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University of Basel

“Federal systems are experimental spaces for a sustainable state.”

A group talking about sustainable ideas.
How sustainable ideas are implemented in Swiss cantons depends substantially on structures and skillful actors. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Steps toward sustainability are an important topic for many administrations. How does “sustainabilization” work in the Swiss cantons? Marius Christen and Basil Bornemann from the University of Basel examined this question. They discuss their most important findings in this interview.

11 July 2023 | Noëmi Kern

A group talking about sustainable ideas.
How sustainable ideas are implemented in Swiss cantons depends substantially on structures and skillful actors. (Image: Adobe Stock)

What is the situation of the Swiss cantons when it comes to sustainability?

Marius Christen: Sustainability is a consideration in all the cantons. In some cantons, teams of five to ten people are responsible for sustainability, while in others a single individual handles sustainability as a secondary task along with their primary responsibilities. These differences lead to differences in the possibilities for action available to a canton. We call this “capacity for sustainability governance”. Cantons with a high capacity have an office that is responsible for sustainability. Networking and the development of expertise are also important factors: those responsible for sustainability participate in networking at national and intercantonal events. Many cantons also offer their staff continuing education opportunities in the area of sustainability.

Where does the incentive come from for administrations to improve sustainability?

Basil Bornemann: The initiative often arises from the government itself. But the interplay between state and society is central. An important question is whether the state and the government should be pioneers, or whether the mandate for change should come from politics and society. There are various viewpoints on this, even within the government itself. International engagement also comes with certain obligations; for example, Agenda 2030, which was adopted in Paris in 2015 and which Switzerland has ratified. Such bases for legitimacy are important. Together, they form an important orientational framework for administrative action.

How can one measure how sustainable an administration is? Are there surveys, such as of carbon offsetting measures, acreage dedicated to promoting biodiversity, or solar installations on public buildings?

Marius Christen: Factors such as these could certainly be evaluated, such as by using numbers from the federal government and the cantons. However, we examined sustainability governance, that is the structures, processes and practices to prepare and implement sustainable action.

What does that look like in concrete terms?

Marius Christen: To sum up, it’s about the potential for getting sustainable action off the ground. This is harder to measure or quantify. Some configurations lead to certain paths of action being taken or not. Does a canton have a sustainability office? Where is it located within the administration? Is it close to decision-making bodies, and do these bodies involve the sustainability office?

These kinds of institutions are important tools for moving in the direction of sustainability. If decision-makers allow room for change, something can happen. A consolidated and comprehensive understanding of sustainability within the administration forms the basis for further action. Our analysis also found that having a clear sustainability strategy is an important factor.

Is federalism an advantage when it comes to “sustainabilization” or would national solutions be better?

Basil Bornemann: Federal systems are experimental spaces. The cantons make use of this space and the cantonal offices exchange ideas and learn from one another. That is an advantage. Autonomy can also help when it comes to trying out new approaches – it provides potential for innovation. However, the cantons like to have guidelines from the federal government to orient themselves around. Additionally, the implementation of ideas can also happen at the municipal level. However, we did not examine that.

When it comes to voting on climate bills, there are generally differences between rural and urban areas. Is that also reflected in the administrations?

Basil Bornemann: We did not find any difference between urban and rural areas or between conservative and progressive political majorities. Historical circumstances are more decisive: those who started implementing the principles of sustainability early on are further along today.

Sustainability is also frequently driven forward by individual actors. They can make a difference, even in rather conservative cantons.

So a certain amount of random luck also plays a role?

Basil Bornemann: Exactly! This can be seen in the canton of Valais. In connection with its application for the Olympic Winter Games 2002, the canton committed itself to sustainability. A foundation created for this purpose has been promoting sustainability measures ever since, including in the cantonal government. Valais thus has a committed actor driving the sustainabilization of the administration from the outside.  That is unique in Switzerland in this form, and the canton of Valais comes out correspondingly well in our analysis.

Sustainability is often understood to be the same as ecology. Is that also the case in the administrations you examined?

Marius Christen: We found that the sustainability offices in general had a broad understanding of sustainability, covering the three pillars of ecology, economy and society. A wide variety of topics is also important, because it is easier for people to connect with than a purely ecological understanding of sustainability. But of course climate issues are a major factor. Their urgency is also an opportunity to try things out and disseminate them more widely.

About the projekt

The research project “Sustainabilization of the State – Forms, Functions and Formation of Sustainability Governance in Swiss Cantons” is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Through their analysis, the researchers hoped to learn whether and how the UN’s 2030 Agenda with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been incorporated into administrative actions.

The researchers looked at all 26 cantons, examining seven in detail. Along with their analysis of documents, the researchers conducted interviews with those who work in the cantonal administrations, in which they discussed transdisciplinary workshops, results and practical recommendations for action steps.

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