From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH): “An ecological turnaround can be achieved”

From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH)

22.05.2022
Christoph Küffer

Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it’s our life support system. Dwindling biodiversity endangers the very foundation of our existence. A turnaround is possible but only if we all want it, says Christoph Küffer.

The scale of the biodiversity crisis is such that it can no longer be tackled by a handful of nature protection areas and a couple of volunteers. Nature conservation has gone from a mere hobby to a global issue demanding commitment and concerted action. And this is what the “International Day for Biological Diversity” calls to our attention [1].


Foster nature wherever possible. (Photograph: Vallerato / Adobe Stock)

The day dates to 22 May 1992 when countries around the world together drew up the Convention on Biological Diversity [2], setting out commitments for saving the ecological underpinnings of life. Yet today, exactly 30 years later we’ve little reason to celebrate.

Ecological degradation poses a systemic risk

Worldwide, population sizes of vertebrates such as mammals, birds and fish have seen an alarming average drop of 68 percent since 1970 [3]. And the situation is just as drastic for other species groups such as insects [4] and plants [5]. The rate of extinction is accelerating [6], jeopardizing the very foundation of our existence.

Politicians and business leaders around the world have now taken this on board. The UK economic and finance ministry speaks of nature as “our most precious asset”, and of a collective failure to engage sustainably with nature [7]. The WEF lists biodiversity loss as a top global risk [8], while Swiss Re finds a fifth of countries worldwide are threatened by ecosystem collapse [9].

An ecological turnaround is possible

It’s widely agreed that any further depletion of nature will lead to collapse. We’re already seeing a profusion of conflicts between expanding land use and last ecological refugia: intensive or organic agriculture? Dense or green cities? Renewable energy in nature reserves?

As an ecologist, I seek to show that ecological alternatives and win-​win situations are possible. Restoring damaged ecosystems [10] enhances synergies:

Humans need nature: instead of separating our lives from nature, we should engage in rich relationships with other living beings and our ecological lifeworld. Being close to nature improves our quality of life and promotes health [11].

All landscape is nature: instead of protecting isolated pockets, we should regenerate all the exploited landscape. Restored landscapes buffer climate extremes, improve the landscape beauty and safeguard the services we receive from nature, such as pollination.

The economy needs nature: an ecological economy builds natural capital instead of destroying it. As many of our activities as possible should protect, restore or sustainably use the landscape.

Working with rather than against nature

Such “nature-​based” solutions [12] work in tandem with nature, generate income and – if well thought out – benefit biodiversity. For instance, agroecology can yield more robust crops and healthy soils, forests and peatlands mitigate climate change, and mangroves protect coastal areas.

This year, the International Day for Biological Diversity challenges us to “build a shared future for all life”. We can do this by fostering rich relationships with nature in our daily lives, promoting education and research on ecology and nature-​based solutions, and investing in a nature-​based economy.

References:

1 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): International Day for Biological Diversity.

2 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): Global Biodiversity Outlook 5.

3 WWF: Living Planet Report 2020

4 Widmer I, Mühlethaler R et al. (2021) Insektenvielfalt in der Schweiz: Bedeutung, Trends, Handlungsoptionen. Swiss Academies Factsheets 16 (4).

5 Federal Office for the Environment FOEN: Rote Liste Gefässpflanzen.

6 SCNAT Swiss Biodiversity Forum: Weltbiodiversitätsrat warnt vor drastisch beschleunigtem Artensterben.

7 UK Government: The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review (2021).

8 WEF: Global Risk Report 2021: These are the top risks for business in the post-​COVID world.

9 Swiss Re: A fifth of countries worldwide at risk from ecosystem collapse as biodiversity declines (2020).

10 The UN has declared 2021-​2030 the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.

11 Recent research under the heading of “Biophilia” shows how strongly our health and quality of life hinge on a natural living environment. See SCNAT Swiss Biodiversity Forum: Biodiversity, a guarantee of health?.

12 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): Nature-​based Solutions for people and planet.

