“There’s no cost
transparency when it
comes to natural resources”

Journalist: Simon Eppenberger | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazin: Grüne Chance – November 2021

She views the economy as one pillar of a successful, long-term environmental strategy: Katrin Schneeberger, Director of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), on the topic of importing pollution and the opportunities that sustainability offers Switzerland.

With Vision 2030, the Federal Council has set its sights high when it comes to protecting nature and the environment. The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) plays a key role in implementing this vision. What’s at the heart of it all?

We’re pursuing a vision focused on preserving an intact habitat. By this, we mean an environment where we don’t consume more natural resources than can be renewed. Biodiversity, in particular, needs to be resilient. We also want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect the climate. Natural and technical risks should be sustainable as well.

“If everybody in the world lived like we do in Switzerland, we’d need three Earths.”

A number of laws and measures have been put in place to achieve this, like the CO2 levy. What other measures are effective in promoting sustainability in Switzerland?

There are a variety of measures. Subsidies are a useful tool, as are incentive taxes. There are also voluntary industry agreements in place, through which companies commit to operating sustainably. Monitoring and research are important as well for evidence-based action, in Switzerland and beyond. After all, environmental problems are a global issue. That’s why Switzerland plays an active part in international negoti­ations.

The Federal Office for the ­Environment (FOEN) implements the environmental policies of the Federal Council. It ensures the sustainable use of natural resources such as biodiversity, soil, water, air, forests and freedom from noise, and promotes the recycling of resources (circular economy). Among other things, the FOEN is responsible for climate protection, preserving biodiversity and the quality of landscapes, as well as international environmental policy. Its annual budget is approximately 1.6 billion Swiss francs, around 87% of which goes towards subsidies and incentive taxes. Around 600 people work for the FOEN.


Can the general public be made more conscious of sustainability?

It’s possible to make changes. For example, we’ve discovered that teaching children about recycling from pre-school age onwards has a positive impact. Then they go home and tell their parents over the dinner table about how waste needs to be separated. This makes recycling work better. Sometimes it’s better for children to tell adults what to do instead of the government.

How can you get companies to act sustainably?

A lot of companies have already committed to using resource-efficient processes and environmentally friendly business models. Doing this is also in their own interest in order to remain competitive in the future. We give them a framework to work with and tell them about the most important challenges we’ll be facing in the future, for example by pursuing a long-term climate strategy. That means companies can plan and operate sustainably. What’s also important here is promoting innovation, research and technology, and supporting companies during the transition from the research and development stage to products being launched on the market. And last but not least, the federal government plays a leading role in sustainable procurement.

What do you consider to be the greatest challenges when it comes to sustainability?

We’re clearly living beyond our means. Our lifestyles require far more resources than the planet can sustainably provide. If everybody in the world lived like we do in Switzerland, we’d need three Earths. Changing this is the biggest challenge we face.

How can we change this?

It requires a wide range of measures. One problem is the lack of cost transparency. The cost of natural resources doesn’t reflect their true value, so they’re overused.

Katrin Schneeberger (55) was brought up in Bern, where she went to school and then completed a degree in economic geography. After completing her PhD and spending a year studying sociology in the United Kingdom, she became head of the Mobile Society unit at the Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS in Bern before becoming Secretary General of the Directorate of Civil Engineering, Transport and Green Spaces of the City of Bern. She also spent eight years working for the Federal Roads Office (FEDRO), first as Deputy Director and then as Assistant Director. Since September 2020 she has been Director of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). She lives together with her partner in Bern.

What topics are particularly relevant to you at the moment?

The most important topics are climate change, the circular economy and biodiversity loss. In fact, biodiversity will be the next big topic, along with climate change.

Why is biodiversity so important for us as a society?

The various ecosystems, which encompass a multitude of plants and animals as well as their habitats, are pivotal to life in general while also laying the foundation for both economic and social stability. The more diverse an ecosystem, the more resilient it is. This resilience is in jeopardy.

What should we do about it?

