Using six priority themes, the "White Paper on Sustainability Research" outlines Switzerland's most urgent research needs in order to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
To achieve the very specific goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, many technical challenges and conflicts of interest must be overcome. How can a strategy be developed that is politically and socially acceptable? Research is needed to support societal efforts to rethink the links between energy use and human well-being.
Key unresolved questions
It is necessary to clarify what is meant by the goal of ‘net-zero GHG’ and how this should be tackled. The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment has outlined the Swiss government’s interpretation of net-zero GHG. But it remains unclear how different stakeholders perceive the challenges ahead and the kinds of solutions needed. Achieving a consensus on these issues is vital as there are several definitions of net-zero in use, each with different societal implications and potential ethical conflicts that must be resolved. Establishing an overview of the various terms used across countries, programmes and sectors – and their respective consequences for potential action – is an essential analytical step on behalf of subsequent investigations. More concretely, the SRI working group proposes asking questions like the following:
- What is meant by a net-zero GHG emissions society in various countries, programmes, and sectors, and what respective paradigms of transformation are invoked?
- How do these understandings relate to each other, and are there significant inconsistencies in terms of ideals, values, social practices, or institutions?
- In current social discourse, which of these interpretations are used by whom and to what effect?
Conceptual clarifications: The role and potential of negative emissions technologies in Switzerland was clarified in a report adopted by the Federal Council in early September 2020 3 . However, additional conceptual clarifications are needed to understand how different solutions can contribute to a net-zero GHG society. For example, what are the distinctions between negative emissions technologies (NETs), greenhouse gas removal (GGR) technologies, and carbon dioxide removal (CDR)? Further, it remains unclear whether NETs should be treated as mitigation and whether the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’ NETs is legitimate. Such framings are important and powerful in politics, but often hard to defend scientifically. Given that the social and political contexts of different measures matter, it is important to analyse the history of the net-zero goal from both social science and philosophical-ethical perspectives. Such analyses should include the institutional and economic contexts favouring different solutions (e.g. sustainable forestry as a socially produced storage system) as well as alternatives to value chains that increase carbon emissions. Without these conceptual clarifications, both scientific analysis and related policy recommendations will be hard to compare and easy to dispute.
- What is the Swiss discourse on net-zero GHG and negative emissions technologies and (how) does it conceptually and substantively differ from the international discourse?
- What are the ethical and legal-institutional implications of different framings and what do they mean for policy?
- Is a single net-zero GHG target sufficient, or do we need one for mitigation and one for carbon removal? And if two separate targets are needed, how do they relate?
Which pathways to a net-zero GHG society and related measures are currently being considered at the national, cantonal, and city levels in Switzerland? How do they differ, and how are they justified?
- What emissions can reasonably be eliminated by technological means (replacement, efficiency) and what emissions must be reduced by sufficiency as well as mitigation measures? What GHG emissions will be hard to mitigate and may require NETs? How can the moral hazard of delaying mitigation be prevented?
A broad systemic perspective is needed to establish net-zero GHG pathways that avoid the pitfalls of considering different sectors or individual technologies separately. Details are needed on how the portfolio perspective demanded by the Swiss Federal Council should be composed. For example, the same land and biomass cannot be used at the same time to produce food, energy, and building materials. Any proposed solution should be based on an understanding of the potential conflicts or synergies with other societal needs and values.
- What are possible net-zero GHG pathways involving all sectors, what are their costs, and what are their additional energy demands? How effective and efficient are these different pathways? What are their respective positive and negative side effects or risks, and how are they perceived?
- While digitalization dematerializes the economy in many areas, demand for electricity as well as cooling from servers will increase and the demand for critical resources such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and rare-earth metals will grow. Is there a trade-off between the benefits of digitalization in dematerializing economic activity and the energy and resource demands created by the same process?
- Artificial general intelligence (AGI) is seen as both a singular opportunity to create a better world and an existential risk for humanity. How can the potential of AGI be harnessed for sustainability while minimizing its risks?
- How can digitalization efforts support the transformation process? Clearly, unnecessary trips can be significantly reduced, supply chains further optimized, and resource use minimized – but what are the limits to digitalization of the economy?
- What are the systemic interrelations between proposed pathways of different sectors, how do they respond to each other, and how could potential trade-offs be reconciled? What are possible sets of pathways across all sectors that are independent of other sectors and thus do not have any consequences for achievement of other (sustainability) goals?
- What ethical conflicts result from different pathways in different sectors and how can they be analysed?
- At the macro level, and more fundamentally: (how) can net-zero GHG scenarios be reconciled with economic growth and productivity, and what are the implications of respective transformations, e.g. with respect to new jobs required?
In developing net-zero GHG pathways, the necessary socio-economic transformations must be analysed. The ongoing coronavirus crisis vividly illustrates both the complexities and the possibilities of such transformation processes. Societal transformations are not easy to achieve and may benefit from the results of both ‘transformation’ and ‘transformative’ research, as distinguished by the German Advisory Council on Global Change. This research can benefit from intense collaboration between science and various other sectors, including public, private, and non-profit organizations. In fact, many local initiatives already exist experimenting with decarbonization pathways. They offer valuable, concrete experiences for learning about required social transformations.
- What set of policies is needed for different net-zero GHG pathways? Who would win, who would lose? What trade-offs with other policy domains (health, social, economics, etc.) must be tackled?
- What is needed to achieve broad societal acceptance for such pathways? What are the hindering factors, and what are the politics behind that? How can such pathways be supported more efficiently?
- How can we overcome the known social challenges resulting from the unequal distribution of environmental burdens and risks associated with different net-zero GHG pathways and CDR technologies?
- How can we achieve policy implementation? What role is there for public participation by civil society or the private sector? What role do bottom-up initiatives play and how can these be leveraged for a net-zero GHG society?
- What role do individual consumption patterns play on behalf of a net-zero GHG society? And, in contrast, what role do structural forces play? How do individual and structural change interact?
- What role can and should science play? How can it support such transformation processes? How can it assist and facilitate existing initiatives, programmes, ideas, activities, etc. that are experimenting with net-zero GHG pathways? How can social experiments, living labs, and real-world labs help to produce necessary knowledge and gain concrete experience? How can science systematically analyse ongoing experimental pathways, learn from their success and failures, and scale them up and out from the niche level?
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