Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. His previous article on BNC was: Greenpeace’s Plan for India
Switzerland. It’s smaller than Tasmania, but rather more famous and never missing from maps of Europe. Cheese and chocolates, pocket knives and swatches. Banks replete with hot money and the global puppeteers of the World Economic Forums at Davos. Everybody has an image of this tiny little country of just 7.5 million people in the center of Europe. But the image may be vastly different from the reality with fame inevitably viewed through a pale ale, darkly.
Recently Switzerland has been in the news for joining the lemmings massing to jump the nuclear ship in the wake of the failures at Fukushima. What will this do to the Swiss greenhouse gas footprint? What is that footprint?
The greenhouse gas emissions per person in Switzerland are well under a third of those of an Australian. That’s 7 tonnes per year compared with 25. This 7 tonnes per year is still 7 times bigger than the 1 tonne budget which following generations will inherit and be required to meet before today’s toddlers are getting a pension, but it’s still remarkably low compared to our bloated Aussie hoof print.
How is such a low footprint possible? Is there a simple explanation? Is it because the Swiss are parsimonious misers who build bicycles from recycled bottle tops or drive tiny efficient matchbox cars while Australians BBQ gross steaks in front of monster screen TVs and drive gas guzzling 4WDs vast distances across our great brown land? And what are the long term (30 year) prospects of the Swiss getting down to that magic 1 tonne sustainable emissions limit?
[Unless otherwise noted, the data below comes from either the Swiss 5th Communication (pdf) to the UNFCCC or the 2008 Australian Greenhouse Accounts (released in May 2010) (10MB Zipped PDFs)].
Swiss winters look stunning on postcards but would quickly kill anybody living in houses as thermally leaky as most in Australia. Consequently, heating oil is about 21 percent of Swiss energy consumption and you’d expect housing construction emissions to be higher. There is a cost to double glazing and roofs that don’t collapse under a metre or two of snow. Nevertheless, per person energy use in Switzerland is just over half what it is in Australia, and more of what they do use is electricity (23% to our 16%). Swiss electricity is virtually all emission free, as we shall see.
Big new taxes
Despite its tiny carbon footprint relative to places like Australia and the US, the the Swiss targeted heating oil with a BIG NEW TAX back in 2000 with the aim of reducing its use to 15 percent below 1990 levels over the 2008-2012 period. The tax takes the form of a levy where initially the full amount, but now 2/3, of the money raised is returned to the population and the rest goes toward research and development projects.
The levy automatically rises if emissions don’t fall and currently stands at 36 CHF (Swiss Francs) ($A43) per tonne of CO2 and is expected to hit 110 CHF to achieve the longer term 2020 goals. Judging from the emissions graphs, the reductions look to be reasonably well on track thanks also to some BIG NEW RED TAPE in the form of stringent efficiency requirements on buildings. A decrease in the amount of cold weather has also been rather helpful. However it seems that more efficient buildings have had a down side … people just build them bigger. This means that the space per person which needs heating has gone up. This pretty much parallels what has happened as computer screens become more energy efficient … people just get bigger screens and more screens.
Note that almost any major legislative decisions made by the Federal Government in Switzerland must be passed by the people. They vote about 4 times a year with perhaps a dozen proposals each time. So the Swiss people are firmly behind greenhouse emission reductions, despite the extra taxes and building regulations. The comparison with Australia couldn’t be more stark. We are comparing people attempting to do the right thing with a country where ignorance has been elevated from something formerly practiced between consenting adults at BBQs to something about which a seemingly growing number of people are loud and proud.
But sometimes the good intentions of good citizens are not enough.
Unlike the heating oil measures, the less stringent transport fuel targets (8% below 1990 during 2008-2012), are failing. The main policy instrument is another BIG NEW TAX, a heavy vehicle fee to encourage a shift from road to rail. A shift has indeed been achieved, as have efficiencies in road freight, but emissions are rising due to increasing numbers of private motor vehicles. Australia has about 72 cars per 100 people while Switzerland has only 52 but with a ratio rising fast enough to swamp any efficiency gains from the available measures.
I gave Switzerland a glowing report card on its cycling policies in a recent piece on “The Punch”, but the pro-cycling, pro-rail policies haven’t come close to compensating for the rise in motor vehicles and their use.
Here’s where the cultural identity formed by “The Tyranny of Distance” and our wide brown land starts to sabotage our intuition. It’s hard for an Australian to understand how anybody can rack up a decent tally of motor vehicle emissions in a country smaller than Tasmania. Put the pedal to the metal and you’re across one or more borders before your foot stops.
