"We’re on the right path, but the pace is still too slow"

The United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, and Switzerland is also committed to the 17 declared goals. Daniel Dubas, Federal Council delegate for Agenda 2030, explains why we are a “developing country”, what challenges we must overcome, and what role research plays in this.

Daniel Dubas: In terms of sustainability, every country in the world is actually a “developing country”. This applies even to Switzerland, despite its high standard of living – or perhaps precisely because of it. The problem here is that we have high levels of consumption – our consumption of energy and resources is enormous, so consequently we have a large carbon footprint. Likewise, the scale of biodiversity loss in Switzerland is also cause for concern. In other words, there is a need for action in many areas. To overcome global challenges, all countries must meet their responsibilities – it’s vital that we look both within and outside our national borders, and strive for joint solutions. Agenda 2030 takes account of this by addressing both domestic and foreign policy issues.

Agenda 2030 was adopted by the United Nations in 2015. We’re now at the halfway point. How are we doing in terms of reaching the goals?

In the first few years, significant progress was achieved around the world in areas such as hunger, health and equal opportunities. However, the Covid-19 pandemic thwarted some of that progress and set many countries back in their efforts, especially in the Global South. In Switzerland, we were in a stronger starting position to tackle this crisis. Although Covid-19 forced us to slow down somewhat on Agenda 2030, we’ve been able to make progress on most of the goals – for example, on resource efficiency. Overall, Switzerland is on the right path, but the pace is still too slow. It is imperative that we speed up the transformation towards sustainable systems.

What progress has Switzerland made on the goals relating to water usage and water protection?

We’re doing well in terms of drinking water supply and sewage disposal, but nowhere near as well when it comes to the water quality of bodies of water. Many Swiss rivers are highly polluted along certain stretches, primarily due to fertilisers and pesticide residues from agriculture. In order to improve this situation, we need to resolve the conflicting aims of agriculture and environmental protection. Another point that’s often overlooked is that our responsibility for water consumption and the pollution of bodies of water extends beyond our own borders. In fact, Switzerland’s water footprint abroad is enormous – for example, we import products such as avocados or beef that are produced using large quantities of water in regions that are often already arid. A considerable proportion of the water we consume indirectly is used and polluted elsewhere. These “spillover effects” also occur in other areas, such that three quarters of our ecological footprint and two thirds of our carbon footprint occur abroad.

Our consumption makes it harder for other countries to become more sustainable. How does Switzerland rise to this responsibility abroad?

Switzerland has built up considerable expertise and experience across many different fields. For instance, it actively participates in numerous international cooperation programmes dedicated to supporting affected countries in both public and private sectors. It’s also important for Swiss companies to operate responsibly throughout the supply chain both in Switzerland and abroad – specifically in terms of working conditions, human rights and the environment.

Is it even possible to measure sustainable development?

Measurability is an important issue – and not always an easy one to address. In principle, it is certainly possible to measure the various aspect of sustainable development, and the UN has defined numerous indicators for all of the goals. Switzerland is very conscious of the importance of data and statistics, which is why the Swiss government collaborated with the UN to organise the UN World Data Forum in Bern in 2021 with a view to improving global data collection and analysis in relation to Agenda 2030. For many years, Switzerland has had an indicator system known as MONET 2030, which the Federal Statistical Office uses to demonstrate sustainable development, as well as the Cercle Indicateurs system of indicators for cantons and cities.

It is thanks to the participation of Swiss researchers that “Clean Water and Sanitation” was formulated as an SDG in its own right. Shown here: Eawag’s Autarky handwashing station undergoing field testing in South Africa (Photo: Autarky, Eawag).

What do you believe are the biggest challenges when it comes to achieving these goals by 2030?

At the global level, we need to build new momentum when it comes to implementing Agenda 2030 after the Covid-19 slowdown. The UN’s SDG Summit this September will seek to strengthen the member countries’ commitment and facilitate the necessary transformations. Almost all of the countries have already drafted one or more country reports on the implementation of Agenda 2030 and have shown progress in this area. Nevertheless, there’s little chance of achieving the goals on a global scale by 2030. Events such as the Ukraine war, which has had a profound impact on food supplies in the Global South as well as on energy supplies worldwide, are making it much harder to achieve the goals. Peace is a key prerequisite for sustainable development.

And what are the prospects for Switzerland?

I think the biggest challenge for Switzerland is to reconcile the different interests of stakeholders and establish a coordinated approach by politicians and the authorities at all levels of the state, as well as in collaboration with industry, society and research. All sectors need to ask themselves how they can contribute to Agenda 2030. We need to have a more systematic and ambitious approach towards the objectives, and drive forward the process (which is, after all not only a political, but also a societal process) in a multi-disciplinary and cross-party manner. Equal consideration must be given to economics, environmental responsibility and social solidarity.

You mentioned the conflicting aims of environmental protection and economic considerations – but measures aimed at greater sustainability in the handling of natural resources can also be seen as an opportunity for the economy.

Absolutely. We can see this very clearly in the example of the circular economy: measures such as an extended product life or the retrieval of materials like phosphorus from sewage sludge help to conserve not only environmental but also financial resources. This is beneficial for the environment, for companies and – last but not least – for society.

Nevertheless, political discourse is dominated by the conflicting aims. Why is it so difficult to leverage potential synergies?

Leveraging synergies between industry and environmental protection requires us to take a holistic, systemic view – which quickly becomes very complicated. One example are the sustainable nutrition systems described by the Federal Council in its Action Plan for the 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy. A sustainable nutrition system means producing healthy and balanced food under fair conditions and with the lowest possible energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, we need to protect the soil, promote biodiversity and reduce food waste. To take all of these aspects into account, it’s important to understand how they are interrelated and interact with one another. We need a systemic understanding in order to solve these problems and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

What role does research play in all of this?

A hugely important one. In the negotiations surrounding Agenda 2030, Swiss researchers were closely involved in the process alongside the federal government. For example, it is essentially thanks to their involvement that “Clean Water and Sanitation” was formulated as a goal in its own right. All Swiss research institutions have incorporated Agenda 2030 into their programmes as a guiding principle. Here, the key task for science is not only to develop the aforementioned systemic understanding, but also to convey this understanding and highlight practical approaches to solutions. It’s very important that there be a dialogue between researchers and stakeholders from politics, administration, private enterprise, civil society and the general public. To this end, it’s essential to reinforce what is known as science policy – the interfaces between science and all other sectors. This is the only way to translate scientific findings into action and achieve sustainable development.


Daniel Dubas studied political science and urban development at the University of Lausanne. He is head of the Sustainable Development Section at the Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE) and has been Federal Council delegate for Agenda 2030 since 2019. He has also been President of the European Sustainable Development Network (ESDN) since 2022.

Created by Isabel Plana for the Info Day Magazine 2023