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Why numbers matter: the case of Swiss carbon emission patterns

Warming stripes over more than a century. The famous cover of The Economist climate issue on September 21, 2019

Last week, the Swiss Federal Council updated its climate adaptation action plan for the period 2020-2025, with a set of 75 measures responding to consequences, risks and opportunities across all sectors. Coming shortly after the landmark federal decision in 2019 to adopt a net zero target by 2050, the central hypothesis chosen for this adaptation plan paradoxically remains the “business as usual” scenario - the worst case climate predictions.

Why it matters: Such choice informs well about the future considered the most likely by the Swiss administration. In a world where Swiss territorial emissions represent only about 0.1% of the total, it may seem simply reasonable given the global course of continuously rising CO2 emissions. But it is also a good opportunity to understand why numbers really do matter, what they mean, how they can be played around with and why all levels of society should act fast.

This is an emergency. At +2°C, temperature increase in Switzerland, like in most of the Alps, is already double the global average. In only a generation away, when a young child today will have grown into a working adult, temperatures are likely to reach between +3.5° to +4.8°C, compared to pre-industrial levels, says the OFEV, the Swiss administration for the Environment.

By 2050, the climate of Bern will be most similar to that of current-day San Marino, Zurich to Milan, London to Barcelona.

While radical transformation to achieve the Paris agreement goals carries the potential to reduce such increase by two thirds, climatic scenarios only diverge very significantly after 2050.

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What does this practically mean for Swiss cities? The Crowther Lab at the Polytechnic School of Zurich issued last year a remarkable study modelizing future temperature averages for cities in Europe. Echoing the Swiss adaptation action plan’s baseline, it describes how the country will experience temperature averages like in Northern Italy today. By 2050, the climate of Bern will be most similar to that of current-day San Marino. Zurich will be most similar to that of current-day Milan. Even more strikingly, the climate of London may be most similar to that of current-day Barcelona. What such unprecedented speed of climate disruption may mean for surrounding ecosystems, urban settings, infrastructure, vegetation and agriculture still needs to be fully measured, understood and anticipated.

For climate targets, the devil is in the detail: in this context, the Intergovernmenal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged for radical measures to keep global heating “well below” 2°C and a carbon emissions reduction pathway of 7.6% per year compared to current levels to hit Paris goals.

Following recommendations by the scientific community, several countries like Switzerland claim to have adopted strategies to curb emissions by 50% in 2030 as a first step towards climate neutrality by mid-century.

A double accountancy system

But reality is far from that and numbers do matter here. In the case of Switzerland, the commitment taken is actually to reduce domestic emissions by 30% only in 2030 (compared to 1990) plus 20% by supporting actions abroad which will be accounted for by other countries as well. Basically a double accountancy system. As the target was already -20% in 2020, the extra difference is only 10% less over the next decade, very far from what is considered necessary to tackle the climate emergency. Similarly, France markets a 40% reduction by 2030, but as -20% are already achieved since 1990, the additional effort is only -20%. As climate tipping points get closer, how long can such delaying tactics still hold?

Importing emissions, exporting reduction efforts: because its economy is mainly service-based and benefits from decarbonated electricity (hydro and nuclear power), Switzerland can pride itself with relatively low domestic carbon emissions per capita, at around 4.5 tons of CO2 per year and going down. Though the decrease has been limited since 1990 (-15%), the main success has been the replacement of fuel powered heating systems in buildings, leading to a decline in the consumption of oil. On its side, the carbon intensity per GDP unit remains one of the lowest in the world.

But in fact, consumption-based CO2 emissions per capita, which mainly relate to the life cycle of products bought by people and service sector organizations, have dramatically increased over the last 30 years and now represent almost 70% of Switzerland’s total carbon footprint. All in all, at around 14 tons per person per year - one of the highest in Europe - the carbon footprint of the Swiss population seems to be still increasing, but under an externalized form.

While the high level of income is often used to justify this increase, the example of the United Kingdom tends to show that more convincing results can be achieved when political willingness is there. Even with a major increase in GDP per capita, both production and consumption-based CO2 emissions can be led to decline as the graph shows below.

CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Our World in Data

Key levers to activate fast: according to Damien Friot, an expert in sustainability and carbon measurement, currently director of Ecometrics, lecturer at the EPFL and cofounder of Quantis, the main levers to reduce emissions in Switzerland must now in priority relate to the role of individuals and mid-level organizations in their consumption patterns. While big industry and large multinationals are increasingly on track of reducing their carbon footprint and adopting credible science-based targets, other players are still far from measuring their own contribution and playing the role they could in accelerating the transformation needed. Direct emissions of households and those linked to their final demand represent indeed a staggering 70.8% of the demand-side greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

“The four priorities to adress now are individual private transport, isolation and heating of residential buildings, the footprint of imported goods and last but not least food production and consumption. Society is maybe ready now for the systemic coherence needed to reach the goal of decarbonation. With more and more companies like Microsoft setting the scene and committing to a long-term vision of what a net zero productive model can look like, there is space for hope”.

The bottomline: with climate predictions increasingly precise and converging towards another +2° to 3.3°C over a period of just 30 years, the Swiss plateau is moving towards environmental changes of a massive scale, as elsewhere in Europe and on the globe. Adopting the right targets, stopping the transfer of carbon reduction efforts to lower-income countries abroad and confronting directly the consumption patterns of the population represent the only way to stabilize the climate at a level that avoids the worst impacts for humanity. If the richest societies on Earth do not play an exemplary role, by leading the way forward and demonstrating feasilibility of the Paris agreement goal well in advance, the chance for countries with lower average emissions per capita to mobilize effectively in time will be severely diminished.