On the way to decarbonisation

An economy that is free from dependence on oil, coal and gas is a declared aim of the G7 states. The aim here is to keep climate warming within an acceptable limit. This decarbonisation has already begun in some sectors. Although Switzerland still emits a lot of CO2, according to Philippe Thalmann, when it comes to researching clean technologies it is way ahead of the field.

Interview: Szilvana Spett, 1.12.2015

Thalmann

Philippe Thalmann is Professor of Environmental Economics at the ETH Lausanne and a member of the Advisory Body on Climate Change (OcCC), the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communication’s (DETEC) climate council. Prior to this he was a lecturer at the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne. He studied economics at the University of Lausanne and was awarded his doctorate by Harvard University in 1986.

The G7 states recently declared their support for ending the global economy’s dependence on oil, coal and gas. Is decarbonisation already under way?

Philippe Thalmann: Certainly not all over the world. CO2 emissions from the burning of oil, coal and gas are still increasing at global level. Few countries have managed to grow economically while reducing their consumption of fossil fuels. However, some countries in Europe are already on the right path. Switzerland is not one of them. Our emissions are still as high as they were in 1990. So there is still no carbonisation in Switzerland.

Are other countries further on in the process?

Yes, of course. Fossil fuel consumption is already falling in some countries and sectors. Electricity production, in particular, has been relatively extensively decarbonised. Coal has been more or less eliminated as the main source of electricity. This is partial decarbonisation as already experienced with the railways 100 years ago. The construction sector is also on the right path. Switzerland is setting a good example here. More and more heat pumps and solar power systems are being used and buildings are better insulated.

How long will it take until we have complete decarbonisation?

There are no forecasts, just scenarios. CO2 emissions must be reduced to zero, that much is clear. Different time lines exist: some say by the end of the century while others already say that it needs to be done by the middle of the century. In order for poorer countries to be able to benefit from cheaper fossil-based energy in the decades to come, industrialised countries must reduce their CO2 emissions to zero even faster so that overall global emissions fall. Sweden and Norway have already enshrined the goal of CO2 neutrality in their policies, for example.

Which political measures are still needed to drive decarbonisation?

That is ultimately an economic question. Oil has become very cheap. This influences many people in their decision between an electric car or a petrol one, for example. Such economic reasons make it more difficult to withdraw from fossil fuels.

Ultimately, there are two reasons for decarbonisation: climate change and the fact that oil is a finite raw material. Oil will become more expensive in the long term because demand will increase and supply will fall. However, precisely the opposite has been happening up to now. Thus climate change is the only argument against fossil-based energy at present. We can hardly expect companies to decarbonise of their own accord. Incentives are needed.

But oil must ultimately stay in the ground so that decarbonisation can be achieved ...

Yes, of course, that is essential. If CO2 emissions are to be reduced to zero then all the oil we already know about cannot be extracted. The same applies to coal and gas. Most of the known reserves will have to stay in the ground. Unless technology for capturing CO2 and storing it in the ground is developed very quickly. That would offer a kind of back door.

Is that realistic?

Difficult to say. I would not exclude the possibility completely. The fact that it has been on the cards for a long time militates against it ... investments have been made in the research for a long time but it has not come up with any solutions. It is more difficult than it seemed initially.

Another aspect is that if emissions continue to increase at today’s rate, we will not be able to remain within the two degree limit for climate warming that would be tolerable for humanity. If we want to prevent this, the CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere and buried.

It would be absurd, therefore, to continue to promote fossil fuels and then bury the CO2. What is even more absurd is that people are still spending billions to discover new sources of fossil energy. What can already be extracted is far too much.

What has Switzerland to offer in the area of technology and research to promote the green economy?

I think it’s a shame that Switzerland has not developed any electric cars. We contribute technologies but have no car of our own.

With regard to research, Switzerland is very strong in the area of solar power and hydropower. And also, for example, in technologies for controlling room temperature. I always like to go back to the example of the railways. We were the first country in the world to electrify them. This not only freed us from dependence on coal imports, it also strengthened our electrotechnical industry. This is a good example of how people can develop industrial capacity by setting themselves an ambitious goal.

Could something similar be repeated?

The same was also tried with solar power around 30 years ago. The aim was to develop an industry for the production of solar cells. However, the situation has changed. Too little support was provided for the installation of the cells. Moreover,  cantonal energy authorities can no longer make subsidies for the installation of solar power cells conditional on them being produced in Switzerland. Due to the free trade agreements, it is not possible to boost Switzerland as a producer through the promotion of  renewable energies. These agreements harm the promotion of the green economy.

Despite this, foreign companies place great store by Swiss research...

Yes, we are becoming a research location. But we must also be a production location and that is becoming more and more difficult.

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Last modification 01.12.2015

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