Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga ends her virtual working visit to California: ‘An alternative that makes sense’

Bern, 25.06.2021 - Federal Councillor and DETEC head Simonetta Sommaruga went on a virtual trip to California from 21 to 24 June 2021. This trip was made possible thanks to modern communication technologies. Climate, energy and transportation were the main focal points of this visit, which included all of typical features of a conventional trip. Ms Sommaruga visited a train assembly plant and observed the effects of climate change on nature in California. By and large, she was very satisfied with the virtual experience: the test run was successful. In the future, this climate-friendly means of travelling could become a viable option for certain destinations.

The idea behind this novel approach germinated during the corona period, when many conversations were held online instead of face-to-face. Federal Councillor Sommaruga wanted to deepen the experience gained and explore the extent to which virtual trips can complement or even replace conventional ones. ‘Visiting a city or a country in this way saves time and protects the environment,’ the head of DETEC explained. The flight time alone from Switzerland to San Francisco and back would have been nearly 24 hours. Thanks to modern means of communication, she was able to gain realistic insights into the local situation, visit companies, take part in discussions and take a virtual walk through nature, just as she would have done on a conventional trip: ‘So many things are possible, even from a distance,’ she said. Admittedly, there were also certain limitations: ‘Private discussions were not possible. Also, when conflicts arise, people need to be able to look each other directly in the eye.’

California: overcoming the climate crisis through ingenuity and private-sector commitment 
The working visit was mainly focused on climate change, which has affected California to a larger extent than Switzerland. As a case in point, the US state is suffering from increasingly prolonged periods of drought, which leads to water shortages and crop losses in agriculture. Recurring forest and wildfires are also devastating ecosystems and endangering the population. Federal Councillor Sommaruga learned about these consequences of climate change during a virtual tour of Napa Valley, which is known for the quality of its wines. Swiss winegrower Christina Lüscher, who emigrated to California, described on video the extent of last year's fires. Lüscher's winery narrowly escaped the flames. Drone footage provided a bird's eye view of the area. Federal Councillor Sommaruga then took part in a discussion with winegrowers and climate experts on ways to ensure the future of winegrowing despite the intense heat, fire and water shortages.

California is taking decisive action to tackle climate change. The government is investing several billion US dollars in fossil-free energy supply and aims to become climate-neutral by 2045. Federal Councillor Sommaruga discussed implementation with Eleni Kounalakis, the Deputy Governor of California, with David Hochschild, the Chair of the California Energy Commission, and with David S. Kim, the Secretary of the California State Transportation Agency. California's political system is based on very similar direct democracy principles as those found in Switzerland, including referendums on important issues. The head of DETEC also took part in a discussion of the private sector’s role in protecting the climate. The participants included investors, the founders of Swiss start-ups and climate experts. Not only the state, but also private individuals and businesses are committed to fighting climate change; they provide seed capital for start-ups seeking to develop innovative products and services for a climate-friendly future.

Swiss companies are also leading the way in decarbonising California's transportation and logistics sector. Federal Councillor Sommaruga was given a first-hand look at an assembly plant opened by Swiss train manufacturer Stadler Rail in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2019. Stadler Rail is helping to convert the US rail transport sector away from diesel to fossil-free energy sources. The Thurgau-based company is currently developing a hydrogen-powered passenger train that will be put into service in California in 2024. Stadler Rail managers presented this project in a video link to its headquarters in Bussnang in the canton of Thurgau. During a video presentation, representatives of Swiss logistics companies Galliker AG and Kuehne + Nagel AG also explained how they are reducing CO2 emissions with electric and hydrogen-powered trucks. Both companies also do business in the US. Ms Sommaruga’s virtual tour included a visit to electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla where she gained insight into this company's technological achievements.

The world’s tallest trees 
The final highlight of Federal Councillor Sommaruga's working visit was a virtual e-bike tour through San Francisco, which took her to a public library. The library workers feel a strong social commitment to their community and during the corona period were out distributing food to the homeless.

For members of the press: The highlights of Federal Councillor Sommaruga’s virtual working visit can be found online in the dossier. 

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