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ETH Zurich campus

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH) is a public research university in the city of Zürich, Switzerland. Founded by the Swiss Federal Government in 1854 with the stated mission to educate engineers and scientists, the school focuses exclusively on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Like its sister institution The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne](CH) , it is part of The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain (ETH Domain)) , part of the The Swiss Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research [EAER][Eidgenössisches Departement für Wirtschaft, Bildung und Forschung] [Département fédéral de l’économie, de la formation et de la recherche] (CH).

The university is an attractive destination for international students thanks to low tuition fees of 809 CHF per semester, PhD and graduate salaries that are amongst the world’s highest, and a world-class reputation in academia and industry. There are currently 22,200 students from over 120 countries, of which 4,180 are pursuing doctoral degrees. In the 2021 edition of the QS World University Rankings ETH Zürich is ranked 6th in the world and 8th by the Times Higher Education World Rankings 2020. In the 2020 QS World University Rankings by subject it is ranked 4th in the world for engineering and technology (2nd in Europe) and 1st for earth & marine science.

As of November 2019, 21 Nobel laureates, 2 Fields Medalists, 2 Pritzker Prize winners, and 1 Turing Award winner have been affiliated with the Institute, including Albert Einstein. Other notable alumni include John von Neumann and Santiago Calatrava. It is a founding member of the IDEA League and the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) and a member of the CESAER network.

ETH Zürich was founded on 7 February 1854 by the Swiss Confederation and began giving its first lectures on 16 October 1855 as a polytechnic institute (eidgenössische polytechnische schule) at various sites throughout the city of Zurich. It was initially composed of six faculties: architecture, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, forestry, and an integrated department for the fields of mathematics, natural sciences, literature, and social and political sciences.

It is locally still known as Polytechnikum, or simply as Poly, derived from the original name eidgenössische polytechnische schule, which translates to “federal polytechnic school”.

ETH Zürich is a federal institute (i.e., under direct administration by the Swiss government), whereas The University of Zürich [Universität Zürich ] (CH) is a cantonal institution. The decision for a new federal university was heavily disputed at the time; the liberals pressed for a “federal university”, while the conservative forces wanted all universities to remain under cantonal control, worried that the liberals would gain more political power than they already had. In the beginning, both universities were co-located in the buildings of the University of Zürich.

From 1905 to 1908, under the presidency of Jérôme Franel, the course program of ETH Zürich was restructured to that of a real university and ETH Zürich was granted the right to award doctorates. In 1909 the first doctorates were awarded. In 1911, it was given its current name, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. In 1924, another reorganization structured the university in 12 departments. However, it now has 16 departments.

ETH Zürich, EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne](CH), and four associated research institutes form The Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) with the aim of collaborating on scientific projects.

Reputation and ranking

ETH Zürich is ranked among the top universities in the world. Typically, popular rankings place the institution as the best university in continental Europe and ETH Zürich is consistently ranked among the top 1-5 universities in Europe, and among the top 3-10 best universities of the world.

Historically, ETH Zürich has achieved its reputation particularly in the fields of chemistry, mathematics and physics. There are 32 Nobel laureates who are associated with ETH Zürich, the most recent of whom is Richard F. Heck, awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2010. Albert Einstein is perhaps its most famous alumnus.

In 2018, the QS World University Rankings placed ETH Zürich at 7th overall in the world. In 2015, ETH Zürich was ranked 5th in the world in Engineering, Science and Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and University of Cambridge (UK). In 2015, ETH Zürich also ranked 6th in the world in Natural Sciences, and in 2016 ranked 1st in the world for Earth & Marine Sciences for the second consecutive year.

In 2016, Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranked ETH Zürich 9th overall in the world and 8th in the world in the field of Engineering & Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, Princeton University, University of Cambridge(UK), Imperial College London(UK) and University of Oxford(UK) .

In a comparison of Swiss universities by swissUP Ranking and in rankings published by CHE comparing the universities of German-speaking countries, ETH Zürich traditionally is ranked first in natural sciences, computer science and engineering sciences.

In the survey CHE Excellence Ranking on the quality of Western European graduate school programs in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, ETH Zürich was assessed as one of the three institutions to have excellent programs in all the considered fields, the other two being Imperial College London (UK) and the University of Cambridge (UK), respectively.