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Sustainable Living Challenges the Swiss

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Posted on May 28, 2013
Eric Kilby (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Paul Brown, Climate News Network

This piece first appeared at Climate News Network.

LONDON—Mr and Mrs Swiss, archetypal if fictional citizens of the Swiss city of Zurich, voted five years ago to demonstrate to the rest of the planet that they could live a sustainable lifestyle.

They wanted to show that if the sophisticated people of Switzerland could reach the target of consuming only 2,000 watts of energy per head a year and still continue to live a high quality lifestyle, then anyone could.

But researchers have discovered that only two percent - 70 of the 3,369 households surveyed - managed to reach the target. Average consumption was more than double, and some were consuming 20,000 watts each (the US average is about 9,500 watts).

This failure is despite Swiss researchers showing 15 years ago that the technology exists for everyone in developed countries to reduce their energy consumption enough to avoid wrecking the planet while at the same time enjoying a high quality lifestyle.

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The 2,000 watt annual level was suggested as the average consumption for every person on the planet. It was intended to allow the rich to maintain their quality of life and also to give poorer people the chance to improve their standard of living so that everyone has the same opportunities.

The research was carried out by EMPA, a Swiss materials research institute, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which as long ago as 1998 developed a model energy policy intended to provide for a growing world population and protect the environment.

The Swiss are particularly sensitive to climate change because it is affecting the country significantly. Loss of snowfall, a rapid reduction in Alpine glaciers and the collapse of some mountainsides because of melting permafrost are seriously damaging both the ski industry and the country’s roads.

As well as becoming a “2000 watt society” and reducing electricity consumption, the citizens of Zurich also opted to reduce annual emissions of greenhouse gases to less than one ton of CO2 per person.

The researchers had hoped to find families that were living a sustainable lifestyle using these definitions.  While two percent were under the 2,000 watt level - and some as low as 1,400 watts - no-one had managed to limit emissions to less than a ton of CO2.

Their survey and lifestyle analysis was published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.  It included a calculation of the overall impact on the environment of each household’s transport, food and consumer goods.

Energy consumption, emissions and environmental pollution increased as expected with income, but the theory that the richest people would care for the environment and invest in reducing energy consumption was not borne out in the survey.

The good news was that the two per cent who did manage to get below the 2,000 watt threshold appeared in every income bracket, showing that where there was a will to achieve sustainability it was possible to do so.

Only around a quarter of the energy consumed was electricity. Most of the rest was used for heating and transport, and those who achieved the target did so by heating less living space in the winter and by limiting car use and air travel.

Because in Switzerland heating and transport depend on fossil fuels, no-one managed to get below the one ton emission target.

Dominic Notter, one of the researchers, calculated that for most Swiss to get down to 2,000 watts would require “the greatest possible effort” unless new technologies replaced fossil fuels for these uses.

“Currently a sustainable lifestyle is only attainable by frugality, forgoing extravagance, and living in a smaller heated area”, he said.


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