Water, Air, and Climate Change: Energy and Environmental Policy in Switzerland and the United States

Switzerland, which lacks fossil fuels, is phasing out nuclear energy—increasing its dependence on imported energy sources. The United States, meanwhile, is headed for energy independence in the near future, aided by domestic fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline—both controversial.

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By Karina Rollins

Switzerland

The Swiss government and Swiss business have demonstrated their dedication to international climate change agreements, backing up that dedication with large sums of money. The Swiss public has shown wide-ranging support of these measures, as the Swiss take climate change very seriously. The Swiss view on climate change is a prime driver of the country’s energy and environmental policies.

Climate Policy.In 2015, Switzerland became the first country to make a pledge for the Paris Agreement, promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by the year 2030—even though Switzerland is only responsible for 0.14 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Despite its small carbon footprint, Switzerland is highly self-critical, with the Federal Statistical Office lamenting the growing “imbalance between Switzerland’s ecological footprint and the world’s biocapacity.”The Statistical Office states that the Swiss “lifestyle is only possible through the import of natural resources and the depletion of global goods (such as the atmosphere). However, this lifestyle is not sustainable, because Switzerland consumes 3.3 times the amount of natural resources that are available per capita worldwide (1.7 gha). We are therefore living at the expense of future generations and of other regions of the world.”

In 2017, Switzerland became the 149th country to ratify the Paris agreement, though heated debate is expected over the next several years about how to implement concrete measures. Also in 2017, after six years of negotiations, Switzerland approved a deal to link the Swiss carbon-trading system with that of the European Union.

Nuclear Policy. Despite Switzerland’s commitment to staving off man-made climate change, the Swiss government has developed a proposal—Energy Strategy 2050—to ban the building of any new nuclear power plants (which do not emit CO2), with plans to phase out the five existing ones. In a referendum on May 21, 2017, nearly 60 percent of Swiss voters cast their ballots for this ban. About one-third of Switzerland’s electricity comes from the five existing nuclear reactors, the first of which is to be shut down in 2019. The anti-nuclear-power mood in Switzerland seems to mirror that in Germany—caused by safety concerns after Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

Still, the nuclear ban and phase-out is not without critics, who warn of starkly rising energy costs and risks to energy security. Switzerland already needs an additional $1.15 billion to decommission its five nuclear reactors and handle radioactive waste. The total cost now stands at $25.51 billion.

Renewable-Energy Policy.The government plan includes heavy subsidies for renewable-energy sources. Switzerland has long relied on hydropower, which supplies about one-sixth of Switzerland’s energy. Today, newer sources—solar power, wind power, wood, biomass, geothermal energy, and ambient heat—are playing an increasingly important role in Switzerland’s “energy mix.” Some of these alternative energy sources, however, will take about 30 years to develop.

Pro-Climate Innovation. The Swiss private sector is heavily involved in developing ways to reduce CO2 emissions and energy consumption.

The planet’s first commercial plant for capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air on an industrial scale opened in 2017—Climeworks AG in Switzerland. The plant will capture about 900 tons of CO2annually—as much as released from 200 cars. By 2025, Climeworks plans on sequestering 1 percent of global emissions.

Five Swiss energy projects won the 2018 Watt d’Or competition, including utility company EKZ for its innovation that reduces energy consumption for street lighting by one third.

Air and Water Quality. The clearest of air and pristine waters—that is the popular image of Switzerland’s environment. While the air and water quality in Switzerland are indeed very good, nothing is perfect, not even in Switzerland.

Switzerland’s own Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) states that while air quality in Switzerland has improved steadily since the mid-1980s, “pollution from respirable particulate matter (PM10), ozone (O3) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) continues to exceed the legally prescribed ambient limit values. The scale of ammonia (NH3) pollution is also far in excess of the critical limit value.” The FOEN declares tiny airborne dust particles (PM10) to be “one of the greatest challenges for today’s air pollution control policy. Cities and developed zones in the vicinity of main roads are exposed to excessive levels of particulate matter with negative consequences on human health.”

The FOEN reports that the quality of the water in Swiss lakes has improved since the 1980s as well. However, “several lakes continue to be increasingly over-fertilized and adversely affected by oxygen depletion.” The FOEN lists contamination by micropollutants as a new challenge. The FOEN credits “the development of wastewater treatment and the ban on phosphate in laundry detergents” with substantially lowering pollution and nutrient loads in lakes. “However, there is increasing pollution from synthetic organic trace compounds that are not readily biodegradable.”

When it comes to drinking water, Switzerland is often ranked as having the cleanest in the world. As for the air—some believe Swiss air to be so pure, they are willing to buy it in a can or bottle—such as that sold by Swiss start-ups Swiss Alpine Air, Pure Swiss Air, or Swissbreeze.

Energy Independence or Energy Dependence? Energy imports already account for about 70 percent of Switzerland’s total primary energy supply. Of that amount, oil is by far the largest contributor at 40 percent, followed by nuclear power at 26 percent, hydroelectric power at 13 percent, and natural gas at 11 percent. Less nuclear energy means more reliance on fossil fuels until renewable-energy sources are fully developed. This means that Switzerland, which does not produce any fossil fuels itself, will become more dependent on energy imports in the short and medium term.

