“Political polarization won’t help us progress on the 2030 Agenda”

Switzerland presented to the United Nations its Country Report 2018 on progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But the document met with harsh criticism within Switzerland: NGOs in particular are disappointed and have issued a parallel report of their own. CDE Director Peter Messerli, science representative in the advisory group to the official report, on missed opportunities – but also on positive developments in sustainability issues in Switzerland.
Peter Messerli
CDE Director Peter Messerli. ©Keystone / Alessandro della Valle


Interview: Gaby Allheilig

The Swiss Federal Council has published the Country Report on progress towards the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Challenges mentioned in the report include our excessive resource use as well as equal pay across the board for men and women. But on the whole, the government seems quite satisfied with Switzerland’s path towards sustainable development. Do you share this opinion?  

The 2030 Agenda poses two key challenges for all countries, including Switzerland. First, we must “reinvent” prosperity. It must be justly distributed – to include all people – and stay within the ecological limits of our planet. Second, we must stop thinking of states in territorial terms. Because today everything is globally linked, from the production of goods and services to consumption, information – and also migration. Switzerland is still far from its goal in both challenges. We cannot be satisfied if we limit ourselves to listing sectoral progress and periodically addressing certain issues. The Country Report by the Federal Council lacks this commitment to an integral vision and shows no options for action.


“We have many policies whose respective goals are in conflict with one another.”


What do you see as the key points that Switzerland must tackle?

First, we would need the 2030 Agenda to be anchored differently at the political level – at a central place, to enable us to identify the conflicts of interest that need resolving. Second, funding is needed to implement this. And finally, we need the will to ensure the coherence of the different sectoral policies. Because we have many policies whose respective goals are in conflict with one another. These must be named and tackled – whether they are in the fields of agriculture, migration, or education policy, to name just a few.

If we take the example of agriculture: There are popular votes coming up in Switzerland calling for a more sustainable policy on agriculture. But in the Country Report, the agricultural sector is specifically held up as a positive example of Swiss policy on sustainability issues. What does that mean?

Switzerland has certainly made progress in its agricultural policies. We have, for example, managed to maintain a diverse and spatially finely-structured agriculture. Another advantage is the will to be ecologically oriented. But at the same time, we don’t talk about how much land, water, and energy we use in other parts of the world to produce our food and drink. Or how we behave as consumers. We do not ask what jobs we are creating with our trade agreements in Asia or what consequences our policy of promoting exports has on Africa. We do not take responsibility there. But these aspects are also a part of our agricultural policy. In short: If we think of everything only within Swiss borders and in sectoral silos such as “agriculture”, we cannot achieve policy coherence.


“Switzerland does not live up to its international reputation in this respect.”


As a representative of science, you participated in the advisory group to the Country Report. The NGOs are upset that hardly any of this work flowed into the official report. What omission is most striking to you?

This laborious two-year process is not reflected in the Country Report. This bothers me as someone who was involved in this process, but also for the following reason: Switzerland does not live up to its international reputation here – its reputation as a role model in inclusive, participatory processes. Many will be disappointed by this.

Why is that so important?

It has to do with the quality of the process that took place. It was a controlled process based on knowledge and consensus. It was important to us to make this process fact-based, to bridge deadlocks and reach common positions. And that is precisely what we succeeded in as a group, together with the Federal Offices involved: Based on competences and knowledge, we identified the sustainable development challenges facing Switzerland. We then created a catalogue of options for action, by organizations ranging from economiesuisse to Pro Natura to Caritas.


“The advisory group has spearheaded the process the 2030 Agenda needs.”


These positions are neither to the right nor to the left of the spectrum, neither friendly nor hostile to businesses. They simply show what Switzerland needs to work towards, to achieve a good future. For me, this is exactly the process that the 2030 Agenda needs, and it was spearheaded by the advisory group. What happened in this little laboratory is exemplary for the larger scale.

Is there still a second chance after the Federal Council’s report?

Absolutely! We must build on this successful process. It may go against the current grain, but there is no way around it: We need dialogue and consensus. Political polarization and lobbying will not help us progress on the 2030 Agenda.

You yourself see the 2030 Agenda as a great opportunity to shape globalization positively. Why?

The voices that say we can stop or undo globalization – for example by closing borders – are active worldwide. We have got to take this tendency very seriously. It reinforces the urgency to show that globalization can also be shaped differently than before. Through the 2030 Agenda we have shown the will and created an instrument to actually speak about the links between the various sectors, between the different regions of the world, between North and South. For me this is a source of hope.


“Changing prosperity should not be seen as a sacrifice: Instead, it is about developing and using creative potential.” 


First, this has put the big and important questions on the table. And second, we now see that we are not only facing challenges: We have also come across numerous synergy opportunities that have not yet been used to shape sustainable development.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

In the past 30 years there has always been the one, same sequence for sustainable development: First, you have to boost the economy. When you have done that, you look at the social aspects and then maybe still the environment. But if we tackle it all systemically, we see that there are many other paths. Paths we have never thought of before. Promoting education, for example, may induce a much greater chain reaction in the whole system – i.e. of economic, social, and environmental aspects – than if you only focus on the economy.

Does that mean: The time of absolute economic primacy is over?

If the overarching goal is to create wealth for all people on Earth while respecting nature and the resources available, then the economy and its growth can no longer be an end in itself. Then it is a means to reach the goal. If we are willing to admit this, we are free to think about the economy – and not just about wealth. What role must it play and what new role can it take on? Where people live in poverty economic growth is certainly still required. In other places it is about maintaining the level of prosperity reached and modifying it to make it environmentally friendly and just. This should not be seen as a sacrifice, but it means that we must develop and use creative potential.

“Switzerland’s Country Report 2018” on implementation of the 2030 Agenda

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2015 and must be implemented nationally. Each country has the task of presenting a status report to the UN on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The country reports cover progress made, challenges, and plans to tackle these challenges. In Switzerland, an advisory group of stakeholders from business, science, and civil society was set up to ensure effective cooperation with the public sector. Following a broad-based consultation, the federal administration and the advisory group presented an 80-page input (“Baseline assessment of Switzerland serving as basis for the country report 2018”) to the Federal Council. On 20 June 2018, the Federal Council published “Switzerland’s Country Report 2018”. It showed that the influence of the advisory group had been modest. Platform Agenda 2030, a coalition of Swiss NGOs, trade unions, and actors from civil society, published its own, parallel report (“How sustainable is Switzerland?”) at the start of July. The stakeholder advisory group commented on 13 July.