Chapter 1. Environmental performance: Trends and recent developments1

This chapter provides an overview of Switzerland’s main achievements and remaining challenges on the path towards green growth and sustainable development. Drawing on indicators from national and international sources, it compares the state of the environment and key environmental trends with those of other OECD countries, focusing on the period since 2000.


1. Introduction

Switzerland is a rich country, with the fourth highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the OECD. Economic growth quickly recovered after the 2009 recession, driven mainly by exports and household consumption. Living standards of the small but growing population continue to rise: GDP per capita increased by an annual average of 0.6% over 2009-15 (OECD, 2017a). Switzerland is poorly endowed with mineral raw materials and energy resources other than water. It is a top OECD performer in terms of energy intensity, greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity and material productivity. The Swiss perceive environmental quality as generally high (FSO, 2016), though rising incomes and consumption have resulted in higher waste generation and stronger pressure on freshwater and biodiversity.

2. Key economic and social developments

2.1. Economic performance

Switzerland has a small, open economy. Between 2000 and 2015 real GDP increased by 29%, at a rate equal to that of the OECD as a whole (Figure 1.1). Economic growth quickly recovered after the 2009 recession, increasing faster than the GDP of the country’s main European Union (EU) trading partners and keeping pace with US growth (Figure 1.1). The recovery was driven primarily by exports, which bounced back strongly after 2009, and household consumption (OECD, 2015a). This was largely due to the ultra-low interest rate policy of the Swiss National Bank and a ceiling on the rise of the Swiss franc from 2011 to 2015. GDP is projected to grow by 1.7 % over 2016-17 and by 1.9% in 2018 (OECD, 2017a). In terms of living standards, measured as real GDP per capita, in 2015 Switzerland was the fourth best performer in the OECD, after Luxembourg, Ireland and Norway.

Figure 1.1. Swiss GDP growth is in line with growth in the OECD as a whole

The Swiss government is a net lender, with a fiscal balance surplus of 1.1% of GDP in 2015, against a deficit of 3.1% on average in OECD countries. The level of public expenditure is one of the lowest in the OECD, at 34% of GDP in 2015, and has followed a slightly negative trend since 2000. Despite its low government spending, however, Switzerland scores well on various public policy outcomes, including health, education and transport (OECD, 2015a). Public spending will need to be managed more efficiently to maintain low tax rates as the population grows and ages, increasing demand for public services and weakening the tax revenue base (OECD, 2015a).

The 2016 tax/GDP ratio was one of the lowest in the OECD at 29%, against an OECD average of 36%. The tax structure, compared with the OECD average, is characterised by a lower proportion of revenue from taxes on goods and services and social security contributions and a higher revenue share from taxes on income, profits and gains (OECD, 2016b). Revenue from environmentally related taxes is largely dominated by taxes on energy (51%) and on motor vehicles and transport (47%). Although the contribution of environmentally related taxes to GDP slightly decreased from 1.89% in 2000 to 1.76% in 2014, it remains above the OECD average of 1.6%.

2.2. Structure of the economy and employment

As in most OECD countries, the service sector dominates the economy, accounting for nearly three-quarters of value added in 2015, close to the OECD average. Industry accounts for most of the rest, while the share of agriculture and forestry is less than 1%.

Exports of goods and services account for 64% of GDP, a share well above the OECD average of 54%. The share of imports (52%) is also above the OECD average (49%) (OECD, 2015a). Major recipients of Swiss exports include Germany (19%), the United States (15%) and France (7%) (FCA, 2017). Chemicals and pharmaceuticals are the largest export sectors with a combined 45%, followed by machines and electronics (15%) and watches (9%) (FCA, 2017). Both exports and growth are likely to have been affected by the 2015 removal of the ceiling on Swiss franc, which led to a sharp appreciation, especially against the euro.

Although per capita GDP in Switzerland is above the OECD average, it is driven by high labour resource utilisation rather than labour productivity (OECD, 2015a). With a large proportion of the working-age population in employment (80%) and a low unemployment rate, the Swiss economy continues to attract immigrants.

2.3. Population, quality of life and regional disparity

Over 2000-15, the Swiss population grew from 7.2 million to 8.1 million. With a growth rate of almost 1% per year, Switzerland has seen one of the highest population increases in Europe. However, birth rates are falling: on average, Swiss women now give birth to 1.5 children, below the replacement rate. As life expectancy at birth is 83.3 years – the second highest in the OECD, after Japan – the ratio of people over 65 to the working-age population is about one to four, which indicates that, like other OECD countries, Switzerland is facing the challenge of an ageing population.

