Doing nothing costs more

Coin City IV
© Marcel Grieder: "Coin City IV". www.flickr.com (CC BY 2.0).

The green economy represents an opportunity for Switzerland – there will be consequences if we fail to take this opportunity. Not all consequences of the overuse of global resources are immediately visible. However, the longer this overuse continues, the more serious the associated environmental damage becomes. And in many cases, it will not be possible to rectify the damage. Rather than to have to deal with the damage later on, it would make far more sense economically to invest in the sparing use of natural resources now. This is the conclusion reached by a report published in 2014 entitled “Better Growth – Better Climate”.

Climate change and its consequences are the best researched forms of overuse of natural resources. The industrialised societies have built their prosperity on the use of fossil fuels for two centuries. In the process they released large volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere, which had been stored in the Earth for millions of years. The release of greenhouse gas heats up the atmosphere and acidifies the oceans. This is now causing a rise in sea levels, an increase in extreme weather conditions and enormous impacts on many habitats. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is based in Geneva, has been studying climate change since 1988. According to its research, climate change is man-made and can no longer be halted. Humanity can limit its extent, at best, and learn how to deal with its consequences.

Climate change also affects Switzerland. Between the mid-19th century and 2012, average temperatures in Switzerland rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius; the corresponding increase in global temperatures over the same period was only 0.85 degrees. The number of summer days and very hot days (temperatures of 30-plus degrees) increased in the Central Plateau in particular. In contrast, the number of frost days has declined. Without global climate protection measures, the average temperature could rise by as much as 4.8 degrees.

This affects the availability of natural resources. For example, glaciers have played a key role in Switzerland’s water supply up to now. Switzerland could have to manage without them in the future. The country could also be affected by more frequent extended periods of drought and storms. The thawing of the permafrost in the mountains increases the risk of rockfall. Soil erosion, which impairs slope stability, could also increase.

The decline in global biodiversity limits the resources that nature can provide for us. The disappearance of this environmental capital threatens to destroy human prosperity – According to the assessment of the consequences of the over-exploitation of the environment carried out in 2012 by the OECD, the think tank of the world’s industrialised countries, the disappearance of the rain forests is reducing nature’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases. Valuable plant and animal species are also being lost forever with its decline. Industrialised agriculture limits species diversity over vast areas. And the overfishing of the seas and oceans is damaging the world’s biggest habitat.

Biodiversity has also declined in Switzerland. Due to the pressure of urban development, the greater demand for energy, rising mobility, and the rationalisation of agriculture and forestry there has been a massive decline in the extensive natural diversity of ecosystems in Switzerland. This pressure on species diversity continues. It is stripping Switzerland of one of its few natural treasures gradually and effectively. For example, the area of dry meadows and pastures has declined by between 30 and 40 percent since the 1970s. Around 70 percent of the amphibian species arising in Switzerland are classified as endangered; the corresponding figure for reptiles is as high as 79 percent.

Switzerland’s dependency on increasingly scarce resources is reducing its security of supply. Switzerland is dependent on the fact that the countries that have these resources are actually prepared to supply them. The experience of recent years and decades has shown that this is not always the case. As a small neutral country without access to the sea, it is dependent on agreements with suppliers and neighbouring countries. A 2014 study (German only) commissioned by the federal authorities and carried out by BAKBASEL consultancy und the Global Footprint Network came to the conclusion that, against the background of declining resource availability on the global markets, the risks facing the Swiss economy on both supplier and sales markets could increase.

Switzerland can draw on past experience when dealing with ecological risks. In recent decades it has repeatedly found solutions for overcoming growing environmental pollution. This is demonstrated by the country’s success in the management of municipal solid waste. Landfills are now a thing of the past. Around half of the country’s waste is recycled and the trend is increasing. The other half is used to generate energy; waste is Switzerland’s most important renewable energy source after hydropower. In addition, thanks to major efforts in the area of environmental protection, the quality of Switzerland’s air and water has improved considerably.

The experience of the past can help in overcoming the challenges of the future. As a small country without any major resources, Switzerland must adopt a protective approach to nature to guarantee its own prosperity and security. The sparing and efficient use of natural resources is an important element of such an approach.

Last modification 13.08.2015

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