At its meeting on 13 July, the ETH Board approved “Joint Initiatives” of the ETH Domain Institutions covering “Energy, Climate and Environmental Sustainability” and “Engagement and Dialogue with Society”. The ETH Board is thus boosting the activities covered by the “Strategic Areas” of the ETH Domain, as defined in its Strategic Plan 2025–2028.
In its Strategic Plan 2025–2028, the ETH Board defined “Strategic Areas” (SA) and launched “Joint Initiatives” (JI) on two of them. These initiatives strengthen the cooperation and coordination between the institutions of the ETH Domain in relation to the selected Strategic Areas.
Launch of Joint Initiatives on Energy, Climate and Environmental Sustainability
Six Joint Initiatives within the Strategic Area “Energy, Climate and Environmental Sustainability” are being cofinanced with a budget of around CHF 30 million. These include initiatives to develop sustainable materials using waste from food production and to promote the use of wood in the construction industry. Various other initiatives aim to find solutions for the challenges that climate change presents for ecosystems and biodiversity as well as for energy security. There are also plans to set up a Swiss centre for net zero emissions.
Joint Initiatives on Engagement and Dialogue with Society
In the Strategic Area “Engagement and Dialogue with Society”, four “Joint Initiatives” will receive total cofinancing of around CHF 7 million from the ETH Board. This includes a platform for dialogue between science and society in order to promote mutual understanding and develop educational opportunities for researchers as part of the cooperation with civil society. Further dialogue formats are being planned, together with exhibitions on important themes such as energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. A real-world laboratory is being set up in conjunction with Aargau Jura Park, enabling researchers to discuss sustainability issues directly with the 32 municipalities of Jura Park so that they can work together to develop local measures and solutions. There are also plans for a national centre for the preservation of biodiversity, which will collect scientific knowledge about this topic and share it with all interested parties.
Funded Joint Initiatives 2022
Strategic Area Energy, Climate and Environmental Sustainability
Despite the nearly one billion people still undernourished, food waste accounts for roughly one third of total food production. The key idea of this Joint Initiative is to develop approaches that, starting from protein-rich waste streams (raw or pre-processed), create functional materials using minimal purification and processing procedures. A few demonstrative applications will be targeted over the three years of the programme to act as a springboard for a future large-scale initiative. Three pillars are identified as particularly significant, owing to their urgency and impact on a global scale. The first will be food packaging (that is responsible for ~40% of the total yearly plastic pollution); a second one will be porous materials for CO2 capture (as an example of high value-added materials, and a way to further address the issue of the carbon footprint); a third one will be membranes for efficient water purification. By duly valorising protein-rich waste streams into sustainable technologies, the proposed research intends to enable a paradigm shift, effectively leading to a change of the sign of carbon footprint of food protein waste from positive to negative.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Empa
Main contact: Prof. Dr. Raffaele Mezzenga, ETH Zurich
The Swiss construction sector accounts for around 40% of national carbon emissions. Timber engineering and construction concepts have immense potential to reduce these emissions. Building with biomaterials sequesters carbon in productive forests, stores carbon in long-lived buildings, substitutes carbon-intense materials such as concrete and steel, and reduces energy-related emissions in the built environment. Scaling-up wood construction from the current 9% Swiss market share has cross-sectoral implications. These range from timber production in climatically-challenged forests, to development of new materials and processing technologies, adaptation of building standards, and innovative design and retrofitting concepts. This Joint Initiative project aims to provide the scientific basis for transitioning to a Swiss construction bioeconomy, set within European and global contexts. Drawing on the expertise of four ETH Domain institutions, research will encompass forest dynamics and timber production, innovative construction methodologies and products, material life cycle assessment and simulations of decarbonisation pathways, and biodiversity and carbon impact models. The Joint Initiative will identify key leverage points in the value chain to scale wood for construction to deliver environmentally optimal Swiss wood use scenarios.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Empa, WSL
Main contact: Prof. Dr. Jaboury Ghazoul, ETH Zurich