First, we have to create an awareness of the gradual loss of biodiversity. Describing the problem in a way that people can easily understand and effecting real change is therefore much more complicated than with climate change. Everybo­dy understands that we want to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. These kinds of feasible goals are import­ant. In terms of biodiversity, governments are currently talking about the ‘30 by 30’ goal: 30% of the world’s land and oceans should be set aside for the preservation of biodiversity by 2030.

“The issue of how our consumption impacts the environment abroad is extremely important.”

Which are the most important natural resources in Switzerland, and what should our approach to them be?

Like I said, we can’t live without natural resources. Healthy and varied biodiversity is pivotally important for life itself. The most important thing is water. While Switzerland is in a good position in terms of its water reserves, there’s still work to do in terms of water quality. The ground, on the other hand, is densely populated and used intensively. You also need clean air. We can use these resources and we need to protect them, which is why we have to move away from end-of-pipe solutions.

What does that involve?

We should think ahead and prevent pollution from occurring in the first place, rather than having to combat it after the fact. When it comes to noise, for example, we need to reduce it at the source, instead of trying to use complex noise abatement measures to shield people against traffic noise.

Isn’t a lot of damage already irreversible?

Problems do exist, but in many areas we’re on the right track. Our monitoring shows that we’ve made major strides over the last 20 years when it comes to air pollution. The same is true for our rivers: people now swim in the Aare River in Bern. This would have been unthinkable back in the 1970s, because the water used to be full of foam. We need to have a clear idea of how to move forward in the battle against climate change and in protecting biodiversity.

What opportunities do you see in successful sustainable development?

Ultimately, it’s about preserving natural resources for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. For the economy, this is an opportunity and a growth market all over the world, with one example being the field of cleantech. As a champion of innovation, this also benefits Switzerland.

How much of a priority should sustainability be for CEOs and business leaders?

For me it belongs at the core of every strategy and should be embedded at company management level. When sustainability becomes relevant from a financial perspective, then it becomes a priority for companies. This is also evident in the fact that a lot of companies have created the position of Chief Sustainability Officer.

In your opinion, what role can the economy and companies themselves play in the successful transition to a more sustainable world?

Alongside society and the environment, the economy is one of the pillars of sustainability. It generates innovations and drives technology forward. As a result, companies have a major role to play.

What does this mean in particular for Swiss companies, which often operate outside Switzerland?

Three quarters of Swiss citizens’ total impact on the environment is caused abroad. This makes the international context and the issue of environmental impact caused abroad by our consumption very important. Companies are responsible for their supply chains, but also for their exports. This applies to all companies and in particular big companies with headquarters in Switzerland. Because like I said, environmental problems don’t
just stop at the borders.

To what extent can consumer demand influence sustainable production?

Consumers do have a responsibility and can bring about change. People’s lives can be broken down into three areas: mobility, housing and diet. We decide how we move about and what kind of vehicle we buy. When it comes to housing, we can decide how much space we use and how much energy we consume. And when it comes to eating, we can keep our food waste to a minimum, and buy local and seasonal products. In more general terms, I think it’s important to look for products with a long lifespan and to think and act in terms of the circular economy where possible.

Katrin Schneeberger – In the spotlight

What achievements do you want to be able to look back on in 30 years?
We want to have reduced carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. I’d be very happy if we managed to achieve that and we were no longer producing any net greenhouse gas emissions in Switzerland.

Where do you think is the most beautiful place in the world?
There’s no single most beautiful place. The most beautiful place is wherever I’m in good company, either with family or friends.

What do you enjoy doing to recharge your batteries?
Playing sport, eating a good meal, spending time in the great outdoors at the weekend – or in a major city with culture.

What kind of things get you thinking?
The way in which we’re so reckless with our environment and how people are insincere.

What advice do you have for the next generation?
Being dedicated to your own cause is worth it – the same as how it’s worth staying true to yourself and your convictions.

What have you learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic?
That you should never have a false sense of security. And there are two sides to everything: The pandemic was and still is a huge crisis for us all. At the same time, emergencies make people flexible and inventive, encourage creativity and create potential for new things.