Zurich: Act Local, Forget Global?

By Brian Witt


Arriving in Zurich is a genuinely pleasant experience after a long flight.  Zurich Airport is sleek and efficient, resembling a modern art gallery more than a mass transport facility.  The S-Bahn into the city is swift and frequent, even on Christmas Eve, and delivers its passengers straight into the heart of the city and the center of the world's densest public transit network.  Beyond its efficiency, everywhere there is a prominent reminder from the city, cantonal, or federal government, that one has now entered a "Green" city.

Zurich, like Switzerland as a whole, has an excellent reputation for sustainability.  Over 60% of the inhabitatants walk, cycle, or use public transportation to get work.  Switzerland’s 25.5 grams of CO2 emission per dollar of GDP is the world’s lowest (compare to a European average of 356).  Zurich has extremely strict building regulations to reduce energy usage in the chilly Swiss climate and although only 5% of the city's energy comes from renewable sources, most of the rest is from nuclear power.  Perhaps most impressive of all, in 2008 the voters of Zurich approved the "2000 Watt Society" measure, a long term plan to reduce each resident's energy consumption from around 6000 watts to 2000 watts of energy per year, and to ensure that 75% of this energy comes from renewables. Unlike most radical energy reduction plans, this one is legally binding, and all decisions by the city government must take account of these goals.  Most Americans sustainability advocates can only dream of these achievements.

Admirable as all this is though, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy as one journeys through the airport, out of the train station and onto the streets of Zurich.  Alongside posters and billboards announcing the green initiatives in the city and canton are those informing of investment opportunities in Russian oilfields and business partnerships in the UAE and Qatar.  Walking down the Bahnhofstrasse from the train station takes one through one of Europe's most exclusive shopping districts, past Louis Vuitton and Gucci and private investment banks with signs in Russian and Arabic.  The weary traveler may have a hard time trying to find a quick bite to eat in the Zurich Arrivals terminal, but he would not lack for champagne bars or opportunities to sample caviar "flown in fresh from the Caspian."

During the Second World War, Swiss banks took regrettable stances on a number of issues related to Holocaust victims and Nazi Germany that took decades to rectify. Unfortunately, many of these same banks have not greatly improved their track record, in the eyes of many environmental advocates.  

In their LEED-certified headquarters, Zurich-based financial services companies, which dominate the city's economy, make investment decisions that contribute greatly to environmental degradation and climate change.  A recent study by the WWF and KPMG found out that, of the 8 largest Swiss banks, "hardly any of the banks systematically identify, assess, control and monitor environmental or social risks and opportunities at inception and throughout the lifetime of all of their originated loans and/or investments." While contributing to green initiatives at home in Switzerland, these same banks are some of the world's greatest funders of environmentally damaging projects.

Switzerland also aims to be the playground, shopping mall, and second home of the global elite, particularly targeting the ultra-wealthy of Russia, China, and the Middle East. In addition to huge international banks like Credit Suisse, Zurich is home to dozens of small private banks for foreign billionaires to stash their money away from the prying eyes of their domestic tax officials. The ritzy shops of the Bahnhofstrasse and designer penthouses on Lake Zurich's "Gold Coast" cater to expatriates drawn by Switzerland's low income and investment taxes. Many of these Saudi princes and Russian oligarchs, having made their fortunes through environmentally  destructive means, can now enjoy their earnings while contributing as little as possible back to their home countries.

While in many ways a poster city for sustainable development, many believe that the citizens of Zurich seem to be missing part of the "Think Global, Act Local" ideal.  Hopefully in time, Zurich will be able to incorporate its green mentality at home into its dealings with the rest of the world.




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