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23.01.16 16:05 Building a breathable planet

Former Swiss Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger introducing car exhaust filters in 2006 in response to poor air quality.


In the wake of the Paris COP21 agreement last month, the search is on to find reliable metrics to measure the specific promises of individual countries to reduce global warming. The Paris deal has benchmarks which will be checked up on at regular intervals.

For the last 10 years, Yale University has been producing its own Environmental Performance Index (EPI) that measures 180 countries in the areas of carbon emission, water quality and resources, biodiversity, forests, agriculture, fisheries, air quality and deaths by pollution.

Yale was in Davos promoting its research as a possible means of monitoring the post-Paris environmental record of countries. Switzerland might not like that.

In 2014 Switzerland was awarded top marks, but in 2015 (measured by the current report issued today), the alpine state slumped to 16thexternal link. The reason is surprising – poor air quality where Switzerland ranks 127th out of 180. That’s a worse rating than Indonesia (92) and Singapore (54).

For anyone who has skied or hiked in the Alps, that might come as a bit of an eye opener. Of course, cities and other urban areas are more polluted, but is the air quality in Switzerland really any worse than in Indonesia?

The issue, it seems, is that some new data has been factored into the latest EPI study – namely, deaths caused by air pollution. I’ve yet to receive Yale's data (2-3,000 premature deaths per year was quoted in a report from the Swiss Office for the Environment issued last year), but could it be that Switzerland’s reporting of air pollution deaths is somewhat more transparent than other countries?

Having said that, Switzerland’s image as a land of clean air (long before WEF, people used to come to Davos to treat tuberculosis) is not quite as realistic as many people would imagine. In December 2014, Switzerland fell from 8th to 11th spot in the Climate Change Performance Index, compiled by Climate Action Networks and Germanwatch.

One of the reasons (but not the only one) was, again, air pollution - in this case specifically caused by air traffic. The Environment Switzerland 2015external link report (the source of the air pollution deaths statistic cited above) said that air quality had improved over the last 25 years but admitted that more could be done.

Back to Yale’s EPI report. How does Switzerland score in other areas? Very high in water resources (6th) and sanitation (9th) and forests (17th), not bad in carbon emissions (35th) and biodiversity (49th), but slipping up a bit in agriculture (63rd) and deaths from pollution (66th).

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