Interview with Arctic Council Observer: Switzerland

06 July 2020
Switzerland has had Observer status in the Arctic Council since 2017. As an Observer, Switzerland can contribute to the Arctic Council through meeting attendance, providing scientific expertise to Working Groups, project proposals and financial contribution (not to exceed financing from Arctic States, unless otherwise decided by the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials) and statements.

We spoke with Ambassador Stefan Estermann, Head of the Sectoral Foreign Policies Division for Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, about Switzerland’s interest in the Arctic, the country’s research focuses and its key actors that engage in Arctic work.

What is Switzerland’s interest in the Arctic region?

Although a landlocked country in the heart of Europe, Switzerland stands at the forefront of polar research. Mostly because of the ice and snow that our country harbors naturally, many Swiss researchers have demonstrated a strong interest in the exploration of the cryosphere on a global scale for many decades, in particular in high altitude. Research on permafrost, ice and glaciers started in Switzerland and many scientific methods or instruments have been developed in the Swiss Alps. This research interest dates back to the 19th century. Since then, Swiss scientists have been deeply involved in international cooperation in the two poles, as well as in a third one: the Swiss Alps.

Bringing together high altitude with high latitude, scientific collaborations primarily focus on climate conditions and ecosystems in mountain and polar regions to measure the impact of human-induced changes on the environment and the global climate. We do have an interest, as a small but internationally active country, that the Arctic remains a peacefully managed space, open for scientific research for the benefit of all.

How do you work with the Arctic Council to tackle pressing issues in the Arctic?

First, it is very interesting to listen to the Arctic countries and listen to the Council's Indigenous Permanent Participants; the problems they face in the Arctic, how they see Arctic development - that is very important for us, just to listen, to become more knowledgeable about the challenges in the Arctic.

In 2017, our country obtained the status of Observer to the Arctic Council. This status acknowledges Switzerland’s Arctic interests and expertise to engage with the Arctic Council in peaceful international cooperation with a particular goal: to advance scientific knowledge and limit the environmental and socio-economic impact of changes in the Arctic. Being part of the Arctic Council is a way to recognize the work of our scientists in the field of polar and high-altitude research. Over the past decade, Swiss researchers have participated in several international Arctic projects involving multiple Arctic States and Observers.

Since Switzerland was granted the status of Observer, we have attended every Council meeting. In addition, one of the most important elements is the participation of our scientists and experts in the Council’s Working Groups– such as the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) and the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) –, and expert groups – such as the AMAP Expert Group on Short-Lived Climate Forcers. We are looking forward to intensifying our engagement in these various Arctic Council bodies.

Finally, we strongly believe that a pressing issue in Switzerland and beyond is to raise awareness about the polar and high-altitude regions and the challenges that they already face.

What Arctic Council projects are you currently working on?

As already mentioned, Swiss experts regularly contribute to the various groups of the Arctic Council. We are ensuring that we are able to secure these participations and are always exploring new possibilities to contribute to the Arctic Council’s work. Switzerland's commitment allows for a better understanding of the main challenges, particularly in relation to climate change, and thus promotes dialogue between science and diplomacy.

Indeed, Switzerland is currently working on a “Swiss Polar White Paper”. Overall, this document is a further confirmation of Switzerland's multilateral commitment to a stable planet, be it in the geopolitical, climatic or the human dimension. Moreover, the White Paper will aim to institutionalize and acknowledge the long-lasting work of Swiss research institutions already active in the Arctic. In its typical bottom-up approach, Switzerland endeavors to support existing scientific initiatives by providing a clear political framework.

Switzerland has also intensified its commitment in the field of cryosphere. The latest cryosphere science shows that delayed emission reductions and temperature “overshoot” scenarios can trigger changes in the global cryosphere and global feedback processes that may be rapid and – more seriously – irreversible. Due to its long and extensive experience in polar and glaciological research, Switzerland is in a unique and privileged position to illustrate the global importance of the cryosphere. Together with partner countries and organizations – most of them from the Arctic Council – Switzerland can thus establish an operational and practical link between science and the political decision-making process regarding climate action and multilateral negotiations.

Who are the key actors in Switzerland engaging in Arctic Council work?

Switzerland's involvement in the Arctic is part of its foreign policy objectives. The participation in the Arctic Council is coordinated by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), in collaboration with other ministries, in particular with the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) and the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC).

Research and politics must work hand in hand together and a regular dialogue with research institutions is as necessary as it is important.

The Swiss Committee on Polar and High Altitude Research (SCPHAR) of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences acts as the exchange and coordination platform for Swiss scientists at various international research institutions, and coordinates participation in the scientific work of the Arctic Council, the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Climate and Cryosphere project of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP).

The profound knowledge of Swiss scientists in glaciology finds its hallmark in many international research projects such as the long-lasting project by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is investigating the impact of climate change on the Greenland ice sheet. The test site, at “Swiss Camp” is used to calibrate the ice sheet’s 20 automatic weather stations that deliver data for the Greenland Climate Network (GC-Net).

Switzerland has a dense network of research teams working on Arctic-related topics. The Swiss Polar Institute, founded in 2016 by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), acting as Leading House, WSL, ETHZ, the University of Bern and the University of Lausanne – and by Editions Paulsen aims to support the Swiss Polar community with dedicated funding, create new opportunities and synergies through own expeditions or international collaborations.

To learn more about the role of Observers and the criteria for admission, click here. You can learn more about the past and ongoing work of Arctic Council Observers through their activity reports and reviews.