The proposal for a ‘Green Economy’ was brought by the Swiss Green Party as popular initiative (referendum) for a constitutional change committing Switzerland to sustainable use of natural resources by 2050, enabled by a circular economy strategy. The strategy aimed to reducing the country’s ecological footprint by two-thirds through measures such as new product regulations, encouraging recycling, a new natural resource tax policy, and promotion of clean research and innovation. The government would be committed to define sustainability targets for the short and medium term, presenting a progress report every four years.
While claiming to share in the main aims of the initiative, the Swiss Government opposed the proposal, claiming it was not realistic achieve the stated aims by 2050 and preferring a more staggered approach giving the economy more time to adapt.
As the vote approached, polling showed a decline in support for the initiative and an emerging divide between men and women, with a clear majority of men against the proposal. Ultimately the proposal failed as Swiss voters rejected it by margin of almost 2/1, leaving Geneva the only canton the country to vote in favour of the initiative. Voters seemed reluctant to pay a perceived economic cost for greater ambition on greening their economy.
In response to the vote, Green Party President Regula Rytz said “Switzerland has missed its chance to make the country a world leader in ecological reforms to the economy,” maintaining that the green economy was the winner because “an important discussion about the future has begun”.
Swiss environment minister Doris Leuthard stood by the government’s position that the initiative called for too much too soon. “Switzerland can now follow its path to a sustainable economy without coercive measures, but with voluntary provisions to protect the environment and climate”, she said.
“ Switzerland has missed its chance to make the country a world leader in ecological reforms to the economy.”
What are the lessons?
The turn away from the initiative as Swiss centre-right politicians began to warn of the economic risks of the proposal show that most citizens still don’t trust left of centre groups to manage economic reform. Given the natural political position of green groups this poses a problem for the credibility of green economy initiatives.
There is scope to counter this weakness and buttress green economy proposals with stronger entrepreneurial support, but Swiss businesses were divided on the proposal - some vigorously opposed while others like IKEA championed a one-planet economy. Ensuring this community speaks as one in support of green economy is essential to secure political buy-in.
Another key constituency that could have been mobilised is the youth vote, who have greater engagement with green economy through awareness of climate change. Insufficient turnout by this group across Switzerland stymied the result – with youthful, cosmopolitan Geneva the only canton to support the Green Party initiative. This demonstrates the need for a green economy message that resonates with all young voters - who will live to see a sustainable 2050, or instead face the consequences.
Chris Hopkins, Green Economy Coalition
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