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An ecological overhaul of business and society is the task of a lifetime. But it’s achievable, says sustainability researcher Kai Niebert. The money is there, what is needed is courage and the political will.
Thomas Gull
Climate-friendly living: Better to take the train than the car. (Image: Madeleine Ragsdale, iStock); (Video: UZH Communications / Multimedia and E-Learning Services UZH)

The facts are undeniable: Our carbon footprint is too big. Each one of us produces on average nine metric tonnes of CO2 per year – a sustainable level would be two tonnes. It seems we have a long – painful and abstinent – way to go to return to a lifestyle that doesn't harm the planet. Kai Niebert, professor of science and sustainability education at UZH, has attempted it personally. “I tried to get by with two tonnes,” he says in his office on Kantonsschulstrasse, right behind the new Kunsthaus building. He went to work every day by bike and ate no meat. He lasted four days, recalls Niebert. Then a colleague suggested that he could at least take a shower every now and then.  The hot shower pushed his eco-balance straight into the red.

Niebert is currently carrying out the same experiment with his students at UZH. They find themselves having to make tricky decisions. “For some of them, not eating meat is no problem, but they’d like to be able to fly when they go on vacation.” These are the same debates that society as a whole needs to be having, says Niebert. As he found from his own experiment, we can only influence part of our carbon emissions through our own behavior. “According to our calculations, we can influence one third, max. For the rest we are dependent on external factors.” For example: Where does electricity for the public transport in my city come from, what kind of heating has the owner of my apartment building installed, how sensitive to BO are my colleagues? The conclusion to be drawn is that it is not enough for us to change our personal behavior – the politics and policies need to change. We need a political culture that explicitly and decisively favors sustainability and thus enables us to live in a way that does not harm the environment.

Enough with false incentives

There are various ways this could happen. On the one hand clear policies are needed, says Niebert, and on the other hand governments must put an end to incentives and subsidies that promote the use of fossil fuels. Niebert, who is an advisor to the German government in environmental issues, gives an example from transport policy: In Germany today, diesel is subsidized to the tune of 7 billion euros (as the tax on diesel is lower than on gasoline), and at the same time 5 billion euros of tax revenue are lost every year through deductions for commuting. Meanwhile, the entire public transport system costs 12 billion, half of which comes from ticket revenue, the other half from state coffers.

For Niebert, the maths is simple: “If you get rid of the 12 billion euro handouts for diesel and commuting, public transport could be completely free of charge and there’d still be 6 billion left over to invest in electric buses and expanding the rail network.” This kind of redistribution would not just have ecological but also social benefits, says Niebert – single working parents would not have to pay to get to work, while the SUV drivers would “barely feel any pain” at the withdrawal of their diesel subsidies. Would people accept such a shift? Analyses have shown that it would only work if it was socially fair.

In Germany, 57 billion euros are spent every year on subsidies that are actually damaging for the environment. That includes tax exemption on kerosene, VAT exemption on international flights, and agricultural policies that reward farmers for using fields rather than rewarding them for maintaining biodiversity or providing services that are ecologically useful.

On the other side of the equation, a 95 percent reduction of carbon emissions in Germany by 2050 would cost 30 billion euros a year. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the sums. “The money is there, it just needs to be invested in the right places,” underlines Niebert.

What about the situation in Switzerland? “I am currently gathering data about the environmentally damaging subsidies,” says Niebert, “but it’s not that easy.” For example, with the 20-billion-franc agricultural subsidies it is not clear which ones damage the environment and which protect it. Also, because Switzerland is not such a big industrial producer as Germany, a large part of our ecological footprint is therefore produced abroad as we import primary products and products. But in Switzerland, like in Germany, car drivers can make a higher deduction from their taxes for commuting than public transport users. That sends the wrong signal and is a bad incentive.

Resistance against wind power

The money for ecological change is there. How can we best use it? “We need to become climate-neutral by 2050 in order to halt human-made climate change.” Our northern neighbor could generate enough electricity for the whole of Germany by using two percent of its land area, through solar and wind power. In Switzerland, conditions are even more favorable as hydropower is used to generate more than 50 percent of our electricity, giving us a big head start. There are also plenty of surfaces that could be used for wind or solar installations, on roofs, in cities and on motorway verges. Unfortunately, such installations are not viewed favorably by the public, especially wind turbines. Those arguing against them say that they are a blight on the landscape, kill birds and cause property values to fall.

Ozone layer is closing

For Niebert it is clear: Incentives and subsidies alone are not enough to create the necessary change – clear legal regulations are needed. Establishing the legal framework is also the fairest approach, as it applies to everyone equally, regardless of income. Niebert: “The sky above the Ruhr valley didn’t change back to blue thanks to incentive programs, but because it was obligatory to install carbon-particulate filters.”

A striking example of the effectiveness of regulation is the hole in the ozone layer, which was a big topic of concern in the 1990s. It was a global environmental problem, caused by the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were used at that time in spray canisters and refrigerants. CFCs were then banned worldwide. The ban is working: The hole in the ozone layer is slowly closing up and could be gone completely by 2050. “This is a wonderful demonstration of how, when the international community makes consistent policy together, global environmental problems can be tackled,” says Niebert.

So policy-makers could do something about the current crisis if they wanted to. And what about us? Within his specialist area of communications and education for science and sustainability, Niebert has researched the impact of the many sustainability education programs that have taken place in past years, such as the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014). His summary: “Schoolchildren today know more about environmental issues. But their behavior has not changed.”

Talking about the greenhouse effect

Education in this area should therefore not target individual behavior in the first instance, but should empower young people to become politically active, or “able to participate” as Niebert says. In other words, they should understand how political decisions affect their own behavior. Don’t the current school strikes for the climate show that education in this area is working? “We are impressed by the motivation of the demonstrating school students in Bern, Basel and Zurich right now,” says Niebert, “but it is clear that they generally get the information from friends and from YouTube, and not from school.” The educational scientist has reservations about the wisdom of this: “We should not be leaving education and socialization to social media channels.” He thinks it is important that, for example, while physics teachers talk about the technicalities of the greenhouse effect, their colleagues who teach politics or citizenship also talk about it from a social and political point of view. “Students need to learn to be able to make competent decisions,” says Niebert.

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