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Cleaner than thou….

Published on 10 June 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

I don’t want to point fingers in the matter of climate change – God knows that there is too much finger pointing and wagging by far. It’s bad for the issue, and bad for the liver.

A study has just come out of Switzerland, however, whose results are worth pondering. The title is “Environmental Impacts of Swiss Production and Consumption” and can be found, in its entirety, on the net[1]. While this is not the first study of this kind, it the most recent and, for a brief moment, it can therefore be considered “state of the art” – if one can speak of art in this complex area.

The key finding is as follows: “The environmental impact generated by consumption in Switzerland is then calculated as direct emissions plus imports minus exports. This amounts to about 20 million eco-points per year and person and is thus about twice as high as the impacts generated directly within Switzerland. Around 60% of the total environmental impact arising from the final demand in Switzerland accumulates in other countries. For a true and fair picture of the environmental impact of Swiss consumption therefore, the environmental impact of imports must be added to Switzerland’s environmental account and the environmental impact of exports must be deducted from it.”

In other words, over half of Switzerland’s “environmental footprint” accrues abroad. This is a fundamental – as well as a “true and fair” – insight. Some countries, which shall remain unnamed in order not to provoke pointless controversy, are being loudly – and it turns out unjustly – chided for doing Switzerland’s (and other countries’) dirty work. This is not helpful. It may make economic sense to concentrate production in this or that country – and then trade in accordance with comparative advantage. Countries should not be penalized, however, for being the manufacturer of last resort”.

I may add here a fascinating footnote on the science of climate change. Until 1986 it was thought that the oceans held no viruses – and what are viruses anyway? Well, it turns out they are plentiful in the oceans, and an essential element of the worldwide ecosystem. A rough estimate is that 10% of the oxygen you breathe is obtained with virus genes[2].

I’d therefore like to conclude with two unassailable reflections:

  • Emerging climate change science will yield many surprises still – positive and negative.
  • The most likely place where we’ll make such discoveries is the world of the oceans. Life is water based, after all. We land-lubber apes have only an inkling of an idea of what’s happening beneath the waves.

[2] See Carl ZIMMER (2011): A planet of viruses. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pg. 45.

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