Stories about Research

Understanding and Tackling the Climate Crisis

Melting glaciers, sweltering cities and increasing zoonoses – UZH researchers from across the disciplines are analyzing the effects that climate change has on nature and our society. They are finding new ways of dealing with the crisis, including in the area of agriculture, finance and law.

Analyzing glacier melt: a researcher on Aletsch Glacier.

Melting Glaciers and People on the Move

UZH researchers are investigating the regional and global consequences of climate change and how people and ecosystems can adapt.

More action is needed if we want to bring climate risks down to a tolerable level. Extreme climatic events such as droughts and floods will cause immense damage in the future, according to the February 2022 report of the International Panel on Climate Change, for which Christian Huggel and Veruska Muccione from UZH’s Department of Geography served as main authors.

Fleeing floods: people in Jaffarabad, a region in south-east Pakistan.

The consequences of global warming are already being felt. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), each year around 20 million people are forced to flee land stricken by drought, tropical storms and floods. The interdisciplinary research project RE-TRANS explores how people in affected areas can be resettled in a more sustainable way. The consequences of climate change can also be seen in Switzerland. In 2022, glaciologist Andreas Linsbauer found that melt rates in Switzerland far exceeded previous years, with as much ice melted in one year as previously in three.

Researchers at UZH also analyzed which Swiss cities will be most affected by future heat waves and found that the number of hot days and nights will rise most in Lugano and Geneva.   Their findings also show that heat waves will become more frequent in all Swiss cities. The complex and far-reaching global consequences of climate change aren’t only apparent in small countries such as Switzerland, however. The effects can also be felt in regions that are thousands of kilometers apart. Recent UZH studies demonstrate that warmer winters in the Arctic cause cold damage in ecosystems as far away as East Asia.

Evening view of Geneva. The largest city in French-speaking Switzerland will be most affected by longer, hotter and more frequent heat waves, along with Lugano in the south.

Climate change also affects biodiversity in a major way. Biodiverse ecosystems are more resilient to rising temperatures. An international study led by UZH shows that diverse grassland communities that are exposed to long droughts are better equipped to deal with future droughts. But biodiversity also helps to keep climate change in check. According to a study carried out with the involvement of UZH researchers in China, multispecies tree plantations are more productive than monocultures.

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“The window of opportunity is closing”

Christian Huggel and Veruska Muccione served as main authors for the IPCC’s report on the consequences of climate change.

Fleeing Climate Change

All over the world, extreme climatic events are causing people to lose their homes and livelihoods. An interdisciplinary research project analyzes how to best manage mass relocations.

“Our actions are having a lasting effect on the planet”

Historian Debjani Bhattacharyya researches the role of the economy in climate change. She discusses the profound impact humans are having on Earth’s history in an interview with Earth system scientist Maria J. Santons. (Text in German)

Arctic Winter Warming

An international study shows that Arctic warming causes temperature anomalies and cold damage thousands of kilometers away in East Asia.

Hot in the Cities

The Swiss cities of Lugano and Geneva will be most affected by future heat waves, according to a study. More systematic risk assessments are needed to make regions affected by extreme heat more adaptable..

Resistant Grasslands, Productive Tree Plantations

Two UZH studies show that diverse grassland communities adapt to deal with drought stress over time and that multispecies tree plantations outyield monocultures.

Literary researcher Claudia Keller conducts research on biodiversity and is involved in a community-supported agricultural cooperative.

Sustainable Farming

More high-yielding, robust and adaptable plant species are needed if we are to secure global food supply and overcome the challenges presented by climate change. Scientists at UZH are working toward a more sustainable agriculture that meets the needs of the future.

“There needs to be a shift toward more ecological cultivation in agriculture,” say UZH environmental scientist Anna-Liisa Laine and her colleague Bernhard Schmid. And biodiversity is a key part of this. Laine and Schmid’s research is focused on leveraging plant diversity to reduce the use of chemicals and make agriculture more environmentally friendly. The best part? If managed properly, biodiverse farming methods can increase crop yield. Biodiversity is also high on Claudia Keller’s agenda. The German studies scholar is actively involved in a community-supported agricultural cooperative and conducts literary research on biodiversity.

More high-yielding, robust and adaptable plant species are needed if we are to secure the planet’s global food supply and overcome the challenges presented by climate change. Evolutionary biologist Kentaro Shimizu, for example, wants to find out which genes make wheat more resistant to warmer temperatures, a key element when it comes to breeding new varieties. Meanwhile, a wheat variety genetically modified by molecular biologist Beat Keller has proven to be resistant to powdery mildew. The scientist believes plant breeders need to embrace genetic engineering if we want to meet the growing demand for food crops.

“All the vegetables we know today emerged from lengthy breeding processes.”

