Ewoud Lauwerier, Ph.D.Plastic Policy Expert
Shipping Swiss CO2 to Norway
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. 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. To this is added another 465’000 tonnes of imported urban waste, as well as construction, industrial and commercial waste, sewage sludge, and special waste (both Swiss and imported). 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 and even more than 4 times the amount of waste produced by an inhabitant of urban India, we congratulate ourselves for our new sustainable consciousness.
Instead of asking ourselves if, for example, we really need those SUV’s, and taking decisive action against the increase in C02 emissions caused by them, we prefer to let ourselves be lulled by the ecological promises of Shell and Total.
Instead of questioning the validity of an energy production depending on waste incineration, 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; 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.
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.
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. 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. We will forget all these previous projects, silently abandoned without the promised results, or with perverse effects. 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 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, the debate has been launched; 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.
-  RTS (29.05.20), Les usines d’incinération veulent capturer le CO2 pour le stocker à l’étranger; also: SwissInfo (29.07.19), How CO₂ from Swiss rubbish could end up beneath the North Sea.
-  OFEV, Statistiques des déchets > 2019 – Déchets 2019: Quantités produites et recyclées
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.; also : Statistique des déchets spéciaux 2019 (traités en Suisse) (08.12.20), Statistique des déchets spéciaux 2019 (importation) (10.12.20)
-  World Bank Group (2018), What a Waste 2.0, p. 17: “An estimated 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste were generated in 2016.”
-  Cf. Indian Council for Research on International Relations (04.01.19), Solid Waste management in India, slide 5.
-  Cf. e.a. RTS (04.12.19), Quand les garagistes vendent en priorité des SUV; Le Nouvelliste (14.02.19), Automobile: les Suisses achètent des voitures toujours plus puissantes; Asphalte.ch (16.01.17), Marché automobile suisse 2016: tendance SUV
-  International Energy Agency (15.10.19), Growing preference for SUVs challenges emissions reductions in passenger car market
-  As we learn from this presentation from Sus.lab (CO2-Transport – Olten, 3 December 2019), the Norwegian project talked about in on the RTS television journal (cf. note 1, supra) is the Northern Lights project, launched by Equinor with the support of Shell and Total (cf. Northern Lights, About the project) and other companies such as ArcelorMittal, or Heidelberg Cement (cf. Reuters (05.09.19), Norway’s CO2 seabed storage project gets boost from industry, EU). This project recently received backing from the Norwegian government, cf. Recharge (15.12.20), ‘Carbon storage as a service’: Norway backs $800m Big Oil-led CO2 capture flagship.
-  According to the response of the Federal Council to a parliamentary question by Isabelle Chevalley (17.5628), in 2017, the incineration of waste covered “approximately 2.5 percent of the total Swiss energy consumption and almost 4 percent of the Swiss production of electricity”.
-  Cf. Dao et al. (2015), Environmental limits and Swiss footprints based on Planetary Boundaries
-  Cf. SwissInfo (29.07.19), op cit.
-  Although the energy consumption in Switzerland has only slightly increased over the last 30 years (cf. OFEN, Statistique globale de l’énergie > Statistique globale suisse de l’énergie 2019, p. 21), as pointed out before, such a territorial perspective is misleading. As we can read in Dao et al. (2015), op cit., p. 2: “More than half of the environmental impacts caused by Swiss consumption occur abroad (Jungbluth et al., 2011). This share has been rising from 1996 to 2011 (Frischknecht et al., 2014).”
-  Cf. Shell (15.12.20), Creating a market for capturing carbon.
-  Cf. wbcsd (15.12.20), Carbon capture to address our climate emergency.
-  Thus, we have learned for instance about the use of CO2 for the recuperation of precious metals: RTS (25.02.20), Du CO2 pour recycler des métaux, une nouvelle méthode prometteuse; about floating solar parks on Alpine lakes: RTS (16.12.19), Le premier parc solaire flottant en milieu alpin mis en service en Valais; about a project to capture CO2 from the atmosphere: Le Temps (10.10.18), Climeworks, la société qui fait disparaître le CO2; or about an enzyme to solve the plastic crisis: Le Temps (17.04.18), Par hasard, des chercheurs créent une enzyme qui mange le plastique, rightfully questioned for being a good idea only at first sight: Le Temps (17.04.18), Une enzyme pour digérer le plastique? Une fausse bonne idée. What all these projects have in common is that they are presented as sustainable solutions on the road towards transition, but that in reality they all share the same objective; to assure through highly technological means that we can continue on the road of always more, and that we do not have to question our way of living as such.
-  Such as – as but an example – the greater than previously acknowledged negative impacts of wind turbines on certain bird populations; cf. Le Temps (19.01.17), Eoliennes et oiseaux: le problème est plus sérieux qu’il n’en a l’air ; also: Marques A.T. et al. (Journal of Animal Ecology, 2019), Wind turbines cause functional habitat loss for migratory soaring birds. Or, the increasing rush on precious metals needed for the production of batteries and photovoltaic cells with all the environmental and social destruction it implies; cf. RTS (05.09.20), L’approvisionnement européen en matières premières doit être sécurisé; and: Perez & Pitron (docu Arte, 26.11.20), L’illusion de l’énergie verte.La face cachée des énergies vertes.
-  Because, let it be clear, Carbon Capture and Storage, of course, should first of all offer business- and financial opportunities; cf. Global CCS Institute (16.10.20), Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Assessments and CCS.
-  VBSA, Actuel > 04.12.2020 : Le captage du CO2 dans les UVTD fait partie des perspectives énergétiques de l’OFEN pour 2050; also: OFEN, Perspectives énergétiques 2050+.
-  RTS (29.05.20), op cit.