Saving the planet, locally – swi swissinfo.ch
As government officials and experts around the world at the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow push for breakthroughs to slow global warming, citizens of small towns in Switzerland are trying to find pragmatic climate solutions at the local level.
This content was published on November 3, 2021 – 09:00
For Mirjam Javet, piano teacher at a music school in Uster, a small town 20 kilometers south-east of Zurich, the invitation to participate in a citizens’ assembly on the climate came at the right time. She was one of 2,000 people drawn who received a letter last spring.
Sustainability had become a much bigger issue during the coronavirus pandemic, she explains. She wanted to make an impact in one way or another, but wasn’t drawn to politics. “Then this letter came floating in the house,” she said.
The local citizens’ assembly is an initiative launched by the municipality of Uster and is one of the first of its kind in Switzerland on the climate crisis. It took place over two weekends, during which participants produced a report with a series of local practical solutions.
The assembly is part of a global trend of local initiatives that aim to provide bottom-up feedback and realistic solutions to political and societal issues. Switzerland has already hosted similar initiatives such as “Citizen Forum“In Geneva and”DemoscanIn Sion.
Some citizens’ assemblies are also organized at the international level, bringing together voices from all over the world.
Assembly of World Citizens
Citizens’ assemblies are now trying to link global climate protection efforts to practical solutions. For the first time, a Global Citizens’ Assembly was organized alongside the UN Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
The assembly, which began its work on Oct. 7, aims to reflect global demographics: 60 of the 100 people are from Asia, 17 from Africa, half are women, and 70 are people earning $ 10 per day or less. All members receive financial compensation, technical support and translation. The selection process was done by lottery, in which 100 points were chosen at random from a map, taking into account land mass and population density.
The World Assembly is led by an international coalition of over 100 civil society organizations. On November 1, he presented his main findings: https://globalassembly.org/declarationExternal link. It is also closely linked to the COP26 process, where participants provide input to world leaders. The World Assembly receives funding from the Scottish government and the European Climate Foundation and is supported by the UK authorities and the UN.
End of insertion
For the first time this year, an assembly of global citizens has been created alongside a United Nations climate conference. It operates on the same model as the Uster initiative and has been operating since October 7.
Mobility, town planning and waste
Javet accepted the invitation to attend the Uster assembly as soon as she received the letter. It was again drawn in the second round. Over two weekends this fall, she met with 19 other randomly selected local citizens to discuss climate change and what the municipality could do to mitigate and solve the problem. It was a mixed group that included laborers, a schoolgirl, a student and a retiree.
After a series of presentations by experts and representatives of the business world and the climate strike movement, participants addressed topics such as mobility, urban planning and waste and consumption under the guidance of two moderators. . The distribution of tasks among the participants happened naturally. “Some liked to write, others were happy to talk,” says Javet.
Each of the recommendations made in their 15-page final report was voted on. They were marked by the assembly either as supported “unanimously”, “by a strong majority”, or by a “simple majority”. For example, sustainable construction initiatives – “if possible with recycled concrete and regional raw materials”, or the revegetation of facades and roofs – have all been approved.
The introduction of a 30 km / h speed limit on all roads within city limits was met with more skepticism, however, with seven votes against and 13 votes in favor.
The results of the citizens’ panel are not binding, but the city is strongly committed to implementing them. At the beginning of November, the assembly members will present their results at a public event. City Councilor Karin Fehr will then explain what the city intends to do.
Residents of Uster are also free to bring the measures into the local political process through other channels such as petitions and individual initiatives.
Have a say – and listen
For Javet, the intense debate on substantive issues was a new experience. “I got to stand up for my opinion and learned how important it is to listen,” she says. She was particularly impressed by the exchange with two young activists from the climate strike movement. The protesters are known to disrupt other public debates in Switzerland.
“The word ‘strike’ does not pass well,” admits Javet. But the conversation was positive and the climate protesters calmly answered all questions, she said. The two weekends were also lively. “There was no feeling of resignation, and the elderly were no less engaged,” she says.
Political scientist Andri Heimann, who works at the Center for Democracy in Aarau, part of the University of Zurich, was responsible for monitoring the Uster project. Heimann sees the citizens’ assembly as a useful instrument, even in a modern direct democracy like Switzerland, where citizens can get involved through binding initiatives and referendums. “They are another form of political participation,” he said.
Discussions between members of different groups, each drawn by lot, should be a welcome addition to the existing set of policy instruments. “A citizens’ assembly makes it possible to go beyond yes-no decisions and to negotiate the implementation of polarizing issues,” he says.
Heimann is convinced that this form of citizen participation is particularly suitable for tackling the climate debate.
“The problems are complex and there are no easy solutions. You can no longer solve them in your own silo, ”he says.
For the assembly of Uster, diversity was ensured thanks to a sophisticated process. Heimann assured that the participants came from different backgrounds, including age, gender, level of education and political beliefs.
Of the 2,000 people drawn in the first round, 129 volunteered to participate, or 6.5%. This is a low figure compared to the participation rate of 10 to 11% of other comparable projects in Switzerland.
But Uster did well by international standards, he insists. In most citizens’ assemblies organized around the world, participation rates vary between 1 and 4%.
The current citizens’ assembly of Uster has also benefited from the experience of Thalwil, another small town in the canton of Zurich. Two years ago, the Green Liberal Party launched the “Thalwil Climate Summit”, which was supported by six other local parties ranging from the left-wing Greens to the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. The meeting, attended by 60 people, including 50 local residents, resulted in more than 20 pages of climate recommendations. In Thalwil, people would also like to see more cyclists and a circular economy.
Strengthen climate protection
Discussions with citizens may not generate innovative ideas, but authorities may find out which measures have popular support, says Jessica Salminen, chair of the local Green Liberal Party and one of the organizers of the Thawil initiative. “You can’t expect a direct impact on CO2 emissions, it’s more about raising awareness,” she says.
“The impulses help the subsequent political implementation”, adds Jürg Stünzi, president of the Thalwil Greens. “It is about involving the population and legitimizing the measures put in place.
As a retired scientist who has often worked on sustainability issues, Stünzi knows that it can be difficult for non-experts to assess the usefulness of different measures. For example, a suggestion made two years ago was to improve rainwater filtration. “This is only feasible to a limited extent because our soils have a low absorption capacity,” he said.
Another obstacle can arise if the measures do not fall within the competence of the municipality. Many aspects of mobility, for example, are decided by cantonal authorities and the federal government, Salminen explains.
The Uster and Thalwil initiatives were nevertheless avant-garde means of involving the population in the fight against the climate crisis.
And other citizens’ assemblies on the climate are planned for next year in the canton of Zurich. The 16,000 inhabitants of Thalwil will once again be able to express their concerns with the 115,000 inhabitants of Switzerland’s sixth city, Winterthur.