Over 60% of the Swiss population lives in predominantly urban areas, 36% live in intermediate areas and just over 3% in rural areas. With nearly 200 habitants per square kilometre in 2015, Switzerland is relatively densely populated. Around two-thirds of the population lives on the Swiss Plateau, a relatively small area between Lake Geneva in the west and Lake Constance in the east, where the density reaches 450 inhabitants/km2 – one of the highest levels in Europe (Swiss Info, 2014).

Changes in the age pyramid are reflected in health expenditure. In 2013 the share of government spending on health was one of the highest in the OECD, significantly above the average (Figure 1.2). Between 2005 and 2013 public expenditure on long-term care grew by nearly 14% per year, much faster than in most other OECD countries, being outpaced only by Korea (Figure 1.2).

Figure 1.2. Public health expenditure is high and increasing

While other European countries have tended to increase the importance given to their National Environmental Health Action Plans (NEHAPs), Switzerland decided not to renew its NEHAP in 2007. Institutional co-operation between the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and the Federal Office of Public Health has continued since 2007 (for example, in the areas of chemicals and sustainable development), but there is no holistic view of environmental health problems in Switzerland nor an assessment of the costs and benefits of public action in this area.

Educational attainment is high: 42% of the population aged 25 to 64 has tertiary education, compared with the OECD average of 35%. Switzerland ranks 12th among OECD countries in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment survey (OECD, 2016c).

Nevertheless, 14.4% of Swiss men aged 20 to 24 are not in employment, education or training. Although the share is below the OECD average of 15.5%, it places Switzerland behind 17 better-performing OECD countries. For women the share is lower – at 9.9% Swiss women perform well compared to the OECD average of 18.5%.

Regarding prime indicators of well-being and happiness, several major cities in Switzerland have been repeatedly ranked among top places in the world to live. For example, like Norway, Denmark and Iceland, Switzerland is a top performer on all factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance (Helliwell et al., 2017). When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, the Swiss averaged 7.6, one of the highest scores in the OECD, where average life satisfaction is 6.5 (OECD, 2015c). Most importantly, the country performs above the OECD average in nearly all areas of the Better Life Index (Figure 1.3). The environmental quality component is based on the state of air and water. Urban air quality, assessed in terms of average exposure to PM2.5 pollution, is below the OECD average, while perceived water quality (measured through public satisfaction) is significantly above it.

Figure 1.3. Well-being perception is generally higher in Switzerland than in the OECD overall

Indicators of regional well-being show that regional income inequality in Switzerland, measured in terms of household income levels and relative poverty, is greater than in neighbouring Germany, Austria and France (OECD, 2015c). Regional gaps in employment are also higher than in the neighbouring countries, with the unemployment rate in the Lake Geneva region and Ticino, at 6.7%, being twice as high as in eastern Switzerland (3.2%) (OECD, 2015c).

The Federal Statistical Office conducted an Omnibus Survey in 2015 to investigate environmental quality and behaviour. It found that 92% of the population evaluated the country’s environmental quality as very or quite good, with quality in the living environment rated even better at 95%. However, 24% of respondents reported being disturbed by traffic noise and 19% by air pollution. The results also showed disparity among cantons; for example, air pollution was ranked lower in the Italian cantons (32%) than in the French (20%) and German ones (18%) (FSO, 2016). The OECD measure of well-being in regions found that regional variation in air quality was wider in Switzerland than in Germany but narrower than in Austria and France (OECD, 2015c). In a study commissioned by FOEN, the Swiss reported their highest satisfaction with respect to access to green spaces (3.3 points out of 4), followed by water and air quality. Noise and rubbish levels ranked slightly less positively, with the lowest score, 2.9, assigned to litter and rubbish levels (FOEN, 2015). Recent polls show that a large majority of Swiss (between 75% and 90%, depending on the survey) believe nature in Switzerland is doing very well (FOEN, 2017a), showing a misperception of the actual risk facing biodiversity, which could contribute to biodiversity protection being given low priority vis-à-vis economic development objectives (Chapter 5).

