A Penguin Protecting the Climate

in Zurich, Switzerland

Young and committed Denis Jorisch has set his mind on a career in the name of climate protection. As of late, he lives and works in the Asian metropolis Bangkok, trying to promote renewable energies at a political level. We've met him in Zurich just before he left.

«Global warming can be explained looking at a cake tin: There's only so much space for the dough. And our cake tin is already half – full. What does that tell us? The calculation is easy: We have to reduce our emissions to zero, in order to avoid the cake tin filling up. Only then, future generations will be able to live on this planet.» Denis Jorisch works as a consultant at the South Pole Group in the western part of Zurich, an area with an urban feeling to it. Already after passing his A-Levels, he knew that climate protection would be his career choice. «Climate as a subject has always fascinated me.» His blue eyes light up. There's a true penguin. A true what? Why penguin? No worries, we'll solve that riddle for you before the end of the article.

Zurich, early morning and the promise of one of these perfect summer days you can't help loving lies in the air. The sun is up early, a clear blue sky spans over the city, and the morning dew evaporates before people are up and about. Lured by the fresh morning air, Denis and his childhood friend meet up at the local tennis court Hardhof, where they serve ball after ball with strong and quick swings. On the next pitch, a couple of elderly gentlemen do their best playing tennis doubles. Regularly, tram 17 is rattling by in the background. You can hardly believe we're in the middle of a city, surrounded by all this lush green on such an idyllic summer morning. «No!» Denis suddenly shouts out. Backhand error. He's not too upset though, and his tennis partner gives him a little hint: «Why don't you pull your cap over your forehead, so you won't be blinded?». No sooner said than done. He serves. «I can't see anything!,» he complains laughingly, after having sent his ball over the net and far off into a field, «That's not fair!» While the two elderly men look like they're playing badminton, the two youngsters in their mid-20ies fight hard for every point. Contrast of generations, nicely pictured.

After two hours of sustained effort, they grab the drag net and smooth the clay court back to its original condition. Everything looks like no one had never been here. After a refreshing shower, Denis is ready for work: His short brown hair is combed to the side, the freshly ironed linen shirt is neatly tucked into his chinos and his suede slippers prevent him from getting too hot. The two friends say goodbye and part, one enjoying his day off in the nature, the other, Denis, cycling to his office in the Technopark in Zurich West.

The office premises of South Pole Group (now called SPG) are located on the third floor, tract «Zeppelin». With a determined step, Denis heads towards the coffee corner. But the machine is denying him his coffee, so he turns around and makes for the cafeteria on the ground-floor, which remotely reminds me of a motorway restaurant, to get his cup.

His nationality? Hard to say. As a matter of fact, he's got both a Swiss and a Greek passport. Greek? Yes, his mother is a quarter Greek, doesn't speak the language though. His father however does speak Greek, without being of Greek nationality. This constellation often causes confusion when Denis is asked about his nationality, even more so, because he speaks French perfectly. French citizen, on top of everything? «No,» he smiles, «but my mum grew up in Geneva and Brussels.» However that be, a colleague of his says: «Even if his genes might prove otherwise, he's the perfect Swiss guy.»

«Looking back, it's the best thing that could have happened.»

After his A-Levels, Denis decided to study environmental sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. That was back in 2008. First year exams are notoriously famous for being tough, and Denis was one among many who didn't pass. Though it was a near miss, he couldn't continue his studies. «Looking back, it's the best thing that could have happened,» he says today. He went for geographical studies at the University of Zurich instead. In hindsight, he's glad to have changed his subject: «I've found many good friends that remain close to me until today.» He got his bachelor's degree in 2012 and gave the ETH another try, this time doing a master's degree in Atmospheric and Climate Sciences: «This time I knew what I was in for and I enjoyed studying.» He was so excited about studying that he even thought about doing a PhD. But after six months of intense work on his master's thesis, he felt it was enough for the time being. In April 2014, he handed in his master's thesis and shortly later boarded a train that would take him to Beijing. Travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway was an impressive experience.

After returning to Switzerland, he did mandatory community service at the Swiss Climate Foundation during five months. Even today, he raves about the precious know-how he gained from this assignment, one, as it turned out to be, that would be crucial to his further career. In January 2015, he started at SPG: «The founders of South Pole Group had implemented a Young Change Maker Program.» This program, which lasts for a year, gives graduates the opportunity to gain work experience in the field of sustainability without having to put up with being called an «intern». Instead, Denis started his career at the South Pole Group as a Young Change Maker.

«The founders of South Pole Group have implemented a Young Change Maker Program.»

Before founding SPG, the heads behind it had formed the foundation «myclimate». «You might know their logo, a small cloud,» says Denis. «The idea behind myclimate was that people could calculate their CO2-emissions (e.g. when flying somewhere) and then compensate them.» Renat Heuberger, Thomas Camerata and Patrick Bürgi, the founders of myclimate, came up with the idea when they had to fly to Costa Rica for a climate conference, only for a few days. To their minds, it was highly controversial to have such a lot of emission generated for such a short span of time. That's how myclimate was born and – a few years later – the South Pole Group. «Even the local beer is now labelled carbon-neutral», Denis says with a smile. With myclimate being such a success, the founders aimed at taking the idea one step further. Myclimate is a foundation and primarily has individuals as a target group. The SPG, on the contrary, is a private company and focuses on companies as main customers.

«Even the local beer is now labelled carbon-neutral.»

His next adventure will take Denis to the Asian metropolis Bangkok. Already when starting as a Young Change Maker, he had an agreement with his employer that he'd be assigned a temporary job abroad as soon as the internship was over. What followed though was a permanent position, and the sojourn abroad was forgotten about. But postponed is not abandoned.

