zurich Swiss skyline at night

Switzerland makes me think of Toblerone. But you’re probably more refined than that.  You might think of Rolex watches, pocket knives or cheese with holes in it. If you’re really fancy, you might say clockwork or CERN, but Switzerland is also home to the 2000-Watt Society. It’s hard to imagine what 2000-watts (or 2kW) looks like. You may be more used to watts printed on energy bills or inside the technical description of an electronic device or appliance.  How can a unit of power be used to define the standard of energy consumption of an entire country? And how has it been used to highlight the prosperity gap between the west and the developing world? We wanted to understand more about the ideas behind a 2kW society and how the concept found its way into Swiss policymaking.

What could a 2000-watt society look like?

Imagine your home heated by a geothermal pump.  Imagine solar panels on the roof.  You ride a bike instead of driving a car because the public transport links and the cycle lanes in your city and region are excellent.  You share a car with the others in your community. Your building has a free-to-use laundry with eco-friendly washing machines and driers stacked one on top of the other.  When you buy ice cream with your shopping, you store the tubs inside the chest freezer you rent whenever you need a cold store. And okay, the square footage of your house or apartment may be slightly smaller than what you’d find in the city centre but it’s perfectly formed and cheaper to rent and run.  You catch up with other residents in the onsite café, the bakery in one of the outside areas.  There’s a guesthouse for overnight visitors.  The on-site nursery and day-care mean a short commute for the little ones.  There’s plenty of green space and trees. It’s communal living, but this isn’t a commune nor was it designed for eco-warriors. What’s described above is an example of a residential complex in Zurich designed and developed to help residents achieve a 2,000-watt lifestyle. You may not be quite ready to give up your car or your washing machine, but can we all learn something from the Swiss approach to sustainability?

What is a 2000-watt society?

In 1998, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich announced that 2000 watts per person per year was enough for everyone in the world to live a comfortable life. This calculation includes domestic energy usage but also factors in the energy a person might use outside the home by taking public transport.

In 2008, the average Swiss person was using around 5.1 Kw.

  • 1500 watts for living and office space (this includes heat and hot water)
  • 1100 watts for food and consumer decisions
  • 600 watts for electricity
  • 500 watts for car travel
  • 250 watts for air travel
  • 150 watts for public transportation
  • 900 watts for public infrastructure

This gives us a better understanding of what a 2000-watt calculation really means.

Breaking down energy consumption country-by-country also highlights how unbalanced global energy consumption is.  We know that economic and industrial development drives up energy usage.  Compare the West to the developing world and the disparity among countries is clear.

Buildings lit up in a city at night

Global energy usage is unequal

The United States (12,000 watts), Canada (11,000 watts) and Europe (6,000) on average consumes far more energy than China (1,500) and Bangladesh (500), for example. If all the developing nations increase their energy usage to match that of the West, it will tip the world even closer to climate disaster. But there’s an inherent unfairness in any suggestion that developing nations shouldn’t have access to the resources that made the rest of the world prosperous This is where 2000-watts comes in.  The West must lower its energy usage down to that number even as developing nations grow toward it. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology believes this is possible without undermining the modern comfort and living standards we’ve come to expect.  Fossil fuel usage will drop with all additional energy requirements met by renewable power. It will be no surprise to most people that the energy of the future has to be sustainable.  We have to generate clean power to ensure that societies can still operate effectively even as non-renewable energy sources begin to dwindle. Fossil fuels will still make up some of the energy expenditure within the 2kW calculation but this will be greatly reduced compared to current standards. By 2150, it only wants fossil fuel use to account for around 500 watts per person. This will also help protect the planet’s resources for future generations.

 

One of the biggest advantages of the 2000-watt society approach is its methodology. It provides a framework for entire societies to become more sustainable rather than individuals or sectors working from a loose set of guidelines that are open to interpretation. According to Earthbound Report, there are currently 30 completed or in-development 2000-watt projects. The Zurich community we mentioned in the introduction is one of them.  What’s interesting is that ordinary citizens are genuinely engaging with the concept. It’s easy to assume that these communities would be unpalatable to most people used to modern luxuries. It’s promising, too, that young people bought up in 2000-watt societies will become normalised to its realities.  Even those living in traditional homes may attend 2000-watt compliant schools. Their parents may work in sustainable office buildings.  Unlike their parent's generation, they may become more used to using public transport than going in a car.

Is 2050 a realistic target?

