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Renato Merz, Senior Manager

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Consenec Impuls Event on the Systemic Challenges in Climate Protection and Electric Mobility

20 May 2019 – FF/HAI. Electric cars instead of gas guzzlers – and all will be well? At the Consenec Impuls event held earlier this week in Baden-Dättwil, guest speaker Gil Georges discussed the systemic challenges of shifting to more ecological and sustainable means of transportation.

In Switzerland, traffic is the major source of CO2 emissions. Indeed, when air travel is added to the equation, human mobility is responsible for over 45 percent – and counting – of the country's carbon dioxide emissions.

Industry counters the trend
Although private homes, industry, and the service sector in Switzerland have succeeded in reducing emissions since 1990, traffic-related CO2 emissions are continually on the rise. Gil Georges, lecturer and group leader at the ETH Zurich Institute of Energy Technology was invited to the latest Consenec Impuls event at the ABB Research Center in Dättwill to discuss the topic. In his talk, Georges drew a clear picture of the main problem facing Switzerland on its path toward a more sustainable future: a reversal of the current trend is unrealistic, even if electric cars are gradually becoming more common.

Renato Merz, CEO of Consenec (left) with guest speaker Gil Georges.

On the road 90 minutes a day
In his talk, Georges presented a systemic approach that has the potential to effect change in the transportation sector – and that takes into account actual conditions, interdependencies, and impacts. For instance, numerous studies demonstrate that humans are on the move roughly 1.5 hours every day – a statistic that has proven stable over time. “You could call this an anthropological constant,” Georges said.

Greater distances, more powerful engines
By contrast, the average distance traveled every day – and thus the amount of CO2 emitted – is steadily on the rise. Georges explained that it makes quite a big difference whether a person spends their 90 minutes walking, riding a bike, driving a car, or sitting in an airplane. Another factor in the long-term development of Switzerland’s ecological footprint and the increase in CO2 emissions has been the growth of both the population and the economy, although technological innovations have somewhat offset the balance. The bottom line is, however, that there are now more people with more disposable income who on the whole travel longer distances – and who tend to choose cars with big, powerful engines.

A large audience came to the lecture hall at the ABB Research Center on Monday afternoon, including Stephan Attiger, Canton of Aargau Minister of Building, Transport and Energy.

Which path to sustainable mobility?
How can we reverse these trends and move toward more sustainable modes of transportation and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels? Georges presented three basic options, each of which has its own obstacles – and a different time horizon.

Wiser use of existing infrastructure
The fastest ways to make a difference would be changing consumer habits and making better use of existing infrastructure – for instance, riding bikes more in towns or encouraging commuters to leave their cars at home and travel by train. Regarding the latter point, it should be noted that a greater capacity to accommodate more commuters in public transportation would also be necessary. Related policy measures include so-called mobility pricing, which would make travel by car more expensive in urban areas. Another possible measure would be creating incentives for car-pooling.

A fact of physics – and of vanity
One thing is certain: on an everyday commute, driving a SUV that weighs 1.8 metric tons – and that is designed for fast and powerful acceleration – will do little to promote overall energy efficiency. A much smaller, lighter, less powerful – and more efficient – engine would more than meet our everyday mobility demands. But the trend of buying big, powerful cars continues unabated, and it’s unlikely that the owner of a Porsche Cayenne will volunteer to trade it in for a Smart.

Gil Georges is head of a research group in the sccer-mobility unit (see link below) at ETH Zurich.

The shift to new energy sources takes time
Gil Georges then turned his attention to the third option: electric vehicles. This option is certainly a promising way to reduce CO2 emissions, but it also has its drawbacks. First and foremost, it will require a long, perhaps a very long time until the shift is complete. Most people still buy automobiles manufactured with standard combustion engines, mainly because electric cars are prohibitively expensive and because their range is limited. Only in Norway, where a considerable amount of state funds are allocated to the promotion of electric vehicles, do electric cars make up a significant percentage of new automobile purchases.

Various scenarios on how the overall percentage of electric vehicles could develop in Switzerland.

But what is the source of electricity?
Georges noted that building electric cars – in particular, manufacturing the batteries – also generates a considerable amount of CO2 , adding the caveat that if all cars and other vehicles in Switzerland were suddenly electric, the annual power requirements would amount to some 14 terawatt hours, which is roughly 20 percent of current consumption. A key point in this regard: the additional electricity would have to come from renewable energy sources if greenhouse gases are to be sustainably reduced. Georges also mentioned that the steady increase in air traffic doesn’t enter into this equation; electric aviation is still highly hypothetical.

Showing connections – providing a basis for decisions
The ETH researcher pointed out that other, external factors must be considered – for instance, the scarcity of some natural resources used to manufacture batteries or the numerous, unanswered questions regarding recycling and disposing of the batteries. As a researcher, Gil Georges was able to explain the various interdependencies and causalities to the audience at the Consenec event. It’s up to policy-makers and society to act.