Switzerland is a “normal” country. Perhaps somewhat more unusual is its success – and this is certainly not down to chance. In all rankings, Switzerland features among the most competitive and innovative nations.

The Swiss are committed to the concept of sustainability. They have for example one of the most dense public transport networks. They built two railway base tunnels (Lötschberg and Gotthard) through the Alps, creating a North-South axis through Europe and facilitating a sustainable European transport policy. Furthermore, Switzerland plans to discontinue nuclear energy production within the next two decades. Environmental awareness paired with innovative capacity mean that the Cleantech sector is currently developing at a faster rate in Switzerland than any other technology sector.

The concept of sustainability is entrenched in the Swiss Constitution in numerous ways and is not restricted to ecology. It calls for the reinforcement of common wellbeing and promotes sustainable development, internal cohesion and cultural diversity. It also strives to secure the long-term preservation of natural resources, and promote a just and peaceful world order.

Private sector and civil society commitment

Swiss companies are among the vanguard of corporations who have expressed a commitment to sustainable development. With nationwide industrial federations such as the Netzwerk für ökologisches Wirtschaften (Swiss Sustainable Business Network, Öbu), and swisscleantech, Switzerland has organizations that support and reinforce the private sector’s sustainability efforts. Many Swiss companies actively pursue sustainable products and production processes. For example, the biggest retailers are also the main promoters of sales of labelled products. By implementing voluntary measures under the Swiss CO2 law, Swiss companies are making an important contribution towards helping Switzerland achieve its climate protection goals. Most large Swiss companies have signed up to the United Nations Global Compact.

However, it should be noted that in absolute terms, the state of affairs in Switzerland is far from sustainable. This is illustrated first of all by the ecological footprint, which reminds us that Switzerland consumes almost three times the quantity of environmental facilities and resources as is globally sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, the rapidly growing requirements of countries in the South, especially emerging countries, are likely to sharpen conflicts over environmental goods and resources and further heighten the need for reduced consumption in countries like Switzerland. In the last twenty years, Switzerland has made significant advances towards sustainable development at an institutional level as well as in numerous political and social fields. However, there is still need for action on a variety of fronts.

The Swiss government implements sustainable development through regularly updated strategies. The Sustainable Development Strategy 2012-2015, which was adopted at the beginning of 2012 in connection with the Rio+20 Conference, includes the following measures:

CO2 emission regulations for cars: This measure stipulates a reduction in CO2 emissions for all new cars to approx. 130 g per kilometre by 2015 and is entrenched in the CO2 law. In the first year (2012), an average of 65% of the most efficient new cars per importer must achieve this target. If this is not the case, manufacturers and importers will be sanctioned. Any income from the sanction will be reimbursed to the general public.

EnergieSchweiz programme: EnergieSchweiz is the intervention programme for energy efficiency and renewable energies. The Confederation, cantons, municipalities, environmental and consumer organizations, and key economic players enter into partnerships and implement voluntary measures together. The goal is to increase the percentage share of renewable energies by at least 50% between 2011 and 2020.

Strengthening public transport: The appeal of public passenger transport and freight transport by rail should be heightened or at least remain the same. To achieve this goal, expansion projects must be fleshed out, long-term funding secured, non-discriminatory network access guaranteed in trans-European freight transport, and the road-to-rail shift target achieved.

Sustainable construction: The construction sector is of particular importance owing to annual investments of around CHF 57 billion. To promote the varied activities in the area of sustainable construction in a targeted manner, the Confederation procures construction work and buildings that meet extremely high economic, social and environmental requirements throughout their entire life cycle. It has a bearing on construction norms and regulations within the scope of its powers, and manages its extensive real estate portfolio according to sustainable development criteria.

Cleantech Master Plan: The Cleantech Master Plan for Switzerland is intended to boost the innovative capacity of the Swiss economy, in particular by bundling resources and improving coordination between the various players. Cantons, universities and the private sector are invited to implement the activities set out as recommendations in the Master Plan and coordinate them with the Confederation.

Social housing: The government specifically supports social housing developments by offering financial incentives for non-profit property developers who must, in return, fulfil high requirements with respect to ecological, energy efficient construction with easy access.

Combating poverty and promoting green economy: Switzerland has increased its share of public development assistance to 0.5% of gross domestic product. The main focus of its international commitment to developing/emerging countries is on combating poverty, in particular by fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals. A key aspect is supporting programmes for a green economy in the fields of sustainable agriculture and food security, water, energy, environment, climate protection and biodiversity.

Considerable progress made

Let’s talk about Rio: Both Brazil and Switzerland have come a long way since the first Rio Conference 20 years ago. Brazil has taken crucial steps away from poverty. Switzerland, too, has faced up to its obligations and firmly embarked upon the path to sustainability. Switzerland is taking part in the Rio+20 Conference for Sustainable Development out of principle. This Conference is a major, rare opportunity to strengthen international cooperation in the area of sustainability.

Switzerland’s focus is on specific goals and resolutions pertaining to green economy and governance as well as their implementation. In accordance with the “Brundtland definition”, Switzerland is calling for development that guarantees the needs of today’s generation will be met without jeopardizing the opportunities of future generations to satisfy their own needs. People’s livelihoods should be secured under fair conditions. Precedence is given to meeting basic needs, particularly those of the poorest.

Green economy as a contribution to sustainable development

Switzerland welcomes the fact that the restructuring of the economy and practical integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development are on the agenda in Rio. “Green economy” represents an economic system that continues to provide goods and services for profit. However, this should take place using significantly less resources and energy, and with a reduced environmental impact. Among other things, Switzerland also wants the external costs of environmental damage to be reflected in the price of products, thus creating incentives for clean production. At the same time, attention must be given to social justice, as it is not possible to achieve sustainable growth without striking a social balance.

However, the government not only intends to make green economy demands on others, but also in its own country. The 2012-2015 Sustainable Development Strategy sets store by this. It includes a set of green economy measures agreed in autumn 2010. The intention here is to increase the efficiency of information and communication technologies, improve information on the environmental impact of products, avoid false incentives by making the tax system more environmentally friendly, and integrating environmental information into the measurement of wellbeing, for instance.