V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Alps on the meltdown

There are few moments in life when you are reminded of your own mortality.

Tearful funerals, accidents that end in narrow escapes, and moments where one is perched precariously on a mountaintop with nothing but a steel rope between you and a dizzying drop to your untimely and tragic death.

That and an overactive imagination.

For the sake of my lovely tour guide Petra -- who has reminded me more than once that should I, a visiting journalist from Canada, die on her watch, her boss will kill her -- I muzzle my fears, stifle the beginnings of hyperventilation, and smile politely.

CENTURIES-OLD ICE

We are nearing the top of Bettmerhorn, whose summit reaches 2,643 m above sea level. The climb is steep and difficult, but the view spurs me on. To my right is the Great Aletsch Glacier, which winds gently over 23 km, the longest stream of ice in the Alps -- centuries-old ice petrified in a permanent state of river-like waves.

Below is the resort town of Bettmeralp, a car-free village where cows roam freely and their bells clang cheerfully throughout -- a Swiss village so quaint and picturesque it tickles the spirit. So impressive is the site it's also been christened the first UNESCO natural World Heritage Site in the Alps.

But what I learn subsequently is saddening: Last year, the glacier receded a record 115 m. Nearly four times the average -- 30 m a year -- when in a state of glacial retreat.

Though it's normal for glaciers to expand and retreat through the course of time, the speed at which it receded last year was unprecented, said local biologist Laudo Albrecht.

"The speed of retreat is not normal," said the director of the Pro Natura Centre, based nearby. "It's a very clear indication of climate change."

Early this year at an annual conference on the Alps in Austria, scientists made startling headlines around the world when they forecast that most glaciers will disappear from the Alps by 2050.

There are 1,800 glaciers in Switzerland and scientists say they are retreating at an average rate of 3% a year. When Europe sizzled under a heat wave in 2003, about 2.1 m of ice melted away in a single summer.

Perhaps it's this constant backyard reminder of climate change that makes the Swiss so admirably aggressive in the fight against gluttonous energy consumption. A much parroted 2000 Watt Society vision is gaining traction after being first conceived in 1998 by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. It's an ambitious and optimistic project to cut per capita energy use to 2,000 watts -- currently the world's average rate of energy use -- by 2050.

That would require slashing energy consumption by two-thirds in Western Europe, where each person uses an average of 6,000 watts.

VISION

Since 2001, the metropolitan area of Basel has been re-examining its urban development, transportation and building technology strategies in the hopes of realizing this vision.

The city of Zurich also joined the pilot project in 2005. A 2,000-watt society depends largely on reinvesting in capital assets: building refurbishments, retrofitting, tapping into renewable energies and low-carbon alternatives.

In June, the Swiss government introduced a carbon tax effective next year to meet its Kyoto targets. The tax will be levied on imported fossil fuels like oil and natural gas used for heating.

The CO2 tax follows on the heels of a "climate cent," a legally non-binding charge already levied on petrol and diesel imports at a rate of 1.5 centimes per litre.

Temperatures in Switzerland have risen at twice the northern hemisphere average since the 1970s and are expected to continue rising.

Perhaps when Canada experiences melting ice and higher than average temperatures our governments will awaken with the same sense of urgency.

Oh wait, we already are.

-2007

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