Will the Swiss referendum to ban fossil fuels by 2050 succeed?
-Shortened version of an article originally published on Linkedin–
I think so, yes. We are at a tipping point in public opinion. Citizens are connecting the dots between use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and the terrible toll on human life, retreating glaciers and the worst drought in eastern Switzerland since 1864.
More and more of us are shunning the use of a fuel called fossil for our homes, transport, electricity, food, goods and services we produce and consume. We are no longer buying the argument that they are a “necessary evil” as the opposite is being demonstrated daily with competitive fossil-free solutions in all areas of the economy.
Can 100% renewable energy replace all fossil fuel use?
Banning fossil fuels could mean switching to 100% renewable energy for all our needs in energy, heating and cooling buildings, transportation, and manufacturing. Can it be done by 2050 or earlier?
According to an international team of researchers lead by Dr. Mark Jacobson at Stanford University, that have researched renewable energy mixes for 139 countries, the 100% renewable energy mix for Switzerland could look like this (see infographic below). A recent review of ongoing research recently published by Clean Tecnica also concludes that the future for the world will most likely be 100% renewable.
How much will it cost and what are the impacts of renewables?
In addition Mark Jacobson et al. considered what the requirements in land usage, impacts on health, jobs (+53k), energy cost and health savings would be of 100% renewables by 2050 for Switzerland (see infographic right)
Can it really be done though? What about storage?
The electricity I use in my home town of Nyon is already 100% renewable in 2018. Can 100 % renewables come by 2050 (or before) to the whole of Switzerland; as could electrification of heating and cooling of buildings and transportation?
For buildings, heat pumps, for example, that use natural temperature gradients underground, and between water and air, to heat and cool buildings are becoming increasingly widespread. The electrification of the most challenging forms of transportation including heavy goods lorries, dumpsters and airplanes is also on its way. Norway, for example, has committed to all short haul flights from its airports being electric by latest 2040 and “Already, Airbus is looking at an electric aircraft that can carry 100 passengers 1,000km by 2030, says Falk-Peterson” to the BBC.
Constraints on land in densely populated mountainous Switzerland mean that to achieve 100% renewables by 2018 in Nyon means imported renewable energy. Renewable energy generators that can be put on-top of buildings such as solar and micro-wind have further upside. To produce electricity where land is more plentiful and import it is also a solution.
Cost of energy storage is also dropping dramatically as has the cost of renewable energy (cheaper than fossil fuels) but what about tricky problems such as long-term energy storage, for example in northern latitudes? Drake landing is a settlement near Calgary in Canada that has been heating its homes during the winter using water heated by the sun during the summer for 10 years uninterruptedly.
Vested interests an obstacle to 100% renewables in Switzerland?
When faced with a country with no fossil fuels of its own it is more difficult to argue that vested interests are the obstacle, although about 1/2 of oil is traded through Switzerland, so could this be a factor? Could indirectly vested industries such as the chemical industry that uses fossil feed-stock or vested Swiss headquartered coal-mining companies such as Glencore Switzerland also be a factor?
The tobacco parallel comes to mind whereby Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International have headquarters in Switzerland and Switzerland is not a Party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. And on December 8th 2016 a law to ban tobacco advertising was thrown out by 101 votes to 75 by Swiss parliament despite 2/3 of the Swiss population being in favour of such a ban.
Could Switzerland’s legendary caution and fear that investment in renewables penalizes competitiveness explain why the Government’s current plan is insufficient to tackle climate change?
Switzerland’s plan or NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) to reduce greenhouse gases is insufficient and consistent with 2-3°C global warming, see the red/black line in graph below. Voluntary energy efficiency measures promoted by Economie Suisse, as welcome as they are, will not deliver the required reductions in emissions either.
More ambitious is the Climate Alliance Switzerland of over 70 organizations that published a Climate Master Plan in 2016 that would achieve a 60% reduction by 2030 and zero emissions by 2039, compatible with a 1.5-2°C global warming, see green line in graph above.
Increasing political momentum to act
There is growing political and civic momentum in Switzerland to act. The national referendum to ban fossil fuels and achieve net zero emissions by 2050 was launched on 25th August 2018 at the Stein Glacier. The formal gathering of the required 100,000 signatures to put the referendum to a national ballot has already started. On September 23rd, 2018 the Swiss voted three-quarters in favour of a national network of cycle paths & lanes Finally an association of Swiss senior citizens, the “Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland” are seeking climate justice and are suing the Swiss government for insufficient climate action (plaintiffs are older women as they are disproportionately affected by climate change, heatwaves in particular and are therefore more easily able to make their case)
We need a science-based, economic, social and environmental factual debate about what are the advantages and disadvantages of a fossil fuel-free Switzerland. The stakes could not be higher as we will vote on how we respond, as a nation, to the existential threat that is climate change.
 https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/9763124-un-collectif-citoyen-lance-une-initiative-pour-la-protection-du-climat.html (in French)
 https://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/democratiedirecte/votation-du-23-septembre_le-v%C3%A9lo-en-piste-pour-la-constitution-suisse/44270976 (in French)