Ueli Grossniklaus

Co-Director of the University Research Priority Program “Evolution in Action”

The Crispr/Cas9 gene scissors are opening up entirely new perspectives in plant breeding. According to plant geneticist Ueli Grossniklaus, this method of gene editing could be used to quickly and precisely breed more resistant and sustainable plants that are better adapted to local climates, and that are indistinguishable from those bred using traditional breeding methods. This could speed up the development of new varieties. The cultivation of genetically modified plants is not yet permitted in Switzerland, but it would bring major benefits for science.

Research on the topics mentioned above is pooled in the two interdisciplinary University Research Priority Programs “Global Change and Biodiversity” and “Evolution in Action: From Genomes to Ecosystems”.

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Wonderful World of Wheat

Green genetic engineering will help secure our food supply, believes plant biologist Beat Keller. One approach involves genetically modifying wheat to make it more resistant to powdery mildew..

New Blooms from the Uri Alps

Kentaro Shimizu gathers flowers from a Swiss alpine meadow and cultivates Japanese wheat. The evolutionary biologist wants to find out how plants are adapting to climate change.

In the Beginning Was the Popcorn

Green genetic engineering has so far met with skepticism – but the challenges of climate change and the global grain crisis could change people’s views.

Weeding, Mulching, Sowing, Reaping

The act of growing one’s own vegetables contributes to food security, brings people together, makes them healthier and promotes sustainability.

Suing Switzerland in the European Court of Human Rights: Senior Women for Climate Protection take to the streets in Basel in 2020.

Taking Climate to Court

Over a dozen climate-related lawsuits are pending at the European Court of Human Rights, putting legal processes at the institution to the test. Two UZH lawyers are investigating how courts can reach fair decisions in climate cases.

One of the first climate rights cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) came from Switzerland. It all started six years ago when the Senior Women for Climate Protection association and others were unsuccessful with claims filed firstly with the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC) and then the Federal Supreme Court, eventually leading them in 2020 to take their claims to the ECtHR. The “climate seniors” are accusing the federal authorities of doing too little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are demanding a course correction in Swiss climate policy.

“We want to raise awareness in courts so that judges can come to fair and judicious decisions in climate rights cases.”

Helen Keller

Professor of law

“It’s become increasingly clear in recent years that climate change will also have an impact on human rights,” says legal scholar Corina Heri.  “On the other hand, whether and how people can sue authorities for such violations is anything but clear.” In collaboration with law professor Helen Keller, Heri is currently looking at the larger questions the court in Strasbourg is having to deal with in connection with these emerging climate rights cases.  “We have to give grievances like this the chance to be heard,” says Keller, who spent many years serving as a judge at the ECtHR.  “After all, we’re talking about one of the greatest threats to humanity.” The Climate Rights and Remedies Project on which the two are working was set up to reveal the range of problems that can arise when the ECtHR’s standard legal frameworks are too limited to accommodate climate lawsuits.

Keller and Heri are also looking at the potential legal consequences of such lawsuits. For example, the question of how to actually quantify environmental damage: what is the value of a year of lost life, or a destroyed wetland, or polluted water? “Our aim is not simply to give climate applicants more ammunition,” legal scholar Keller stresses. “We want to raise awareness in courts so that judges can come to fair and judicious decisions in climate rights cases.”

Sustainable investments: a facility in Iceland that can store CO2 in the soil.

Green Capital

Investors can contribute enormously to a sustainable and eco-friendly development of the economy. Researchers at UZH are investigating how.

Financial markets play a key role when it comes to creating a sustainable society. If no capital flows into the development of green technologies, the economy can’t be re-built. “We live in a capitalist world, and this means that capital is the key to achieving change,” says Falko Paetzold from the Center for Sustainable Finance and Private Wealth (CSP).

The center, which is part of the Department of Banking and Finance, focuses on sustainable, climate-friendly investments and has published a guide – The Investor’s Guide to Impact – for investors interested in sustainable investing. Some of the recommendations in the publication were included in the Swiss Climate Scores, a set of criteria established by the Swiss federal government that investors can use to assess how climate-friendly investment products actually are. The main aim is to determine how financial investments can achieve meaningful sustainable effects while avoiding greenwashing. “Supporting innovative start-ups is the most high-impact way of doing so,” says Falko Paetzold.

“People are willing to pay more for products that were produced under fair conditions.”

Björn Bartling

Professor of economics

Björn Bartling investigates the extent to which people are willing to forgo short-term gains in favor of fair and social measures. His experiments with student test subjects offer cause for optimism “People are willing to pay more for products that were produced under fair conditions. In other words, there is a willingness to voluntarily engage in unselfish behavior,” says the economist.

The research of Stefano Battiston, one of the co-authors of the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, focuses on the role of central banks. He points out that climate change can impact two of the primary objectives of central banks, namely price stability and the stability of the financial system. Central banks can therefore also encourage the private financial sector to assess the financial risks of their investments in activities that contribute to climate change. This in turn encourages investors to shift toward low-carbon activities.