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology believes that Switzerland can become a 2000-watt society within 100 years. Zurich aims to achieve this by 2050. Whilst feasible, it won’t be easy. Any 2kW roadmap will need alterations and revisions reflecting challenges (COVID-19, potentially) and changes in energy usage patterns. This could mean a 2050 or even 2100 target may become unrealistic further down the line. What's interesting is that only 2% of the Swiss population currently live a 2000-watt lifestyle. But the Swiss aren’t the only ones with a 2050 target.  The UK’s net-zero carbon emissions policy has a similar timeframe with a similar focus on technological innovation. For example, innovation is behind Energym's clean-energy generating indoor bike. Innovation is also driving private and public investment in the renewable energy sector, helping to create new technologies and develop existing ones in support of low-carbon economies.

The economic impact of COVID-19 could make 2050 a harder target to hit. The pandemic may have made selling an eco-agenda more difficult. Or will it highlight just how catastrophic climate change could be by comparison? It could well be that a 2kW society gains greater momentum despite the pandemic.

Bike in city square Zurich

A community built in Zurich

The 2000-watt society isn’t just a theoretical exercise but one that was built in Zurich and replicated elsewhere. Located in the north of the city, it’s won several awards.  The site doesn’t just address environmental issues but societal ones, too.  Issues that are common in most Western countries:  people living longer, more people living alone, single adults without children, etc.  The modern domestic setup is different from how it was fifty years ago. Housing projects like the one in Zurich address these issues by creating communal areas, outdoor spaces and apartment sizes that reflect changing family structures.  Housing like this is more affordable to those living alone, to single-parents or low-income families as well as to professionals and the elderly. People unable to afford an equivalent apartment in the city centre or suburbs may find community living more budget-friendly. Living outside a city centre often has its issues especially for those without access to a car but the public transport links are good with plenty of space to park bikes and car-sharing services. Utility bills are reduced, too, with around 45% of the electricity generated by photovoltaic cells on the roofs. Houses are insulated against the cold. It’s not just in housing communities, either, where changes to are being made. Swiss insurance company, Zurich has built its office in the capital using eco-friendly principles. The 2000-watt approach is also being considered in parts of India with an Indo-Swiss partnership aiming to build smart cities there.

The limitations of a 2kW approach

Only 2% of Swiss people are 2 Kw compliant. Whilst residents in the certified communities are using less energy, even they’re not on target. Even with the best intentions, it’s difficult to maintain a 2kW lifestyle.  One plane trip wipes out an entire allowance for a year. People don’t always have a choice about where and how they travel. Public transport isn’t great everywhere. Convincing people to give up their cars will be difficult. Whilst a top-down approach means that society has a roadmap to follow, it’s dependent on policymakers and companies delivering the necessary funding and support for costly projects. The Swiss model – where the public voted to pursue a 2-kW approach – won’t be popular everywhere. Taking existing buildings and infrastructure and ensuring it complies with eco-friendlier standards will be costly and challenging. The developing world will need support and incentives to switch to renewable sources of energy in areas and industries where fossil fuels are the preferred method. As Jeremy Davies writes on the Earthbound Report, the name is confusing. Watts is a measure of the flow of power rather than the total consumed.  This can make it confusing to people.  The message could be lost in translation.

How can we all live in a 2kW society?

In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert refers to a research paper that says: “Three things are needed: societal decisions. . . technical innovation, and the resolve of every individual to act in an energy-conscious way.” The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology believes that it’s possible to reduce global energy consumption but that this requires the will of people: the people in power, leaders in business, industry, engineering and construction as well as the general public. Kolbert’s article also highlights the challenges of bringing all pre-existing buildings and infrastructure in line with low-carbon emission targets. This can be expensive and far less glamourous to policymakers, developers and businesses than a shiny new eco and PR-friendly project.  A 2000-watt society would consider that.  The 50 – 100-year target is tight but doable.  The research paper referenced in Kolbert’s article concludes that ‘existing buildings can be made 80% more efficient and cars 50% more so’.

US President Joe Biden has re-joined the Paris Agreement and has stated his intentions to create jobs in the green sector.  The EU has recently signed a green deal to rebuild its economies after the COVID-19 pandemic.  It will do this by retraining workers in the coal and gas industries for jobs in the renewable sector. China looks as if it could be shifting towards a more climate-conscious environmental policy. Individuals also need to hold companies and governments accountable by supporting greener policies.  In 2008, 80% of Swiss people voted for a 2000-watt society. Wherever we are in the world, it’s important to press our political leaders towards a more sustainable future.  And when they ignore us or back-track on environmental pledges, we need to hold them accountable.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated perfectly how global issues don’t stop at international borders.  The burning of fossil fuels poses a similar problem.  The global economy makes us all vulnerable not only to extreme weather and natural disasters but also to an inevitable future in which fossil fuels have run out. The 2000-watt society’s approach isn’t perfect but its methodology helps ensure everyone is on the same page. For those worried that eco-friendlier lifestyles mean austerity and a drop in living standards, the message that nations can still be prosperous and comfortable even as they burn fewer fossil fuels is a welcome one.