The third IPCC report, published Monday, concludes that mitigating climate change and staying below 1.5°C – synonymous with worsening living conditions on Earth with more frequent extreme events – is still possible. We need to reach peak global carbon emissions in 2025 and zero emissions in 2050, and there are solutions for that. Julia Steinberger, professor of social sciences of climate at the University of Lausanne, contributed to the drafting of this report that no longer speaks of transition but of transformation, necessary in all sectors of society. In Switzerland as elsewhere.
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Switzerland is a small country, but a big emitter per capita. Does it have to play its part to follow the trajectory that keeps it below 1.5°C?
Everyone has to play their part. There is no choice anymore, no country is exempt.
In which sectors in Switzerland can transformations be conceived quickly?
We have very little time, so we have to pull all possible levers.
Switzerland, for example, has the worst fleet in Europe in terms of grams of CO2 per kilometer driven. There are quick fixes, such as banning the sale of certain types of cars in Switzerland and switching to lower-emission alternatives such as electric cars, public transport and soft mobility.
We could also put more emphasis on building cleanup – that is, the energy efficiency of homes – and more aggressively replacing anything gas and heating oil with heat pumps and induction hobs. It is efficient and profitable in the short to medium term. That transformation is necessary: you might as well get started right away. In addition, it provides local employment. Solar and wind energy must also be increased. Switzerland can produce much more renewable energy.
In terms of food, the agricultural sector can be transformed into healthy and sustainable food, mainly based on plants. Swiss food, like everywhere else in the world, has to start with a sharp reduction in animal and dairy consumption, and that goes hand in hand with a transformation of land use. In addition, it has health benefits. For example, information programs are possible in school canteens and institutional canteens. And this transformation of the agricultural sector is headed toward a rapid decline in methane emissions – produced by sheep and livestock farming – supported in this IPCC report.
Should we move towards more sobriety or focus on technology?
Both are needed in all consumer sectors. The report analyzes how you can separate social prosperity from energy consumption, and that is not automatically done via economic growth. The solution is to offer public infrastructures that allow people to live their lives without consuming too much energy: public transport, accessible and safe cities for cycling, other spatial planning, renovation of buildings. It is the conditions of public investment that allow this energy sobriety or not.
Individual consumption choices are especially important for overconsumers. In Switzerland there are some people who fly every week. Not flying is something very plain and simple. We’ve created a model where everyone has the right to fly once every two years, and we’re making it. A small part of the population will have to drastically change their consumption. For the majority, this can be achieved by maintaining the quality of life through these public investments.
Are there sectors that are more difficult to transform than others?
You mean finance… Yes, some sectors will have to comply much more with international rules and requirements. Much is expected from the financial sector. If we want this transformation that will allow us to live in a stable and less dangerous world in the future, we would need much more capital to invest in climate change mitigation and adaptation in Switzerland, in Europe and in all countries of the world. This is not the financial sector orientation at all right now, but it is possible, the IPCC report said.
What will everyday life look like if we embark on the trajectory of staying below 1.5°C?
In cities – highly motorized areas with dense housing – transformation means a healthier environment. We know that air pollution from motorization and the burning of fossil fuels is harmful to health. We’re talking about eight million deaths a year on the planet, so it’s not trivial. The inhabitants will always have access to efficient technologies: a refrigerator, a freezer, a computer, mobile phones, the internet… as now. But the apartments would be more compact to allow for energy austerity.
There will also be more soft mobility: on foot, by bicycle and small electric mobility. Electric mobility also for public transport. And the use of an electric car would rather be reserved for cases of greater necessity, such as for the disabled, the elderly, people in rural areas or people who need it for work. It will be more limited.
At 1.5°C you already have to protect yourself against heat waves and extreme weather conditions. This means breaking up the surfaces to make the city porous and integrating natural elements, trees, more greenery to produce freshness and protect against flooding.
Plant-based food does not mean eating salads every day. There are forms of food based on tofu, legumes that are varied, tasty and fill the tummy well. Many chronic diseases and premature deaths would thus be prevented.
