ETH Domain

Research for crisis management

Species decline, increasing extreme weather events as a fallout of global warming and, on top of it all, the war in Ukraine, which has also brought about uncertainties regarding energy supply and digital transformation: We are living in a challenging time in which several crises are being felt at once. Meanwhile, scientists from the ETH Domain are faced with a lot to tackle. They are investigating a diverse range of issues. Drawing on the expertise they have acquired, they are developing proposals for solutions to assist citizens, the authorities and politicians with advice and support.
The ETH Domain's experts are proposing solutions to the many different crises that are occurring. (© ETH Board / Shutterstock)

The summer of 2022 was exceptionally hot and dry once again. It claimed tens of thousands of lives across Europe and showed that, in the words of Sonia Seneviratne – Department of Environmental System Sciences professor and a lead author of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – “even our water-rich country is not immune to water shortages. Especially since the ice reserves in the Alps are shrinking at a record pace” (ETH Zurich’s Zukunftsblog). She and her team have calculated that these drought conditions are now to be expected around once every 20 years given the current climate.Without human-induced global warming, such extreme events would only be expected every 400 years. “The summer of 2022 should be a wake-up call for us”, writes Seneviratne. “We need a radical phase out of oil, gas and coal – as quickly as possible.”

More vulnerable than 50 years ago

The Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich also deals with multidimensional crises and conflicts. “The array of threats has broadened since the Cold War era”, says professor Andreas Wenger, Director of the CSS. Whereas in the past the focus was on enemy tanks, in the context of the war in Ukraine, it is now also a matter of arming against cyberattacks or a power shortage. At the same time, the world has become more vulnerable due to the many interdependencies and critical dependencies. “Because of global supply chains, even seemingly far-removed conflicts affect us much more today than they did 50 years ago”, explains Wenger.

«We need a centralised leadership support system so that a network of experts can be called upon at any time if necessary.»      Professor Andreas Wenger, Director of the Center for Security Studies (CSS)

In Switzerland, he observes, individual threats are too often viewed in isolation and responses thus planned in contextual vacuums. As a result, the bigger picture is in danger of being lost, all the more so because there is only one body in the Swiss political system that has an overall view. “The Federal Council is responsible for interdepartmental coordination. But we also need a centralised leadership support system so that a network of experts can be called upon at any time if necessary”, stresses Wenger. The Federal Council also sees the need to establish an interdisciplinary network to form ad-hoc committees. Wenger adds that the EU, for example, has a joint fleet of firefighting aircraft. This demonstrates how leadership strategies are increasingly being based on international cooperation. “Switzerland still has some catching up to do in this respect” says Wenger.

Efficient, clean and reliable energy system of the future

Peter Richner, Head of Research Focus Area “Energy” and Deputy Director of Empa, also sees a need to catch up. “Switzerland has been dormant for decades, both in the expansion of renewable energies and in digitalisation”, says Richner. Only now has it awakened – in the face of crisis. “Now people are interested in the solutions we have been working on for a long time.” Richner gives numerous examples in the discussion. They range from the world record for efficiency in thin-film photovoltaics to the development of intelligent heating control technology and the establishment of a hydrogen filling station network for decarbonised truck transportation. Despite these impressively diverse means: “Empa is pursuing a single strategy. We need to switch to renewable energy – and use it sparingly and carefully”, explains Richner.

Mario Paolone, professor and Chair of the EPFL Energy Centre (CEN), is also dealing with many different technical aspects of energy transition. Together with partners from academia and industry, the consortium has developed new methods and technologies to ensure Switzerland is able to be reliably supplied with clean electricity in the future, and conducted experimental testing on these solutions. This has resulted in various tools that can, for example, predict regional electricity production from wind and solar energy based on weather data or support grid operators in maintaining optimal and stable conditions in the electricity grid, even during extreme weather events. “In terms of what modern technologies can offer energy entrepreneurs, we absolutely need the participation of political decision-makers at various levels, from the municipalities to the cantons to the federal government," Paolone emphasises.

Trust in the digital world

The EPFL Center for Digital Trust, or C4DT for short, does not deal with the electricity crisis, rather a very different crisis. “Trust is based on the ability to read the intentions of a counterpart”, says its academic director Jean-Pierre Hubaux. “How can this ability, acquired over millennia, be transferred to the digital world, where I, as a user, must constantly question things such as: Is this video authentic or not?” Hubaux describes the C4DT as an interface between research, business and politics. The centre works on a variety of different projects with 20 different partners, including the University Hospital of the Canton of Vaud (CHUV) and Swisscom, as well as the private bank Lombard Odier and the Federal Office for Defence Procurement armasuisse.

«Trust is based on the ability to read the intentions of a counterpart.»      Jean-Pierre Hubaux, academic director of the EPFL Center for Digital Trust

The projects concern the use of artificial intelligence to automatically identify the risks associated with technological innovations at an early stage. They also develop methods to enable humanitarian organisations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, to defend themselves against social media attacks. “Innovation means technology transfer”, says Hubaux. “Our role is one of enabling: We create touch points.”

