Ewoud Lauwerier, Ph.D.Plastic Policy Expert

Instead of having honest discussions about decreasing CO2 emissions, we think it wise to send ships on a journey of thousands of km.


Shipping Swiss CO2 to Norway

May 19, 2021

Not a week goes by without a new ecomodernist project being presented as a revolutionary step towards sustainability. Announced with aplomb, it conveniently offers the most recent technological solution for the transition to a better world. In the ecomodernist vision, a world where we will essentially be able to live as we do today, but even better: large, at lightning speed, and with continuously growing consumption; but without the drawbacks of natural and social destruction that are currently spoiling the party. And all this, thanks to progress – that dogma of our times – which will allow us, Homo sapiens, to always find technological solutions to problems we created ourselves in the first place.

One of the latest panaceas? Capturing CO2 emissions from Swiss incineration plants to be stored abroad[1]. Of course, technically it is possible. And yet, as things stand, it is a bad idea. To the extent that it is disconnected from any larger reflection, the project is but a stopgap. In the absence of an honest questioning of our lifestyle, it is symptomatic of the still largely dominant view that in the end the problem is not so much our way of living, but only how to deal with the embarrassing effects thereof; these externalizations that confront us with an inconvenient truth: we humans are part of a planet which is ultimately finite.

So, capturing the CO2 that results from the mass incineration of waste produced by the frantic consumption of goods, the main share of which has been imported from elsewhere, to ship it off to somewhere far away; seriously?!?

Let us briefly recall some facts. According to the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Switzerland in 2019 (latest figures available) produced 6’078’000 tonnes of urban waste, or 703 kg per capita. 2’857’000 tonnes (330 kg / capita), or 47% of this waste was incinerated[2]. To this is added another 465’000 tonnes of imported urban waste[3], as well as construction, industrial and commercial waste, sewage sludge, and special waste (both Swiss and imported)[4]. Thus, in 2019, 4’059’000 tonnes of waste were incinerated in Switzerland’s 30 incineration plants.

And now, instead of questioning the common sense of such a mass production of waste, we are going to store the waste from this waste off the coast of Norway?

Instead of wondering how to morally justify a Swiss per capita waste production that is more than 2.6 times the world average[5] and even more than 4 times the amount of waste produced by an inhabitant of urban India[6], we congratulate ourselves for our new sustainable consciousness.

Instead of asking ourselves if, for example, we really need those SUV’s[7], and taking decisive action against the increase in C02 emissions caused by them[8], we prefer to let ourselves be lulled by the ecological promises of Shell and Total[9].

Instead of questioning the validity of an energy production depending on waste incineration[10], we wish to believe that we will achieve zero carbon by developing a vast network of pipelines to transport 4.5% of the CO2 emitted in Switzerland, first to Genoa, and then by ship to Norway.

Instead of being honest with ourselves and considering systematically, not the emissions from Swiss production, but from Swiss consumption[11]; we prefer to play the sorcerer’s apprentice once again and embark on a project of which the real ecological impact is, and will remain, very uncertain[12].

Instead of having an honest discussion about what we are doing to structurally decrease not only our CO2 emissions, but all pollutants, we think it wise to send ship after ship on a journey of thousands of km.

Instead of reflecting on our growing energy dependence[13], we believe it opportune to create a new green industry[14] with all the financial interests this implies.

Of course, I do not doubt it; we are going to give ourselves studies, reports, analyses, calculations, telling us that now we know what we are doing, that this time we are on the road to true transition[15]. We are going to praise humanity’s ability to overcome any challenge. We are going to tell ourselves that at least we’re doing something. We are going to reassure ourselves that this time we really understand; that now we’re going to live differently. But most of all, we will continue to believe that living differently consists in announcing each month a new technological solution which will essentially allow us to continue living as before.

And, we are going to forget all these other ecomodernist projects, each one announced with great confidence[16]. We will forget all these previous projects, silently abandoned without the promised results, or with perverse effects[17]. And we will not allow ourselves to see how also this latest project, born out of a techno-scientific infatuation, is nothing more than a potentially dangerous chimera; a lucrative[18] smokescreen that prevents us from acting for the real transition: that of our basic values, of our attitude towards the planet that nourishes us, of our relation with other species, of our relation with ourselves.

I hope that I am deeply mistaken. Although the Confederation has already assured its support for the project[19], the debate has been launched[20]; so let us discuss it! But, let it be an open and serious discussion. Let it not be limited to a mere technical debate about just this project, but let us dare to question the relevance of this kind of large industrial projects per se. Let us dare to critically examine the financial interests that are behind. Let us dare to question our recurring attitude of sorcerer’s apprentices.

Let us dare to wonder if we really know; if we actually can know the full impact of our actions on the terrestrial ecosystem. Let us dare to reflect on our tendency towards hiding the effects of our systematic overconsumption instead of drastically reducing it. Let us dare to question our way of living to the detriment of nature, humans included. Let us dare to question our ecomodernist vision which pushes us towards such projects. Let us have the courage to discuss the project in this larger context, and I will be wrong. If so, I will gladly apologize.