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How do you ensure that the population accepts these necessary transformations?
Personally, I have seen great changes take place within structures such as citizens’ assemblies when they are well organized and representative of a region and all points of view, as has happened in the United Kingdom. It is through these kinds of gatherings that people understand the issues and put forward climate policies. In Leeds, for example, a citizens’ meeting clearly decided not to expand the airport.
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I think acceptance will go through the communication of the problems and the participation of citizens. Any citizen who understands the climate problem does not want to fly so often. Anyone who understands what climate change means knows what their children, their grandchildren or themselves will have to live with this concentration of extreme events. With these IPCC reports, any person who is at least responsible, neither psychopath nor madman, when we see the future where we are going, want to avoid it and choose the possible solutions. It is a matter of empowering people. Maybe there are actions we don’t want to take, like with the covid, we didn’t want to stay at home. We are not talking about staying at home, we are talking about participating in a transformation of society, of an extraordinary effort to maintain good living conditions in the coming decades. Climate policy must become something for which people as citizens take responsibility. It is often presented as a negative side, but we have to see the positive side: preventing a disaster that already kills many people and that will only get worse.
In your opinion, did the message not get across well enough?
Not at all, it’s quite shocking. I remember events in England where I spoke as an expert on climate change and CO2 emissions. And the first question from the audience was, “Why am I hearing this for the first time?” I think there’s a fundamental ignorance about the problems and the risks, because little information comes through, drowned in misinformation. Often it is greenwashing umbrella associations of industries in press releases about solar panels here and there, or zero-emission aircraft if that is not possible. People’s perception is that we will get there, that it will be simple, that someone else will take care of it. So they disconnect. The message that this is an urgent problem that will cost the lives of many people and that we will not get out of it without everyone’s contribution has not been conveyed.
I also think there is a lack of information among politicians. Most of them agree that global warming exists, but that it is a purely ecological and environmental problem, from which the economy and society will emerge. But it is much more than that: the climate crisis will wipe out the ability to have a prosperous society and a stable economy from under our feet. This awareness is not yet really present among politicians either.
The CO2 law presented to the people of Switzerland in 2021 was rejected. Especially by people in rural areas. Are different approaches needed depending on the area?
Yes, it is addressed in the IPCC report. There are different approaches to mitigation and adaptation in the different areas that will be affected by climate impacts and that will be affected in different ways by mitigation measures. For example, a person living in a rural area has a much greater need for individual motorized transport than a person living in a city, and so will be more influenced by regressive approaches, such as carbon taxes. The form of transport in the countryside will have to change and the residents will have to think along with them about how they want it.
I think that the initiatives under the CO2 Act did not give the impression that they had been consulted. There has been no national debate on climate change mitigation. I think the popular assemblies – where we have geographical, linguistic, socio-economic representation – that are televised allow people to recognize each other, as was the case in Ireland on abortion. It helps to understand why and how we arrive at a bill.
If I am a pig or chicken farmer in Switzerland, how can I profile myself?
We should not overestimate the proportion of the population that this represents in terms of jobs. But it is clear that these people are affected and therefore must be part of democratic deliberations. For those in industries that are doomed to disappear or shrink, there must be social justice and recognition. These people are being asked to transform the way they live and work for the greater good. In a correct society, they have compensation, reintegration measures, they are at the center of decision-making. It is necessary to know the desire for guidance of these people. With all transformations, there are new jobs, new important sectors opening up. In fact, we are talking about spending on local employment instead of sending our money abroad, about moving a lot of jobs.
Is this transformation economically feasible?
Yes, it is sustainable, especially if we look at the economic consequences of climate damage. The investments that need to be made now are much cheaper than the damage that is expected in the future, or even in the present when we see the affected areas. From an economic point of view, climate action is amply justified, including at the level of Switzerland. The woods aren’t burning yet, but they’re going to happen. What is happening around the Mediterranean will gradually happen to us. It is a matter of the wisdom of economics: choose to invest immediately to protect the future or to continue as now in a logic of short term profit and “after us the deluge”.
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