Switzerland must reduce its resource consumption to a level that can be sustained by nature. The overuse of global resources and its consequences, for example climate change, biodiversity loss and impaired nitrogen cycles, will cost us dearly. As a small country with few natural resources and a very open export-oriented economy, Switzerland will be particularly affected by increasing resource scarcity. Conversely, the conservation and sparing use of existing resources and their efficient consumption reduce costs for companies and households and create new opportunities for the economy.
Increasing resource efficiency is a gradual process. If everyone in the world had the same ecological footprint as the Swiss, about three planet Earths would be needed to meet their requirements. Thus Switzerland must reduce its resource consumption. According to calculations carried out for the Federal Office for the Environment, the environmental impacts of resource consumption can be reduced by 40 percent by 2050. Intensive efforts will be needed, however to attain this target.
Greater resource efficiency requires the collaboration of all actors and international cooperation. This includes support for international standards and technology transfer. Switzerland provides substantial support for a programme of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization UNIDO and the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP for the introduction of clean production in developing and newly industrialised countries. The “National Cleaner Production Centres Network” is already established in 47 countries.
Households, companies and the public sector can all make a significant contribution to increasing resource efficiency. Particular potential for increasing resource efficiency – over one half in fact – lies with households. Resource-efficient consumption in this sector can reduce environmental impacts considerably. Based on your choice of home, private mobility habits and shopping list, you decide how many resources you consume.
Technical measures contribute to the potential for reductions. The increasing efficiency of the combustion engines in passenger cars is an example of such measures. The CO2 emissions of new cars fell from an average of 188 grams per kilometre in 2005 to 130 grams in 2015. Greater process efficiency in the production and supply chain can also reduce the demand for resources.
Alternative materials and products that conserve and spare resources help to reduce consumption. For example, heat pumps have a lower impact on the environment than oil heating systems. The use of wood instead of steel in construction alleviates the burden on the environment in many cases: the production of steel is energy intensive while the wood used in construction stores CO2.
The circular economy makes an important contribution to resource efficiency. Half of municipal solid waste generated in Switzerland is already recycled today. The recycling of metals, in particular, is very advanced. Switzerland is also a global leader in the use of electronic waste. As opposed to this, many non-metallic substances are not reusable. This is demonstrated by the successful recycling of paper: the length of the fibre is reduced with each new use. This means that after a few uses, paper can only be used for paperboard and, finally, for energy generation.
However, increases in efficiency do not reduce resource consumption automatically. In some cases, they have even led to greater consumption. For example, for a long time the improved efficiency of combustion engines was counteracted, in part at least, by the increasing electricity consumption of the car electronics. Today’s televisions are far more efficient than their predecessors from the black-and-white era. However, they are also considerably larger and, for that reason, they still consume a lot of energy. Such so-called rebound-effects must be avoided in a green economy.
In addition to greater resource efficiency, behaviour also has a crucial role to play. Even if your car consumes less fuel, you can always leave it in the garage and walk. Even if your own house uses hardly any energy, you do not have to build it on a green meadow. Technology alone cannot solve the problem of the over-exploitation of nature. A lifestyle that conserves and spares resources is also needed. This can actually improve our quality of life, as it will enable the environment to remain intact in the long term.
International standards point in the right direction. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifies sustainable fishing. Fish and seafood for which stock recovery is taken into account in their fishing and the impacts on the ecosystem are minimised qualify for MSC accreditation. MSC products are very well represented in Swiss retail outlets. Another example here is the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international association which formulates requirements in relation to the sustainability of palm oil production and ensures their application by its members. If the use of palm oil cannot be avoided, where possible it should originate from sustainable cultivation. Both the MSC and RSPO originate from initiatives of the environmental organisation WWF.