So … time for a quick quiz … who does more kilometers per person per year in their motor cars? Both countries have competent statistical bureaus which measure such things. Dividing passenger kilometers in private motor vehicles by the population reveals that the Swiss do about 35 kilometers per person in motor cars every day. Australians only manage about 28! On the other hand, the cars really are smaller and more fuel efficient so the Swiss personal transport emissions are about 1.5 tonnes per person compared to 1.9 tonnes per Australian.
Expecting bicycles to slash transport emissions is rather like expecting solar panels to slash energy emissions. There seem to me to be two choices to steeply reduce transport emissions. Either implement some seriously draconian anti-car measures, or generate clean electricity and electrify both cars and their construction. Current pro-bicycle, pro-rail policies in Switzerland have been wildly successful from a PR and public health perspective, but haven’t even stopped emissions growing, let alone achieved the necessary steep reductions.
While Australia generates its electricity at the cost of about 200 million tonnes of CO2 from some of the dirtiest power plants on the planet, the Swiss get almost all their electricity with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. Their biggest electricity source is a wondrous system of high dams and raging mountain rivers which drive a bevy of hydro schemes generating 56 percent of their electricity. Signs in 5 languages with scary little graphics line many a Swiss mountain stream warning you that the upstream hydro plant can release water and wash you away without warning.
In addition to hydro power, there are 5 nuclear power plants generating another 40 percent. It is these that the Swiss now want to close down over the next 20 years. The other 5 percent of electricity comes from various high profile, low-yield energy, high-yield photo opportunity renewable systems. Mainly waste incineration, but also boutique projects like the long line of photovoltaic panels lining the road into Chur, near Davos. Locals were ashamed when panels went walk-about (slang) after the system was first installed.
Most of the nuclear power stations began operation in the seventies with the latest and largest coming on line in 1984.
How do we compare?
So how much of the massive difference have we explained? Emission free electricity certainly helps, but we haven’t really explained how they get by using so little energy.
UNFCCC submissions aren’t well suited to answering this question, but a break down of energy use by sector from the IEA gives a rough answer.
The following two graphs give a sectoral break down of Australian and Swiss energy use and the ratio of the sectors pretty much resolves most of the reasons for the Swiss 7 tonne per person “miracle”. First Australia:
The yellow sector is residential use, services and agriculture. The blue sector is industry. In Switzerland that sector hasn’t increased its energy usage for 50 years. Swiss have plenty of metallurgical engineering expertise, but there are no monstrous machines digging open cut mines and rail trucks full of coal, iron ore and bauxite. While there is aluminium recycling, the Swiss submission to the UNFCCC list no primary production. Australia, by comparison, produces 20 million tonnes of alumina after digging up 70 million tonnes of bauxite. Much of the alumina is exported for someone else to add value to, but we use some of it to produce about 2 million tonnes of aluminium with some of the filthiest (high CO2 producing) production chains on the planet.
In essence, the Swiss may use steel, aluminium and other products of heavy industry, but they come from elsewhere. The Swiss submission to UNFCCC cites a study estimating that Swiss emissions would be two thirds higher (about 11.5 tonnes per person) if the emissions from imports were attributed to Switzerland.
So the Swiss lesson is broadly that if have emission free electricity, offshore your heavy industry emissions and drive smaller cars you can reduce your emissions down to about 7 times the long term sustainable global goal of 1 tonne per capita.
But what about food? Since Switzerland is famous for chocolate, you’d expect them to have more than a few cows … and they have. So let’s have a quick look at how the agriculture sector works.
Feeding the Swiss
Cattle in Australia generate vastly more greenhouse gases than our aluminium production chains (see note 1 for details). But, although the Swiss export chocolate globally, they don’t really have that many cattle. The ratio of cattle to people in Switzerland is just 0.2 compared to 1.2 in Australia.
In total, agriculture in Switzerland is about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions with the biggest source being those 1.57 million cattle that generate milk, meat and methane (see note 2). The cattle population has fallen from 1.86 million in 1990 and meat consumption is also down about 10 percent and now stands at about 60 percent of Australian levels. Consequently, bowel cancer is about two thirds of the Australian (age standardised) rate, but still amounts to 4700 new cases each year, about 10 percent of all new cancers.
With a high proportion of dairy cows in the herd generating the substrate of that famous chocolate, there is an abundant surplus of unwanted calves. They end up as sausages … bratwurst. This is precisely the kind of meat that the World Cancer Research Fund tells people not just to reduce, but to avoid altogether. Per gram, it is about 3 times more potent as a cause of cancer (bowel certainly, with other cancers likely) than ordinary red meat. I don’t have Swiss data, but Australian Cancer Council epidemiologists calculate that about half of our bowel cancer is attributable to red meat.