Twice as much energy from sustainably used biomass

Oliver Kröcher, senior researcher at PSI, does not need to establish new touch points in politics, business and civil society. “People’s interest in biomass as an energy source has always been there”, states Kröcher. But now that prices are higher, interest has also increased significantly. “Today, energy from biomass is nearing the financial break-even point.” As it stands, energy derived from wood, crop waste or even manure covers about 5% of the energy demand. “With optimal sustainable use, we could double this amount”, claims Kröcher.

Firstly, he refers to technical innovations. For example, researchers are developing new thermochemical methods to convert biomass into liquid fuel. He also highlights that in order to better harness this potential we must utilise the wood in our forests more efficiently, instead of leaving it on the forest floor and allowing it to eventually rot away. That said, Kröcher quickly stresses that this does not mean removing all of the wood. This is because: “The dead wood in the forest is good for biodiversity”.

Forests, biodiversity and resilience

“Biodiverse forests are resilient forests”, says Arthur Gessler, who heads the LongTerm Forest Ecosystem Research programme at WSL. “After the record summer of 2003, we were still considered scaremongers when we warned people that various tree species such as fir and beech could increasingly encounter issues”, Gessler recalls. But now, following the exceptionally warm and dry years of 2018, 2019 and 2022, there has been a general rethink. Together with his colleagues, Gessler is envisioning scenarios of what the local forest of the future could look like. He advises forest owners not to delay in establishing mixed forests. “It’s just like a stock portfolio. If they bet on five species instead of just one, the chance that something will take root and continue to successfully adapt to changing environmental conditions increases”, explains Gessler.

Mixed forests are somewhat more complex in terms of timber uses, but more widespread in Switzerland than in France or Germany, for example, because here it is not so much the timber yield but other forest services such as avalanche protection that often play a major role. In addition, forests are the largest terrestrial carbon sinks. How forestry can contribute to achieving the goal of net zero emissions is therefore a key topic in the exchange with practitioners, which Gessler also oversees regularly as head of the forest research network SwissForestLab.

Understanding the importance of landscape

The significance of the forest as an energy supply is firmly established among Swiss citizens. “But nowadays, the potential locations for energy infrastructures being debated extend to every type of landscape”, says Felix Kienast, an expert on land-use systems at WSL. Together with his colleagues, Marcel Hunziker and Boris Salak, he recently conducted a Switzerland-wide survey.

«Wind turbines or photovoltaic plants in untouched landscapes are a no-go for many people.»      Felix Kienast, expert on land-use systems at WSL

The researchers showed survey participants typical Swiss landscapes that had been virtually equipped with various energy infrastructures. “There is a high social acceptance for installations in areas that already house man-made structures like roads, settlements or tourist infrastructures such as ski lifts. But wind turbines or photovoltaic plants in untouched landscapes are a no-go for many people”, says Kienast.

The significance of a landscape plays a role in such decisions. It’s no use trying to convince people with technocratic arguments alone, such as the number of megawatts a new power plant would generate. It is much more effective to balance the importance of the energy infrastructure with the significance of the landscape. He observed, for example, how the initial scepticism of farmers in Jura towards the wind turbines on their land dissipated when they began to see themselves as climate pioneers.

Amphibian ponds for biodiversity

Rolf Holderegger, member of the Directorate and head of the Biodiversity and Conservation Biology research unit at WSL, explains that over 90% of Switzerland’s moorlands have disappeared in the last hundred years.

“Moorlands are particularly species-rich areas”, explains Holderegger. As such, watercourse redirections and land drainage have been accompanied by a loss of biodiversity. The drainage process itself also has an impact on the climate. “The peat on drained agricultural areas decomposes and releases large quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide”, states Holderegger.

He adds a different perspective when describing the current development of biodiversity. There is continuing species decline, especially when it comes to rare species, but there are also positive signs. Hundreds of new ponds and pools have been created in the canton of Aargau. As a result, amphibian populations have increased. “A study has shown that such measures are actually useful and yield successful results when implemented.”

Solutions inspired by nature

Peter Bach, who researches blue-green infrastructures at Eawag, offers a similarly pragmatic insight. The way cities are built today is ill-equipped for climate change because their large asphalt and concrete surfaces seal the soil and trap heat, Bach explains. With skilful planning – such as the enhancement of urban parks and networking of green spaces – we can ensure that more water can evaporate and drain away.

“The sponge city concept would restore the natural water cycle”, says Bach. With his interdisciplinary team, he is involved in several projects in different cities around Switzerland. He is generally met with a high level of interest and great acceptance because his natureinspired solutions are multifunctional and combine several advantages at once. “Green spaces with trees in cities not only protect against flooding, but also reduce the ambient temperature. What’s more, they increase the biodiversity in settlement areas – and the quality of life of the residents”, says Bach.