Published: 13.11.09
Climate debate at ETH

Every little bit helps

Yesterday, ETH Zurich held a climate debate entitled "Climate Change - Where is Switzerland Heading?" ETH-Zurich researchers were joined by guests from politics and commerce to discuss possible solutions as to how we can combat global climate change.

Christine Heidemann, Thomas Langholz and Peter Rueegg
As a politician, Federal Councilor Moritz Leuenberger has to put in the hard yards to combat climate change (Photo: Tom Kawara)
As a politician, Federal Councilor Moritz Leuenberger has to put in the hard yards to combat climate change (Photo: Tom Kawara) (large view)

The keynote speaker, Swiss Federal Councilor Moritz Leuenberger, dampened the expectations of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen: as far as he is concerned, there will be no “miracle of Copenhagen”. He was pleased that the scientists taking part in the ETH-Zurich climate debate generally agreed upon the facts and necessary action, claiming that, unfortunately, this is not always the case in politics. However, greenhouse gases undisputedly pose a threat to our environment and civilization – and the human race is rapidly running out of time to do something about climate change.

Industrialized countries responsible

The Federal Councilor pointed out that the industrialized countries were responsible for climate change. The main victims are the developing countries: whereas CO2 emissions in the USA are 19 tons per capita, a Ghanaian on the other hand produces just 0.38 tons a year.

Switzerland’s climate policy focuses on national and international measures. It ratified the Kyoto Protocol and will achieve the agreed target of reducing CO2 emissions by eight percent compared to 1990 by 2010. The revised CO2 Act, which includes a tax on fuel, the same emissions standards for automobiles as in the EU and a 20-percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, is due to come into effect in 2012.

Together with the EU, Switzerland is looking to implement the planned measures even if the climate summit in Copenhagen fails to reach an agreement. Moritz Leuenberger pointed out that not everyone supported an amended climate policy: “There are industries that fear for their income and appoint lobbyists to stall the climate policy.” The most important thing is for every country to do its part to resolve the climate issue. For the industrialized countries this means reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for emerging countries meeting national reduction targets, and for the developing countries receiving financial and technical support.

He regards a vision as the driver for politics as more significant than scientific foundations. He also understands that this cannot be realized overnight, believing instead that working on it advances the political work step by step. “Politics is all about painstakingly putting in the hard yards – and on an international level the yards are all the harder.”

Change faster than expected

Before the Federal Councilor took to the stage, climate scientists from ETH Zurich presented the scientific causes and consequences of climate change. They have come to the alarming conclusion that it is progressing more quickly than expected.

Only in 2007, the UN issued its fourth climate report and, as it turns out, some of its predictions have already been overhauled. “We underestimated the rise in sea levels”, said Ulrike Lohmann, a professor of atmospheric physics at ETH Zurich. She explained that this can largely be put down to the thermal expansion of water due to the rise in atmospheric temperatures. However, the underestimation is in the rapid ice sheet disintegration from Greenland and the West Antarctic.

The Arctic ice is also melting faster than expected. In the last three years, the ice cover at the North Pole has already dropped vastly below the average value of 14 different model calculations. Quite clearly, the reality is that even pessimistic predictions will be exceeded.

Sink less efficient

The oceans are also less effective at reducing CO2 levels than scientists expected – or rather hoped: the Southern Ocean is absorbing less CO2 than once thought. This means that more of the greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere, warming the climate more intensely.

Climate change doesn’t stop short of Switzerland, either. Andreas Fischlin, one of the main authors of the 4th IPCC report, stressed that unless climate change can be curbed Switzerland could lose almost all of its glaciers by 2050. In the milder case, a quarter of the alpine glacier area could still be preserved.

Things are getting tight for individual species, especially coral and polar life. Until recently, scientists had always assumed that polar species particularly ran the risk of becoming extinct with an average temperature increase of 2.8 degrees. Now they have discovered that the Arctic’s ice coverage is shrinking more rapidly than they thought – and with a considerably lower global temperature increase. Fischlin has thus revised the predictions downwards: an average global temperature increase of 1.8 degrees might now be enough to cause creatures like the polar bear to die out.

Food and health affected

Fischlin also expects massive declines in food production. The global wheat crop could be halved with a temperature increase of 2.5°C. Human health is also at risk. Many inhabitants of large cities are under threat from heat stress and, with a global temperature increase of 3.2°C, cities from Seville and Milan to Bucharest could have over 25 summer days with unbearably hot temperatures of 42°C by 2070. Many people will then be at risk from heat stroke.

The scientists’ aim is to prevent the average global temperature from increasing by more than 2°C. According to Lohmann, this can only be achieved if global emissions are halved by 2050, and even more in Switzerland. However, a third of the CO2 budget that the world would be entitled to between 2000 and 2050 has already been used up within the last eight years. Lohmann was therefore skeptical that the reduction target can be achieved: “The fossil fuel reserves are too big.”

Increasing energy efficiency possible

The section of the event addressing the technological possibilities of containing the climate change and the economic consequences struck a more positive note, however: first of all, Konstantinos Boulouchos, a professor from the Institute of Energy Technology at ETH Zurich, impressed by pointing out that, using the technologies already available today or in the foreseeable future, it is perfectly feasible for us to vastly increase our energy efficiency and thus considerably reduce CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, it is not merely a question of using the so-called low-hanging fruit – i.e. the technologies that are already affordable today and promise results; it is equally critical for us to invest in “ladders”, i.e. radically improved technologies that do not promise any short-term gains, but which can be used in the long term to reach the fruit hanging higher up.

This would primarily need further technological advancements in key areas like photovoltaics, electricity storage and CO2 recycling. This requires patience, however: according to Boulouchos, the necessary transformation of the energy system will take at least 50 years, whereby politics, enlightenment and research would have to work together. And Switzerland can only win if it is on board from the outset.

Every one of us carries responsibility

Volker Hoffmann, an assistant professor of sustainability and technology at ETH Zurich, agrees. Switzerland can only become well-positioned among the global competition if it assumes a pioneering role in preventing, reducing and compensating for carbon dioxide emissions. Consequently, it makes less sense economically to reduce CO2 emissions where it is cheapest, i.e. in less developed countries; economically speaking, we would be better off investing locally in “ladders” instead, namely in pioneering technologies that can one day be sold, thus creating competitive advantages. Nonetheless, three levers will have to be operated for this to work: “We have to clear any obstacles that stand in the way of the implementation, improve technologies and urgently put a price on CO2.”

Besides politics and the economy, every one of us carries a responsibility, too: “If everyone in Switzerland just used their cars ten percent less frequently, it would save one million tons of CO2”, says Hoffmann. Two percent of the intended CO2 reduction target could therefore be achieved simply by changing our behavior.