This autumn, the time had come. Denis has left Switzerland and will spend at least six months in Thailand. He is to analyse the Asian market on site and find possibilities to reduce emissions. One of his main tasks will be to examine the political systems in South East Asian countries and find out whether they are favourable to renewable energies. What's the political landscape like? What kind of regulations are in place? What are different governments currently working at? What can be built upon? Before leaving, he wants to be as well prepared as possible and consequently spends his last days in Zurich with investigation and research. He gathers every bit of information he can get while still at his desk in Switzerland and already drafts presentations and reports. «Once in Thailand, there will be many more projects and work to do, I'm sure of it,» he says.

The sun has been out all morning, and Denis is well prepared. At lunch break, he changes into his swimming gear and heads for the Limmat, the river flowing through Zurich. He usually cools down in the refreshing current of the river. On his way he buys a lentil salad and sits down on the lawn close to the community centre Wipkingen. His colleague joins him and together they jump into the cold water. Refreshed they return to their office.

«Many think that climate protection measures are expensive and difficult. I want to show them that they're wrong.»

The coffee machine is working again and Denis enjoys an espresso before getting back to his research. «Many think that climate protection measures are expensive and difficult. I want to show them that they're wrong,» he explains. «The common opinion is that you won't be allowed to have a car any more and that meat will be banned from your diet. But there are so many other possibilities to help the climate.» He also mentions that climate protection can bring companies a profit, and that's where it gets interesting. The South Pole Group counsels companies on how to improve their CO2  balance. «Humans have an influence on the climate and the climate influences humans. Projects of climate protection not only reduce emissions, they also have many great side effects, so called 'co-benefits'.»

One example among many is a project in Central Africa, implemented by Coop, WWF Switzerland and the South Pole Group. The local people, the Massai, were given stoves that were more efficient and only needed a fraction of the wood used for building a cooking fire. The traditional way of cooking food on a wood fire uses up a lot of wood and collecting the wood uses up a lot of time and augments deforestation. Less trees means less CO2 being bound through photosynthesis etc. Main aim of the project is to reduce wood consumption and thus CO2 emissions. Apart from creating less Co2, the project has several welcomed side effects: General health among the Massai has gotten better due to less smoke and fine dust, better education of the younger people, since they have to spend less time gathering wood and a decrease in deforestation.

«Luckily, more and more companies realise that they do have a responsibility for the climate and are willing to take it on.»

The core business of the South Pole Group is developing projects as the one mentioned above and selling certificates for emission reduction. Companies can compensate their emissions by investing in a project and thus cut their emissions, even though in a completely different place. Compensating emissions is, along with reducing them, part of the CSR strategy (Corporate Social Responsibility) of a company. «Luckily, more and more companies realise that they do have a responsibility for the climate and are willing to take it on,» says Denis happily. «It has to be a main target of every company to make themselves climate-neutral!» Climate change has become an immediate threat and is a fact that no one must close their eyes to: «It is always easy to hand over responsibility, but it's almost as easy to do something about it.» He mentions the climate conference in Paris in 2015 which is a milestone in the history of climate protection. «The Paris Agreement is a crucial achievement and obliges all nations to engage together in ambitious efforts to fight climate change and its impact. That's a step that gives me hope.»

The principle of climate protection is simple: If you produce something, you create emissions. In order to produce in a climate-neutral way, you have to try and reduce your emissions and then compensate the emissions you still cause in another place. «Many projects focusing on climate protection are about stopping deforestation or reforestation. The forest helps to lower CO2, thanks to photosynthesis, as do oceans.» In Switzerland, a ton of CO2 is currently traded at 84 Swiss Francs. This price is mainly due to the steering tax on fossil fuels: «This tax can be raised to 120 Swiss Francs, should the reduction targets not be met. This would promote innovation and energy efficiency in Switzerland.»

«The penguin is probably the most prominent and at the same time the best dressed resident at the South Pole.»

Back to the penguin: Employees at the South Pole Group call each other penguins, because they stand up for both climate protection and the natural habitat of the penguin. This nickname has established itself in the past years and of course it has to do with the logo of the SPG, the outline of a penguin. And the penguin lives at the South Pole, unlike his friend, the second symbol of climate change: the polar bear. With a smile, Denis says: «The penguin is probably the most prominent and at the same time the best dressed resident at the South Pole.»

It's already early evening when Denis packs up his things and leaves the building through the back door. He gets on his bike and cycles to the city centre. At the  James&Joyce Bar he meets up with a few friends for a little brainstorming. They have a few beers and some snacks and talk about the newest idea: «Tripadvisor» for colleges and universities. It's a circle of young men, all of them graduated from different universities, debating over the idea, its potential on the market and the risks that would go along with it. A great amount of time is spent on a possible name for the website. It should work for all national languages of Switzerland, be easy to pronounce and be self-explaining. The product would be a platform to rate colleges and universities, provided from students for students. The present alumni are excited about the idea and provide valuable input and tips for the young founders. How the project will turn out and how much Denis has contributed to the success of the start-up remains to be seen. As for now, the website has gone online and is called Eduwo.

As the night comes in, the air starts to cool down. It's still a pleasant summer evening and we can't resist the temptation of a stroll through the city. At eleven o'clock, the group starts to dissolve and everyone is on their way home. Denis is pushing his bike and walks a friend to the train station. His way of being, active and committed, is highly appreciated among friends and at work. Or, as one of his colleagues puts it: «He's one of our best penguins.»

Want to know more about Denis Jorisch? Read his Profile