Climate change increasingly threatens society and ecosystems, including biodiversity, and also has impacts on energy security. The mission of this initiative is to develop toolboxes, action plans and technology to enable a sustainable transformation to a net zero greenhouse gas and biodiversity-positive Switzerland. Solutions will target immediate action conducive to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, developing the required infrastructure, ensuring a resilient energy system, and securing biodiversity. Ultimately, SPEED2ZERO will further promote the ETH Domain as a key honest broker in these thematic areas and provide credible transition pathways to Swiss society and politics. Because net zero GHG, energy, biodiversity, and climate are so tightly interlinked, SPEED2ZERO will focus specifically at the intersections of the fields. SPEED2ZERO will provide decision-relevant tools, technology and prototypes to break the scientific, institutional, and societal barriers that prevent us from implementing the technological and systemic change needed.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Eawag, Empa, PSI, WSL
Main contact: Prof. Dr. Reto Knutti, ETH Zurich
The Swiss Federal Council set the ambitious goal to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As the required systemic and societal transitions will take decades, urgent action is imperative, as highlighted by the recent IPCC Report. Despite the well-defined target, many questions remain concerning transition pathways, social acceptance, technology developments, regulatory frameworks, and business cases. This joint initiative will establish a Center of Excellence covering a broad range of research areas related to net-zero emissions as an inter-institutional collaboration framework. Six priority action areas were identified to achieve the net-zero emission target, including aspects of avoiding, removing, monitoring, and assessing greenhouse gas emissions. A task force will be constituted to strengthen the domain-wide network and gather the required expertise when needed. A regularly updated shared database of activities and experts will support this effort. The task force will proactively publish expertise-based statements, aggregated project results, and white papers and swiftly react to requests from stakeholders, creating immediate strong impact. This task force will persist beyond the three years funded by the ETH Board, such that in the long term, this joint initiative will become a platform to support national decision-makers and stakeholders in their science-based decisions and enable rapid action using the technologies, tools, and methodologies developed at the Center of Excellence.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Eawag, Empa, PSI, WSL
Main contact: Prof. Dr. Thomas J. Schmidt, PSI
Nitrogen is a critical element for life that occurs in all of Earth’s compartments. However, several nitrogen species cause major environmental issues impacting climate, air quality, ecosystems, and human health. The lack of an integrative research approach hinders a more proactive strategy for establishing predictive outcomes as a base of the environmental, ecosystem, and health-related policies and accompanying measures to allow for an energy transition, which is sustainable in terms of the nitrogen budgets. This Joint Initiative aims to holistically understand and quantify nitrogen fluxes to predict the effects of energy transition and environmental changes from other drivers (climate change) and provide stakeholders and policymakers with the most informed possible outcomes of future scenarios and policy in Switzerland.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Eawag, PSI, WSL
Main contact: Prof. Dr. Athanasios Nenes, EPFL
Urban areas are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions and their liveability will be significantly impacted by rising temperatures. They represent a natural integrator of many systems namely energy, transport, clean and wastewater, and buildings, making them the ideal environment to implement a coordinated, multi-sectoral response to climate change and to leverage digitalization as a driver of systemic change. UrbanTwin aims at developing and validating an integrated tool to support decision-makers in achieving goals such as the Swiss Energy Strategy 2050 and the vision of climate-adaptive “sponge cities” in Switzerland. This tool involves a detailed model of critical urban infrastructure, such as energy, water, buildings and mobility, as well as underlying socio-economic and environmental drivers and their inter-dependencies. The proposed tool will be applied to two specific case studies: (a) the sustainable transition of communities considering proper valorisation of local resources and optimal infrastructure deployment, and (b) the assessment of climate change-related policies’ effectiveness considering critical infrastructure resilience, supply security and the transition pathway thereto. To ensure the successful implementation of the proposed interdisciplinary decision-making tool, the project will actively involve local stakeholders along with scientists across the institutions involved.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Eawag, Empa, WSL
Main contact: Prof. Dr. David Atienza Alonso, EPFL
Strategic Area Engagement and Dialogue with Society