 

United States

The United States, government as well as the public, is deeply divided on the issue of combatting climate change. Supporters of radical measures like those in the Paris Agreement are pitted against those who see climate change as a naturally occurring phenomenon, rejecting the notion that the man-made contribution can, or needs to be, lowered through government mandates.

Climate Policy. The U.S. approach toward so-called greenhouse gases reversed between the Obama and Trump Administrations. While President Obama was a vocal supporter of the Paris Agreement, President Trump viewed the climate accord as an agreement “that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries,” leaving American taxpayers “to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” Scientists opposing the agreement have argued that even if all countries implemented the agreement, the overall effect on the earth’s climate would be negligible because the prediction models are scientifically unsound. Furthermore, some of the worst polluters in the world, such as China, would not be held to the same standards as the United States. President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in June 2017.

Nuclear Policy. The U.S. currently has 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants. While far from being shut down and phased out, nuclear power is not without controversy in the U.S. Concern over the safety of nuclear reactors, and the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, ended the period of growth of nuclear power in the U.S.

In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, designed to promote the construction of six new nuclear power plants through incentives and subsidies. The act also required a national strategy to address climate change. In 2008, the United States emitted 5.8 billion tonnes of CO2 from energy use.

It was the Obama Administration, in 2010, that announced plans for building the first nuclear power plant in the U.S. in three decades.

Renewable-Energy Policy. Federal initiatives for developing and deploying renewable technologies are integrated in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. An addition to the Clean Air Act, known as the Clean Power Plan, provides a policy framework for states to increase their power production from renewable sources. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized loan guarantees for the innovation and development of clean power technologies, and increased the required percentage of biofuels used in ethanol production. The Energy Independence and Security Act established a Renewable Fuel Standard, directing the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that fuel used for domestic transportation contains a specified volume of renewable fuel, advanced biofuel, cellulosic biofuel, and biomass-based diesel. Arguing that these measures are over-regulation that hurt business and consumers, the Trump Administration has worked on repealing many of them.

Pro-Climate Innovation. Americans are known for innovation, and that extends to environmental causes. The production of meat is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—and the U.S. company Beyond Meat, based in Los Angeles and supported among others by Bill Gates, “has created the world’s first meat burger that is entirely plant based.”

Bill Gates, who argues that the world needs much more than a cut in global CO2 emissions—“we need an energy miracle”—also collaborated with billionaires around the world to launch the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a fund to invest in technology-driven solutions.

Newlight Technologies, another California company, found a way to produce “high-performance bioplastics from carbon emissions”—creating a new material from pollution.

Air and Water Quality. The Environmental Protection Agency states that: “Despite dramatic progress cleaning the air since 1970 [when the Clean Air Act was first amended], air pollution in the United States continues to harm people’s health and the environment.” Despite continuing challenges, the Clean Air Act has been a tremendous success story for cleaner air. A market for U.S. air in a can, seems unlikely, however. The infamous Los Angeles smog remains a fixture, and Washington, DC, is itself one of the top 10 smoggiest cities in the U.S., as are Dallas and Houston.

The quality of water is an even more serious issue: About 40 percent of rivers and lakes in the U.S. are too polluted for swimming or fishing.

Keeping the supply of drinking water clean and safe is also a challenge, with some high-profile scandals, such as the Flint water crisis. The cost of water is rising in many American cities, and, as the Brookings Institution reports, “Facing a backlog of repairs, many utilities are struggling to modernize existing facilities.” Unlike Switzerland, the U.S. does not make it onto any top 10 “cleanest water” rankings.

Energy Independence or Energy Dependence?

In its World Energy Outlook 2017, the International Energy Agency (IEA) declared that the U.S. could be a net exporter of oil within a decade. The IEA also projected that the U.S. will become the world’s dominant oil and gas producer. The U.S. fracking boom opened billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas to production, transforming the global energy sector in just a few years.

The controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, opposed by the Obama Administration and approved under President Trump, is seen by its supporters as a key aspect of undoing the market stronghold of OPEC and other oil cartels. The Keystone pipeline reduces U.S. reliance on oil imports from often-hostile countries by bringing crude oil from Canada, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Oklahoma to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

 

Additional reading:

Overview of the Clean Air Act and Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Nuclear Industry Explained, U.S. Energy Information Administration

Can the Great Lakes Become Fishable, Drinkable, and Swimmable Again? Natural Resources Defense Council

Drinking Water Data and Reports, Environmental Protection Agency

63 million Americans exposed to unsafe drinking water, USA Today

Turning America’s Energy Abundance into Energy Dominance, The Heritage Foundation

Energy policy, Swiss Federal Office of Energy

Swiss Energy Policy 2050, Avenir Suisse

Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN News

Factory Farms Put Climate at Risk, Inside Climate News

Meat Production and Consumption: Environmental Consequences, Procedia Food Science