On environmental issues, the city-country divide is smaller than often assumed

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We like to perpetuate the idea of a divide in the attitudes of city dwellers and country people as part of debates on the environment, but it’s simply not the reality, explains Thomas Bernauer. In fact, there is little evidence of a fundamental urban-rural disconnect in Swiss environmental policy.

On one side, we have the conservative country people. They go full throttle in their car, but when comes to the climate and biodiversity, they step on the brake. On the other side, we have the left-green city dwellers; preachers of climate action while remaining the biggest fans of flying. People often take advantage of these city-countryside clichés as a way of explaining the debate surrounding environmental policy and polling. They promote the image of a deep societal divide between rural objectors (who would rather protect their own interests than the environment) and the sanctimonious urbanites (who demand a green revolution, but do little to contribute towards it).

This environmental policy gap recently became extremely prominent with the introduction of the CO2 law and the drinking water and pesticide initiative. Opinion polls and the media have also identified a divide in the forthcoming initiative against factory farming3, with the rural population against and the urban population in favour of the proposed action.

What truth is there to this (supposed) city-countryside eco-divide? The issue is complex and I will start by saying that I find such rhetoric misleading since there is very little empirical evidence for this contradiction. But first things first.

Not so different after all

My research group as part of the Swiss Environment Panel (see box) used surveys and voting results to investigate whether there is an environmental policy divide between rural and urban populations.

Swiss Environmental Panel

Working with the Federal Office for the Environment, researchers from ETH Zurich have surveyed several thousands randomly selected people in Switzerland about their attitudes to various environmental policy issues and their behaviour twice a year since 2018. More on the Swss Environmental Panel and a report on city-countryside differences is available here.

Our survey data shows that almost no relevant differences exist between settlement areas in terms of environment-related attitudes and behaviour.2 Of course, attitudes towards environmental issues are much less pronounced in extremely rural places than in larger cities. People surveyed in the countryside also tend to own and drive cars more and eat more meat, while those in the city tend to fly more. Overall, however, environment-related attitudes and behaviour patterns are very similar - there is practically no evidence of a city-countryside divide.

Isolated differences at the ballot box

By contrast, we have seen a slight differentiation in voting behaviour in national votes on environmental issues since 2010 - but only between extremely rural regions and highly urbanised areas. However, with an average deviation of no more than eight percent till 2020 (12 percent from 2020 to 2021) between both settlement area types at the extreme ends of the spectrum, it is a stretch to claim a fundamental chasm between city and countryside.

If we consider the last 20 years and include all nine area types, the difference between city and countryside is small and, rather surprisingly, even slightly smaller than is the case for all national votes together.

That said, recently there have been certain initiatives relating directly to agriculture or fossil fuels that have resulted in wildly different voting behaviour between city and countryside.3 These include the Swiss hunting law, which saw a difference of 18.9 percent, the CO2 law (17.8 percent), the drinking water initiative (15.4 percent) and the pesticide initiative (14.5 percent).

However, to conclude from this that urban and rural populations are polarised on environmental issues in Switzerland is, in my opinion, based on the voting behaviour of the past 20 years and the survey data collected by the Swiss Environmental Panel since 2018, speculative and largely false.

About the author

Thomas Bernauer is a professor of Political Science at ETH Zurich.

What’s next for Swiss environmental policy?

The findings from the Swiss Environmental Panel give me confidence. Generally speaking, where we live has little to do with how environmentally conscious we are and behave - certainly less so than political debates and certain vote results would have us believe. If an environment-related bill fails at the ballot box, it is in most cases due to other reasons rather than a city-countryside divide.

That does not mean we should dismiss the urban-rural contrast entirely when it comes to looking for solutions to environmental problems, though. For some initiatives, strong environmental protection in rural areas can come at a much higher price than it does in urban areas, particularly if the proposed measures relate to agriculture and mobility. In the case of the four bills in question, it was the costs that led to the different votes of the city and the countryside.

In future, it is necessary to find bills that are capable of winning a majority and which distribute the costs and benefits between the city and the state as fairly as possible. Scientifically sound surveys of the Swiss population can make a significant contribution to this.

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Prof. Thomas Bernauer

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