Published: 29.01.09
Alliance for Global Sustainability

A shared destination – many different routes

This year’s meeting of the “Alliance for Global Sustainability” (AGS) is taking place at ETH Zurich. Last Tuesday, energy experts from five institutions of higher education talked about different energy systems and their contribution to a sustainable society. The speakers were unanimous: CO2 is the problem of the minute and needs quick technological and political action.

Samuel Schläfli
ETH Zurich President Ralph Eichler, Ernest J. Moniz, MIT Energy Initiative, and Konstantinos Boulouchos, Director of the “Energy Science Center” of ETH Zurich, at the AGS meeting.
ETH Zurich President Ralph Eichler, Ernest J. Moniz, MIT Energy Initiative, and Konstantinos Boulouchos, Director of the “Energy Science Center” of ETH Zurich, at the AGS meeting. (large view)

Anyone who comes into the main hall of ETH Zurich nowadays will soon notice that something unusual is happening: one is tempted to browse the paper mountain of poster presentations, and languages from the four corners of the globe with skin colours of every hue dispense refreshing liberal-mindedness. At the same time there are animated conversations between students and experienced scientists about research and technology that may one day contribute to mankind’s better handling of its limited resources.

The annual meeting of the Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS) in 2009 is taking place at ETH Zurich under the title “New Technologies for meeting the Urban Futures Challenge” (see box) in close cooperation with the “Student Summit for Sustainability” (S3) being held simultaneously in Zurich and Kreuzlingen. A two-hour podium discussion entitled “Pathways to sustainable energy systems: How does energy research offer pathways to transform energy systems for sustainability?” took place last Tuesday in the context of the one-week program of the AGS Annual Conference. In a first round, energy experts from five of the higher education institutions affiliated to the AGS gave short presentations of their institutions’ projects or strategies. Konstantinos Boulouchos, Director of the Energy Science Center of ETH Zurich, opened the round by presenting to the guests the aims of the ETH Zurich Energy Strategy, which was published in 2008, and the call contained in it for a reduction of CO2 emissions to one ton per capita per year. Like Boulouchos, the subsequent speakers also focused their talks on the problem of CO2.

CO2 reductions of 70 percent possible

Ernest J. Moniz from the MIT Energy Initiative called for close cooperation between research and industry. He said that this was the only way to establish long-term sustainable technologies in society. Today, one of MIT’s biggest solar energy projects is already being funded by an Italian oil group, which, according to Moniz, shows clearly that there is great interest nowadays in alternative technologies even among producers of traditional energy sources. However, he believes that technologies of the future such as photovoltaics will not be available on a large scale in the short term, which is why he thinks that the biggest short-term contribution to reducing CO2 emissions lies in innovations connected with existing energy systems.

Keisuke Hanaki of the University of Tokyo presented the “Japan Low Carbon Society” project, which was initiated with support from the Japanese Environment Ministry. In their study, Japanese scientists were able to demonstrate that the technological potential exists to reduce Japan’s CO2 emissions by 70 percent (compared to 1990) by 2050. They say this could be achieved through far-reaching structural adjustments and the implementation of more efficient technologies without at the same time neglecting the public’s socio-economic needs.

Using energy as the Neanderthals once did

Fillip Johnsson from the Chalmers University of Technology believes that a rapid reduction in CO2 emissions is achievable only via a financial charge. However, he can already see today the first signs that a change of heart towards sustainable behaviour is taking place in society. His illustration of this included advertisements in which off-road vehicles with a high fuel consumption are being sold at ridiculously low prices. Johnsson, like Moniz, also identifies a high potential in the separation of CO2 at the point of origin of the pollutant.

Daniel Favrat from the Industrial Energy Systems Laboratory of EPF Lausanne (LENI) criticised the backward way in which fossil fuels are utilised nowadays. He said that heating with petroleum, as is still done today in many households, differs little in terms of the type of energy it uses and how the energy is converted from the fire with which the Neanderthals once warmed themselves. Based on LENI research projects, Favrat showed clearly how energy can now be supplied much more efficiently to whole districts through thermodynamic innovations in the shape of centralised power stations.

The focus on 2050 as the time horizon was conspicuous in all the lectures. Later Boulouchos expressed the opinion that 2050 was a compromise: he said that 2100 was too far in the future to create a binding obligation – even though far-reaching radical social changes are possible only over such periods of time. On the other hand, due to reinvestment cycles and the inertia of human behaviour, he said that 2020 was too short-term to permit changes that were already far-reaching.

“Let’s get serious!”

The nature of fruitful collaboration between institutions of higher education and the world of politics was the question that came to the fore during the subsequent discussion moderated by ETH Zurich President Ralph Eichler. Those taking part in the discussion were unanimous in their belief that, first and foremost, scientists should show politicians potential paths toward solutions, but politicians cannot dictate the way transformations should take place. Establishing international networks to give better public access to available knowledge was also important – a need already voiced by Hiroshi Komiyama, President of the University of Tokyo, in a lecture shortly before the panel session.

One member of the audience thought that the path outlined to a new energy era was too long and asked whether, to solve the enormous global challenges, it was not science’s task to propagate revolutionary ideas for a radical change as well. Eichler voiced his opinion in a counter-question: he wanted to know whether a CO2 reduction by 70 to 80 percent by 2050, as targeted by Japan or the EU, wasn’t revolutionary enough. Here, the panel members also drew attention to the fact that a transformation of infrastructure in the energy industry will entail far-reaching consequences and is therefore achievable only in the long term.

However, Moniz is convinced that much more could already be being done to counter CO2 emissions than is happening at present, considering as he does CO2 sequestration to be the biggest opportunity that is already available. His concluding appeal to the public was, “We are not very serious by now. Let`s get serious!”

In reply to a question after the panel event, Konstantinos Boulouchos said: “As can be seen, energy experts from leading institutions of higher education are unanimous about the current problem, namely CO2 emissions. However, each higher education institution is approaching the problem slightly differently.” Ralph Eichler said that he believed that the panel had borne out the interdisciplinary route followed by ETH Zurich via the Energy Science Center. He hoped that the research results and concepts from such institutions will be brought to the public’s attention to a greater extent and discussed more widely in the future.

Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS)

AGS is an international, multidisciplinary collaboration project between four universities – ETH Zurich, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Tokyo and the Chalmers University of Technology. The higher education institutions involved have been discussing science and research for a sustainable future since 1997. These efforts result in possible routes for transformation into a sustainable society and suggestions brought to the attention of political decision-makers. The annual conference of the AGS is taking place from 26 to 29 January 2009 at ETH Zurich. The Student Summit for Sustainability (S3) of the World Student Community for Sustainable Development (WSC-SD) is also taking place at the same time.