Environmental Issues in Switzerland

Graph 2 Switzerland.jpgSwiss environmental policy has achieved many successes since the 1980s and reduced the pollution of the environment by certain contaminants. As a result, the country's air quality has improved considerably over the past 25 years.

However ambient concentrations of certain pollutants (particulate matter, ozone, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, ) still regularly exceed the effect oriented objectives (graph 1). A large number of chemical substances (e.g. drugs, personal care products, plant protection products) are not filtered out by wastewater treatment plants and cause damage to ecosystems in the form of micropollutants.

In Switzerland, 1.6 million people are exposed to excessive levels of noise. Over 930 000 people are also exposed to excessive levels of noise at night. Despite the implementation of comprehensive measures in facilities that generate excessive levels of noise, the population is still not adequately protected against noise. The effectiveness of noise abatement measures often fails to compensate for the increase in noise arising from the growing volumes of traffic.

The quality of surface waters and groundwater is generally good today. The input of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium by deposition from air has declined and the registration of polluted sites is country-wide achieved. Overall, there are fewer polluted sites in Switzerland than previously assumed and the programme for the remediation of contaminated sites is on target.

Since the mid-1980s, more resources are used globally than are replaced through regeneration. Switzerland consumes over twice the volume of resources that can be sustainably provided by the earth. To meet its requirements for production and consumption, Switzerland imports increasing volumes of raw materials, e.g. fuels and metals, feed and food. Imported products can be associated with very severe environmental impacts, for example when sensitive ecosystems like tropical forests are affected. Over half of the environmental impacts generated through our domestic consumption arise abroad.

The pressure on Switzerland's own natural resources is also high: the pressure on surface waters and landscape is growing through high energy consumption, increasing mobility and the constant expansion of settlement and transport areas. Soil sealing continues at an increasing rate. This is mainly reflected in the decline of biodiversity.

Switzerland could be particularly severely affected by climate change: according to new climate scenarios, an unchecked rise in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could increase temperatures by over 6°C compared to pre-industrial times by the end of the 21st century. Despite the efforts made at the international level, it has not been possible to stem the rise in GHG emissions up to now.

Switzerland is connected with the entire world in a variety of ways: ecological, economic, social and political systems interact constantly. The pressure on important natural resources is rising throughout the world while biodiversity is in decline. The improper management of chemicals and waste, and emissions of particulate matter and ground-level ozone cause extensive impacts on the environment and health.

Main policy responses to key environmental challenges and concerns

In response to the current environmental problems, the Federal Council passed the Green Economy Action Plan in March 2013, which encompasses 27 measures proposed aiming at fostering approaches to economic activity and consumption that conserve resources.

Based on this Action Plan, the Federal Council has proposed to develop and modernize Switzerland's environmental policy through the amendment of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). The amendment will establish the framework for the promotion of ecologically sound consumption patterns, the strengthening of the circular economy and the provision of information on resource efficiency. Voluntary initiatives involving business, science and society will be promoted. Given the importance of Switzerland's environmental impact abroad, its international commitment to the improvement of resource efficiency shall also be increased.

To ensure the long-term conservation of biodiversity, the Federal Council passed the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy in April 2012. The federal authorities will develop an action plan by mid-2014 which will substantiate the strategy's objectives. An important milestone has also been reached in the area of water protection: the revised Waters Protection Act contains provisions for the restoration of rivers and lakes so that they can fulfil their natural functions again and contribute to the conservation and promotion of biodiversity. The cantons have already completed their strategic plans for the rehabilitation of watercourses and reduction of the negative impacts of hydropower production. The first projects are already being implemented.

However, Switzerland's decision to phase out nuclear power and the associated expansion of hydropower production make the simultaneous task of conserving or re-establishing natural habitats and landscapes a challenging one.

Figure 2: Greenhouse gas emissions by sector

For 1990 the reference value belongs in accordance with "Switzerland's Initial Report - Update following the UNFCCC Review", 2007.
Source: Federal Office of the Environment

Considerable action is also required in this area of climate change, particularly in relation to transport. Although the country has succeeded in reducing CO2 emissions from heating fuels compared to 1990 levels, transport-related emissions have continued to increase (graph 2). Hence, the country's domestically and internationally defined emission-reduction targets could only be achieved through the purchase of emissions certificates for climate protection projects abroad.

In the revised CO2 Act, which came into force on 1 January 2013, Switzerland set the goal of reducing its domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 % under their 1990 levels by 2020. At the same time, the federal authorities will also coordinate measures for adaptation to climate change. For this purpose, a national strategy for adaptation to climate change was developed. Its first part was adopted in March 2012. Key elements are:

  1. general objectives and principles of adaptation,
  2. sectoral strategies for those sectors most affected by climate change in Switzerland, and
  3. a summary of the most significant challenges the country is facing in adapting to climate change.

In the second part of the strategy, adaptation measures of the federal offices are presented and coordinated in a joint action plan. It will serve as framework for adaptation for the period 2014-2019.

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