Dependency has made us vulnerable – Simonetta Sommaruga
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Dependency has made us vulnerable – Simonetta Sommaruga

Her top priority is ensuring a secure electricity supply. Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications, shares her views on Switzerland's main worries.

Interview: Manuel Rybach

Manuel Rybach: Madame Federal Councillor, after a long absence from the list (since 1990), this year the main worry of the Swiss population relates to environmental protection and climate change. Did you expect to see this topic at the top of the list? After all, there was quite some competition for number one this year.

Simonetta Sommaruga: We are experiencing the consequences of climate change directly. In early summer, we saw extremely high temperatures, followed by several heatwaves. There is also the lack of precipitation. The glaciers are melting very quickly. All this is not a one-off phenomenon: it is the continuation of a long-term trend. And it shows that we need to step up climate protection. With the new CO2 Act, which the Federal Council presented in September, we can halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

Pension reform adopted: the issue of AHV and retirement provision has consistently been among the top three worries of Swiss voters for more than ten years now. In September, the Swiss electorate voted by a narrow margin in favour of reforms to stabilise the pension system. How can we keep this majority for future reforms of the intergenerational contract?

AHV – the first pillar of retirement provision – is also the most important. On 25 September, the people voted Yes to the proposal of the Federal Council and Parliament. However, it is now very important for women in particular that we finally improve their situation in the second pillar, because women, and all low-income workers in general, are the most disadvantaged under the current regulations.

The war in Ukraine is only in eighth place. Are you surprised that this worry was not ranked higher? 

The attack by Russia affects Ukraine and neighbouring countries, such as Poland, more directly than it does Switzerland. But the war has also triggered an energy crisis, and we are feeling the consequences of that now in Switzerland as well. Russia is not only waging a military war, but is intentionally using its raw materials as a weapon. This is why we must rapidly reduce our dependency on foreign oil and gas. This dependency has made us vulnerable. We must therefore press ahead quickly with the expansion of our domestic renewable energies.

As you just mentioned, the global energy crisis also affects Switzerland. This is further evidenced by the fact that worries about energy rank third among Swiss citizens. As head of DETEC, what measures do you plan to use to secure the energy supply? And how does this relate to this year's top worry, environmental protection and climate change? 

Supplies have become more uncertain since Russia stopped delivering gas. And the fact that more than half of the nuclear power stations in France have been shut down for almost a year is adding to the concern. For this reason, the Federal Council quickly adopted measures to protect the energy supply. These include, for example, the hydropower reserve, the mobile turbines in Birr (canton of Aargau) and the energy-saving campaign. In addition, the Federal Council is requiring the gas industry to secure additional gas and storage capacities. These reserves and backups are not taking effect in some distant future but right away this coming winter. The Federal Council has done a great deal to ensure that the country is well prepared for the winter. 
Ensuring a secure electricity supply has been my top priority since I took over the department. To this end, I submitted the Federal Act on a Secure Electricity Supply from Renewable Energy Sources to Parliament, where it is currently being debated. First and foremost, we must produce more electricity, store more electricity, and waste less energy – especially in winter. I am glad that Parliament is now keen to push forward with the bill too. In this way, we can further protect the energy supply. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and potential energy shortages: Switzerland has now been in crisis mode for more than two years. What lessons has the Federal Council and your department learned so far as to how Switzerland should prepare for future challenges?

The past few years have left their mark on us. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were so many unknowns. There was little information about the virus, and decisions had to be made quickly. The current situation with the war in Europe also brings uncertainty. No one knows what will happen next. But we do know one thing: the Federal Council has worked very hard in the last few months to strengthen the energy supply of our country as much as possible. My experience as President of the Swiss Confederation during the refugee crisis of 2015 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 helps me stay calm and tackle the issues at the same time. Switzerland will be strong if we work together. 

We have talked about some of the main worries of the population. Do you share these worries, and do you think there are other important problem areas that we have not yet mentioned?

During a crisis, there is much we cannot take for granted. Health, security, enough electricity – things that have always been there may be limited or may become scarce. This can weigh heavily on us. The fact that rising prices mean less money for basic needs and a higher cost of living is undoubtedly a concern shared by many. I take these worries very seriously, and a working group of the federal government is investigating possible measures. Clearly, we have to find solutions for cases of hardship. 

Let's take a mental leap into the future: which topic do you hope will have completely disappeared from the Worry Barometer in five years?

I hope that the war in Ukraine will end quickly. In the West, most people assumed that such a thing was no longer possible in Europe. But now we know differently. We must therefore remain vigilant and stand behind our values – human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and solidarity. The war has also demonstrated the importance of strengthening domestic energy resources. I am confident that we will pick up the pace here. We must also do so in order to curb climate change. Much as I would like this issue to disappear soon, it's unlikely that it will.

In closing, I'd like to ask a personal question: how do you deal with worries yourself, and what advice can you give people when it comes to handling current and future problems?

We can look to the future with confidence in Switzerland. There are so many committed people in our country, especially young people, who want to get involved. Our rail, bus, postal and telecommunications services work well, even in times of crisis. For me personally, the end of October was a turning point in my life. It made me realise that after 12 years of working full time as a federal councillor, I now want to set other priorities in my life. In such situations it is always important to listen to your heart and mind – they are your best counsel.