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Green Investing

Economist Falko Paetzold shows how investors can contribute to a sustainable development of the economy.

Climate-Aligned Financial Flows

Financial markets specialist Stefano Battiston explains how cash flows can help combat climate change.

Fairer Trade

People are willing to pay more for sustainable, fair products, according to the research of behavioral economist Björn Bartling. (Text in German)

Surprising Findings from the Field of Environmental Economics

Junior researchers held a research slam to present their unexpected findings. (Text in German)

From Asia to Switzerland: tiger mosquitoes spread viruses that can cause dengue fever.

Microbes on the Move

Climate change is increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases. Adopting a holistic One Health approach, researchers at UZH are investigating antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pathogens that can spread from animals to humans.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a stark reminder of the threat posed by new pathogens. Microbes can jump from animals to humans at any time and cause fatal diseases that are resistant to existing drugs. Climate change and deforestation are increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases, such as dengue fever, which is transmitted by tiger mosquitoes. Rising temperatures mean that these disease-carrying insects are increasingly spreading into more temperate regions.

A key approach to tackling zoonoses is called One Health. “One Health researches the links between humans, animals and the environment,” says Roger Stephan, dean of the Vetsuisse Faculty. Several research groups at UZH are focused on zoonoses and examining the potential risks that animal pathogens may pose for humans. One example is toxoplasmosis, an infectious disease that frequently occurs in cats and can also spread to humans. Parasitologist Adrian Hehl is developing a vaccine for cats to limit the number of infections in humans. The research of veterinary virologist Cornel Fraefel also deals with zoonotic diseases. He was able to prove that bats in Switzerland carry potentially dangerous viruses, which is why he believes we need to step up monitoring of wildlife populations.

Parasitologist Adrian Hehl is developing a vaccine for cats to limit the spread of toxoplasmosis, an infectious disease that can find its way into the human food chain through pets.

Resistances against antibiotics spreading between humans, animals and the environment are another major issue. Veterinarian Barbara Willi, for example, discovered that antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animal clinics not only spread easily among cats and dogs, but may also jump over to their owners. Thomas Kessler and his team are exploring novel approaches to combat antibiotic-resistant germs. He is developing genetically adapted bacteriophages – viruses that can target resistant bacteria.

If we are to tackle the threat from zoonoses, we need to work together across disciplines. This is why the University of Zurich has pooled its resources in a new institute for One Health research run by the Vetsuisse Faculty, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine.

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When Resistant Germs Travel

To stop the spread of antibiotic resistance, we need to understand how it is transmitted and how we can prevent this from happening.

Bats and Tiger Mosquitoes

Researchers at UZH are tracking down dangerous germs that can spread from animals to humans.

Artificial Bacteria Devourers

Researchers at UZH are developing new weapons in the fight against multi-resistant bugs.

Genetic Engineering without Unwanted Side-Effects Helps Fight Parasites

A new method makes it possible to develop a live vaccine for the widespread parasite Toxoplasma gondii.

Energy-guzzling digital platforms: tech company Meta’s data center in Prineville (US).

Sustainable Digitalization

Thanks to digital technologies, parts of our daily lives can be carried out online and processes can be made more efficient. However, surging data streams and devices with short lifespans are driving demand for energy and scarce raw materials.

Professor of informatics Lorenz Hilty and his Informatics and Sustainability research group at the UZH Department of Informatics have been exploring how digital transformation can be put on a sustainable course since 2010.  The group explores both the opportunities and risks posed by digital technologies.

Their research focuses on the carbon footprint and lifecycle of digital devices and infrastructure, the impact of online platforms on sustainable consumption, games and simulation models as methods of shaping the future, and data-driven optimization of development cooperation in the food and nutrition sector.

“Many things can be more easily accomplished with digital technologies, but there needs to be the political will to do so. Digitalization won’t accomplish this by itself.”

Lorenz Hilty

Professor of informatics

In 2022, Lorenz Hilty was part of a European Research Council project that investigated the relationship between digitalization and sustainable policy on the EU and UN level. The Digital Reset Report (DRR) came to the conclusion that a profound change of direction would be needed to harness the potential of digitalization for sustainable transformation. The researchers behind the DRR discussed the report with EU members of parliament in the summer of 2022. In Hilty’s view, it is clear that policymakers hold the key to making digitalization sustainable.

The DSI’s Sustainability community, which brings together researchers from various disciplines with an interest in the topic, also hopes to contribute to sustainable digitalization.  The group wants to work together with the business community, public administration and policymakers to develop ideas and strategies that bring digitalization and sustainability in line with one another.

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“We’re not at the mercy of the future”

Digital technologies make many systems and processes more efficient. Professor of informatics Lorenz Hilty researches how digitalization can be harnessed for sustainable development.

Making Digitalization Sustainable

Junior researchers are exploring what digital technologies can contribute toward making society more sustainable. (Text in German)

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