5 Master's theses awarded on adaptation to climate change

From left to right: Loé Maire, Alexis Barrou, Julie Grieshaber, Jean-André Davy—Guidicelli, Sophie Desbiolles © Xavier Nussbaum 2022 EPFL

From left to right: Loé Maire, Alexis Barrou, Julie Grieshaber, Jean-André Davy—Guidicelli, Sophie Desbiolles © Xavier Nussbaum 2022 EPFL

The 2022 Durabilis prize list brings together individual works on different ways of dealing with global warming, from a technological point of view on the EPFL side and a cultural point of view on the UNIL side. Summary of their work and comments from the jury.

The Jury of the Durabilis UNIL-EPFL Competition, chaired by Augustin Fragnière, awarded on December 7, 2022 five prizes of CHF 1000 each for Master's theses. Three of them were done at ENAC and two at the University of Lausanne. Since 2007, this prize has been awarded to Bachelor's and Master's theses that include a reflection on sustainability. Candidates must have obtained a minimum grade of 5 out of 6 to compete.

Twenty-four applications were submitted this year. The University of Lausanne, which was absent from last year's prize-winning works, is back as the alma mater of two prize-winning students. They both emphasize the importance of narratives and imaginary worlds in triggering transition. The three EPFL winners, meanwhile, focus on the technological and natural challenges of overcoming global warming.

Life cycle of photovoltaic panels

Alexis Barrou (EPFL-ENAC) - Life Cycle Analysis & Sustainable Technological Roadmap for Photovoltaic Panels: Case Study with the Silicon Heterojunction Technology

In this case study for his master's degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering, the student used life cycle analysis tools to steer photovoltaic technologies toward greater environmental sobriety and social equity. He collected recent, first-hand data from current solar panel manufacturers to obtain a comprehensive, up-to-date mapping of the environmental impacts of photovoltaic systems. Then, by highlighting key contributors for each impact category (e.g., climate change, resource use, particulate matters), he identified the most promising technology solutions to reduce these impacts. Finally, it proposed a roadmap for integrating these technological innovations with materials produced locally and under ethical conditions, for example using European silicon wafers.

Demonstrating a forward-looking vision that is both serious and pragmatic, this research provides a welcome critical look at the production strategies of photovoltaic technologies. It fills an important knowledge gap and suggests interesting ways to develop production in the European market while reducing its environmental impact.

Laudatio of the jury

Capturing carbon in biochar

Jean-André Davy- -Guidicelli (EPFL-ENAC) – The Role of Biochar and Peatlands in Reaching Swiss Net Zero

This master thesis in the section of Environmental Sciences and Engineering explores the role of biochar production and peatland renaturation as a natural solution to reach Net Zero in Switzerland by 2050. The student proposes a methodology to estimate the biochar production capacity in Switzerland from the biomass potential at the communal scale. He creates a model to evaluate current and future GHG emissions from peatlands, with the emission savings that a given rewetting scenario would represent compared to a baseline scenario. According to the student's estimates, Switzerland would thus have the capacity to offset the equivalent of one million Paris-New York round trips per year. This thesis is an invitation to rethink our agricultural system and the Swiss diet, moving from a productivist model to a resilient model.

This work rigorously examines the potential for carbon sequestration through peatland restoration and industrial biochar production. The data collected and mapped provide an excellent knowledge base for further research and implementation of two promising solutions to achieve carbon neutrality (net zero) in Switzerland by 2050.

Laudatio of the jury

Water management, biodiversity and comfort

Loé Maire (EPFL-ENAC) - Adaptation des villes au changement climatique : un campus EPFL bleu-vert (Adapting cities to climate change: a blue-green EPFL campus)

This master project in the section of Environmental Sciences and Engineering aimed to create a tool to quantify and qualify the adaptation of cities to climate change. This "Blue-Green Matrix" was developed around three themes: water management, biodiversity and urban comfort. For the water management issue, infiltration, retention and water storage indicators have been set up. Concerning the protection of biodiversity, the indicators of ecological continuity and diversity of environments are used. Finally, comfort in the urban environment is measured using indicators of albedo (the proportion of solar radiation that is reflected back into the atmosphere), shade and the quantity and quality of urban furniture. For each of these eight indicators a quantification methodology has been set up. The Blue-Green Matrix was tested on three areas of the EPFL campus.

This was a very rich work, both conceptually and practically, to develop a tool that will allow municipalities to assess their exposure to extreme precipitation and heat islands, and then to identify measures to mitigate these risks while promoting biodiversity.

Laudatio of the jury

Scenarios to make the transition desirable

Sophie Desbiolles (UNIL) - La mise en récit de la transition écologique et le nouveau genre de la transi-fi (Putting the ecological transition into narrative and the new genre of transi-fi)

Fiction is a tool of choice for the ecological transition: by creating alternative imaginaries, it could not only show the way, but above all make it more desirable. However, by analyzing film production, this master's thesis written at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment finds that the ecological transition as a choice, with its mitigation and adaptation strategies, is the great absentee of representations. The student therefore proposes a new concept of transition fiction, named "transi-fi", which in the form of a series would allow to approach the challenges of the Anthropocene in a more inspiring way. This concept would integrate a more important role dedicated to the non-human, would recognize human responsibility in environmental degradation, would operate on a time scale starting from the present - and not from the future - while multiplying local and global scales, and finally would present successful examples of ecological transition.

Through an extensive exploration of existing works of fiction, an in-depth analysis and a solid argument, the author convinces us, in a pleasant memoir, that the emergence of a new film genre, the "transi-fi", can be a concrete and promising lever for action in the service of sustainability.

Laudatio of the jury

Theater as a prescriber

Julie Grieshaber (UNIL) - L'intégration d'une démarche de durabilité dans une institution culturelle: rôles, motivations et barrières. Etude du théâtre Vidy-Lausanne(The integration of a sustainability approach in a cultural institution: roles, motivations and barriers. Study of the Vidy-Lausanne theater")

This master thesis, conducted at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, argues that cultural institutions are predestined to become opinion leaders and role models for inspiring actions towards sustainability. Taking the case of the Théâtre de Vidy, which has decided to place ecology at the center of its activities, the student conducted interviews with staff members and external experts. Her work allowed her to develop a conceptual model of environmental commitment for the performing arts sector, considering the drivers and barriers at different levels that influence the environmental commitment of this type of institution. This study confirms the need to consider cultural institutions as key players in the ecological transition in their ability to create narratives and build imaginary worlds.

This is a major work, dealing with the multiple dimensions of the role of a cultural institution such as the Théâtre de Vidy in the pursuit of the ecological and social transition. Profound in its critical approach and in the linking of results, this work should serve as a basis for reflection for any cultural institution dedicated to sustainability.

Laudatio of the jury

The presentation of the Durabilis 2022 Awards was preceded by a lecture by Prof. Nicolas Senn, from the Department of Family Medicine at Unisanté, Lausanne, on the theme of his recent book: Health and Environment. Towards a new global approach.