Exploring solutions to the environmental crisis

Sonia Seneviratne, ETH Zurich © 2024 EPFL//Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Sonia Seneviratne, ETH Zurich © 2024 EPFL//Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

More than twenty EPFL researchers and three guest speakers contributed to the first EPFL Symposium on Research & Sustainability, highlighting the diversity and complementarity of scientific and engineering approaches.

On May 16, 2024, EPFL gathered an impressive mix of researchers from its laboratories, centers, platforms, and various initiatives for the first Symposium on Research & Sustainability. Launched by the Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation and organized in collaboration with the Associate Vice Presidency for Centers and Platforms, the Associate Vice Presidency for Research, E4S, and Climact, the symposium also featured invited talks and attracted nearly 200 participants throughout the day.

Gisou van der Goot, Vice President for Responsible Transformation, greeted the audience and emphasized the enormous potential for synergies represented by the vibrant EPFL community. “Nowadays, promoting Sustainability is key to a university’s reputation. It shows that the institution is responsible, accountable and committed to addressing societal challenges. This is what students, new Faculty and the society are seeking and expecting of us. Every single person within the institution has a role to play, whether their research or studies are related to sustainability or not. As a university we need to lead by example”, she said in her introduction.

At EPFL we count with super smart people and this intelligence is and should be at use for a better world.

Anna Fontcuberta i Morral, Associate Vice President for Centers and Platforms

Anna Fontcuberta i Morral, Associate Vice President for Centers and Platforms, added, “At EPFL we count with super smart people and this intelligence is and should be at use for a better world.”

This introduction was followed by invited contributions, including Sonia Seneviratne, Vice-Chair of the IPCC Working Group 1 and professor at ETH Zurich.

Call for immediate action

Sonia Seneviratne delivered a compelling speech on the climate crisis and the urgent need for achieving net-zero CO2 emissions. She emphasized that global temperatures have risen by 1.1°C since 2011, with 2023 being recorded as the hottest year ever. Since the rise in atmospheric CO2 is in majority related to our reliance on fossil fuels, “the climate crisis is an energy crisis,” she said. She reminded that CO2 remains in the atmosphere for very long times, causing changes that are largely irreversible for hundreds of generations.

She made use of some frightening numbers. An extreme heatwave in Europe in 2022 resulted in 61,000 deaths. The devastating floods in Pakistan the same year caused over 1,700 deaths and $30 billion in damages and economic losses. Canadian wildfires in 2023 amounted to three times the country's usual annual emissions. Every region across the globe is affected, with Switzerland, for example, experiencing a temperature increase of more than 2.5°C since 1864.

Seneviratne coordinated the IPCC Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report, which addressed the most up-to-date physical understanding of the climate system and climate change in 2021. Involving 234 lead authors from 65 countries, this extensive report exceeds 2,000 pages, but she recommends reading the 10-page summary for a concise overview.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C could significantly reduce risks to food supply and biodiversity loss, she explained. In her presentation, Seneviratne called for immediate action to address the climate crisis. The first essential step is to halve CO2 emissions by 2030 and aim for net-zero by 2040, meaning a 90% reduction in emissions. “The window to act is closing rapidly,” she said.

“Currently, we are not on track to meet these goals,” Seneviratne warned. She also stated that the transition to zero-emission energy is more cost-effective than the economic damages caused by carbon-emitting energy sources.

Researchers can contribute in many ways to accelerate change, both through their research and their actions!

Sonia Seneviratne, ETH Zurich

Collective action is crucial in addressing this crisis. But “individuals can make a difference too”, she said, through lifestyle changes, such as adopting a healthy diet and flying less. “A world without CO2 emissions offers numerous co-benefits,” she added: reduced air pollution, less noise, improved health, enhanced geopolitical security, and decreased reliance on autocratic regimes.

Seneviratne appealed to the audience to "make the change irresistible”: “Researchers can contribute in many ways to accelerate change, both through their research and their actions!” she concluded.

Working together with stakeholders

Michaël Aklin, professor holding the EPFL Chair of Policy and Sustainability and co-head of E4S, was the next speaker. He talked about the obstacles to the clean energy transition. Using examples from his research in India and the USA, he showed that technology and policy alone cannot solve problems if disconnected from people’s needs and realities. “State involvement is necessary and unavoidable,” was his message.

Peter Edwards, professor emeritus at ETH Zurich and chair of the Swiss Academies’ Sustainability Research Initiative, echoed this sentiment. “You have to work things out together!” he said, calling for the co-production of knowledge and the sharing of information among societal and academia stakeholders to achieve a sustainability transition. Peter Edwards called universities to change their way of functioning from institutions that hand over their findings to society to institutions that work hand in hand with various societal stakeholders. One promising way to achieve this change would be to establish large integrated funding ‘lighthouse programmes’ designed to support impact-oriented research and innovation for sustainable development.

A wide range of topics

After the introductory session, the rest of the day was devoted to presentations by different EPFL labs, centers, platforms, and initiatives. Topics included greener data centers, fungi-based biodegradable materials, solar-driven fuel production, fighting coral-bleaching, and the effect of clouds on climate. Two MAKE projects managed by students addressed reuse of materials in construction works and a portable DNA analysis tool for studying biodiversity in the field.

During the third session, six EPFL-affiliated centers presented their initiatives towards a more sustainable world through coordination of research, partnerships with industry and government, and reaching out to the civil society.

Then seven projects of the Solutions4Sustainability initiative, funded by EPFL to serve as scale-up demonstrators on campus, presented their progress.

The final word went to Prof. Harry Atwater, who was connected via videoconference from Caltech, USA, and presented two of his recent projects. Harry Atwater is a highly cited scientist and a serial entrepreneur in the green energy sector. First, he explained the role of oceans in maintaining the equilibrium of CO2 in the atmosphere and how removing CO2 from oceans may be the most optimal path for carbon capture. He presented a technology that removes CO2 in an efficient and clean manner and discussed how he is currently scaling it with the start-up Captura to remove a million tons of CO2 per year. He also explained how the captured CO2 can be further transformed into fuel using solar energy and presented the results on this topic on behalf of his group and collaborators.

“It was a fantastic day, in which we learned specifics on the climate crisis and how we could tackle some of the challenges. We also learned how much is done at EPFL and how much we are committed. I am very proud of the energy and effort we put on this!” concluded Anna Fontcuberta i Morral.