Important societal challenges such as those related to climate change, the energy transition, biodiversity loss, emerging pests and invasive species, or the transition towards sustainable agriculture are complex, evolve fast, contain many unknown unknowns, and require international as well as multi-sectoral coordination. Addressing these challenges also involves inherent conflicts and trade-offs between different societal objectives, needs and interests. We thus need a science-policy dialogue conscientious of these societal realities while supporting the identification of trade-offs and potential solutions for such wicked societal problems. Currently, there is a two-fold deficit to the science-policy dialogue in the context of such problems. First, there is no institutionalized platform for science-policy dialogue broad enough for integrating different scientific disciplines as well as different societal actors from different sectors. A structured platform is, however, crucial to address related trade-offs also across (economic) sectors. The second deficit relates to the lack of awareness, sensitivity, and education of scientists on how to deal with these complex problems in coordination with decision makers. This Joint Initiative will create a national level dialogue platform including scientists from different disciplines, public authorities, interest groups and associations, as well as political parties and members of parliament.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Eawag, Empa, WSL
Main contact: Dr. Christian Stamm, Eawag
Lowering greenhouse gas emissions to minimize the impacts of climate change is one of the major challenges faced by humankind. One central pathway towards decreasing emissions is transitioning away from an energy system based on fossil resources. Transforming the energy system is not just a technical challenge but also an economic, political and social one. To accomplish the enormous task of meeting the set climate targets, we need to consider these different angles and factor in the multitude of stakeholders. This Joint Initiative aims to engage with society and foster a dialogue with all generations on the topic of energy. We envision an exhibition, a living lab, a dialogue platform, outreach activities and communication channels developed with the ETH Domain institutions, the Swiss Museum of Transport (Verkehrshaus der Schweiz, VHS) and other partners from science, industry and society. The envisioned exhibition and living lab will become a permanent part of the VHS. At the same time, specific exhibits will also temporarily be showcased at the different academic institutions during the funding period. The living lab will be an engagement research laboratory where visitors can experience science directly and get in touch with researchers. The dialogue platform, outreach and communication channels will be permanently integrated at all partner organizations to continuously promote an exchange between the academic, economic, industrial, technical, political and public levels beyond the funding period. In this way, we will connect and engage with society from all backgrounds, Swiss regions, age ranges and sectors.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, EPFL, Empa, PSI
Main contact: Dr. Christian Schaffner, ETH Zurich
The goal of the Joint Initiative is that ETH-Domain experts and residents of 32 municipalities of the Jurapark Aargau jointly frame 5-10 sustainability problems and explore concrete measures to address them on the ground. For that purpose, we will establish a Real- world Lab with the Jurapark Aargau. The Real-world Lab will: (i) put general scientific insight into the particular context of Jurapark, (ii) build cooperative partnerships by jointly developing and implementing sustainability measures and (iii) develop transdisciplinary skills and training via multiple forms of mutual learning and dialogue. The Real-world Lab will establish knowledge co-production between ETH-Domain experts and residents of the Jurapark.
Swiss Regional Nature Parks are ideal to concretely explore Sustainable Development and to balance protection and use of natural resources. The Real-world Lab Jurapark Aargau will be a prototype that, if successful, can be transferred to other Swiss Regional Nature Parks.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, Eawag, Empa, WSL
Main contact: Prof. Dr. Christian Pohl, ETH Zurich
Together with climate change, biodiversity decline is the most pressing environmental crisis. One factor seriously hampering our society’s ability to cope with the loss of biodiversity is insufficient exchange of existing knowledge and information between science and practice. Effective biodiversity conservation is not constrained by insufficient research or knowledge, but by a severe lack of comprehensive but concise synthesis of scientific findings specifically tailored to and co-created with stakeholders.
The aim of the Translational Centre Biodiversity Conservation is to provide stakeholders and scientists with the relevant information and knowledge needed to tackle conservation problems. The Centre thus identifies topics for knowledge exchange jointly with key Swiss stakeholders, performs syntheses and translates, communicates and distributes products in close collaboration with stakeholders. In the longer run, the goal is to develop an ETH Domain Competence Centre Biodiversity and Conservation.
Participating ETH Domain institutions: ETH Zurich, Eawag, WSL
Main contact: Prof. Dr. Rolf Holderegger, WSL