So how does a couple of thousand new bowel cancer cases each and every year in the tiny Swiss population compare with the toll from the Chernobyl disaster over 25 years in a vast exposed population? According to the WHO, it’s about 5000 cases of childhood leukemia over 25 years with a 99 percent successful treatment rate and a further 40 or so cancers in adults per year (see here and here for details). Apart from the childhood leukemia, the figures are calculated based on theoretical modeling because the impact is far too small to be seen in any noticable blip in the background cancer rates caused by such things as cigarettes, red and processed meat, alcohol, obesity, unlucky inheritance, inactivity and, particularly in Switzerland, bratwurst.
But the Swiss are now frightened of nuclear power while still queuing up at bratwurst street stalls.
Part of the problem is that even though European data was central to many World Cancer Research Fund considerations, its 2007 Expert report was only published in English. Nobody I spoke to on my recent visit to Switzerland had even the slightest clue that either red or processed meat cause bowel cancer … but they all knew about the “horrors” of radiation.
Despite the relatively small number of cattle by Australian standards, they do dictate many other aspects of food and agriculture in Switzerland. I’ve already mentioned bratwurst. In addition, the mown green alpine fields so beloved by tourists aren’t mown for them, but for the cattle. Large areas of arable land that could be producing food are instead producing hay to feed the cattle over winter. Barn architecture, also much beloved by tourists, is also driven by the need to store mountains of hay over winter.
The Swiss, of course, can choose to produce hay instead of food because they can easily outbid poor countries for cereals on the world market.
There is of course, more to feeding a country than chocolate and bratwurst. Cycle just half an hour from any point in any Swiss city in pretty much any direction and you will find crop fields, pastures and barns. At both first and second glance, there is a cornucopia of food. But the statistics reveal a slightly different story. Switzerland isn’t even remotely close to self-sufficient. It imports about half its cereals and about 20 percent of its meat.
Switzerland is a wonderful lesson in what can be achieved with a diligent well meaning population with access to emission free electricity and where industrial emissions have been largely outsourced.
But it’s not enough.
Instead of modest cuts to heating oil, the Swiss will need to entirely electrify heating. They need more nukes, not less. Instead of failing to curb rising transport fuel use, the Swiss will need to entirely electrify motor vehicles and source them from countries who have electrified their construction. This needs more nukes, not less. Nuclear power is the Swiss army knife of the energy business.
And if the Swiss are really worried about cancer, then there is no shortage of high yield prevention measures that they could be taking, instead of flinching at nuclear shadows.
Meat Vs Aluminium
Our latest UNFCCC gives a figure for emissions from aluminium production of 3.4 megatonnes CO2eq (p.165). The same documents gives a figure of 54.7 megatonnes of CO2eq for enteric fermentation (mainly burps, mainly from ruminants). The breakdown by species is given in theCRF documents indicates that 76 percent of this is cattle … 41.5 megatonnes CO2eq. The way data is aggregated for UNFCCC reports is designed to be easily standardised and reproducible. It isn’t designed to actually capture the true emissions associated with an activity. The aluminium industry, and everybody else, realises this. The true emissions associated with aluminium production include the emissions associated with the electricity source. Including these indirect emissions puts the emissions associated with alumina and aluminium production closer to 30 megatonnes. Beef still easily out pollutes aluminium production. In addition the enteric fermentation is methane and the UNFCCC rules calculate the impact of this over a very long time frame. The real world warming, used in all climate models, is over 3 times higher. But, by analogy, beef production emissions include a raft of indirect emissions which are not allocated to beef on UNFCCC submissions.
According to their respective submissions to the UNFCCC Swiss agriculture produces 10 percent of national emissions compared with 14 percent for Australian agriculture. Such figures are regularly cited and provided everybody understands the way the numbers are derived, nobody is mislead. But is the financial cost of a motor vehicle just the sum or your petrol receipts? Of course not. The emissions included in the agriculture sector for official purposes encompass only a part of the emissions incurred during food production. The emissions associated with the production of the steel to build the factories which build the cattle trucks which carry the cattle to market should be allocated to food production but aren’t. Studies like the CSIRO’s 2005 Balancing Act attempt to properly allocate emissions to sectors by following the money along production chains. This study found that meat production alone accounted for 17 percent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. And that still doesn’t include retail and consumer refrigeration, transport and cooking.
There is a critical need for analysis of which agricultural emissions can be eliminated with clean electricity and which can’t. For example, methane from cattle and nitrous oxide from agricultural soils won’t be reduced by wind farms or nukes.