3. Transition towards an energy-efficient and low-carbon economy

3.1. Energy supply

A relatively balanced energy mix

Fossil fuels constitute more than half of total primary energy supply (TPES), though well below the OECD value of 80%. Oil makes up 39% of TPES and natural gas 12%, with coal at less than 1% – lower than in any other OECD country. Nuclear power (25%) and renewable energy sources (23%) account for nearly half of TPES (Figure 1.4).

Figure 1.4. Half of the energy supply comes from fossil fuels

The level of TPES has been fairly stable since 2000 at about 25 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe). Between 2000 and 2015, energy intensity, measured as TPES per unit of GDP, decreased by 24%, showing a relative decoupling from GDP growth. In 2015, within the OECD, only Ireland had a better performance in terms of TPES per unit of GDP.

As there is no domestic production of crude oil or natural gas,2 domestic demand is covered by imports. Switzerland imports 57% of its crude oil from non-OECD countries and relies on OECD suppliers for the rest. Two Swiss refineries produce one-third of the refined oil products put on the Swiss market. The remainder is imported from refineries in EU countries, mainly Belgium and the Netherlands. Germany supplies over two-thirds of Swiss natural gas, followed by the Netherlands (16%), France (12%) and Italy (3%). Long-term contracts ensure supply of 65% of natural gas imports (IEA, 2014). Due to environmental concerns, shale gas operations have been suspended since 2011 in the cantons of Vaud and Fribourg, where exploration licences had been granted (IEA, 2012).

While the Swiss energy supply relies to a significant extent on nuclear power, the country’s energy policy is being redefined. On 21 May 2017, Swiss voters approved a gradual phase-out of nuclear energy and a shift to renewable energy sources by 2050. This decision, which implies amending the Energy Act, follows a government proposal motivated by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. Voters in a 2016 referendum had rejected a strict timetable for phasing out nuclear power, which opponents feared would lead to power shortages and increased short-term reliance on fossil fuels. Rapid development of renewable energy supply

The share of renewables in TPES grew from 18% in 2000 to 23% in 2015, on track with the indicative target of 24% by 2020 set by the Renewable Energy Action Plan of 2007. As a consequence, Switzerland ranks tenth among OECD countries in terms of renewables’ contribution to TPES (Figure 1.5). While 60% of the renewable energy supply (RES) comes from hydropower, the contributions of all renewables have increased since 2000 (Figure 1.5). In parallel, the SwissEnergy programme3 aims to increase renewables’ share of total final energy consumption (TFC) by at least 50% from 2011 to 2020, although the target is not legally binding; objectives set for 2000-10 were achieved (IEA, 2012).

Figure 1.5. Renewables rely heavily on hydropower

Swiss electricity is generated almost exclusively from renewables (63%) and nuclear power (34%), with the remainder coming chiefly from natural gas and waste incineration (Figure 1.5). As a result, Switzerland ranks among the top OECD countries in terms of electricity generated from renewable resources. Like the RES, the mix of renewables in electricity generation is largely dominated by hydropower, complemented with solar and wind energy, as well as biomass (Figure 1.5). The 2008 Electricity Supply Act states that by 2030 an additional 8% of total electricity supply will have to be generated from renewable resources.

3.2. Road dominates the transport sector’s energy use

Since 2000, energy intensity – measured as TFC per unit of GDP – has decreased by 25%, showing a relative decoupling from GDP growth. TFC fell slightly from 19.4 Mtoe in 2000 to 18.7 Mtoe in 2014, with the largest savings between 2013 and 2014, thanks predominantly to a 15% decrease in residential sector consumption (Figure 1.6), chiefly attributed to two key measures. First, the 2007 Renewable Energy Action Plan provided incentives for the replacement of heating oil – representing half of all energy use in residential heating – with heat pumps. While they are fitted in around 80% of new houses, replacement in older buildings had been slow (IEA, 2012). Also, since 2010 the building sector has been subject to the CO2 tax and incentives have been introduced to improve buildings’ energy efficiency (Chapter 3).

Figure 1.6. Energy consumption is decreasing and becoming less intensive

Transport is the main energy user and a major source of GHG emissions (Figure 1.6). Transport demand associated with GDP growth has sustained fossil fuel use and GHG emissions from the sector. As in other OECD countries, road dominates transport energy use, representing 94% of TFC in the sector (Figure 1.7).

Figure 1.7. Road accounts for the lion’s share of energy consumption in the transport sector

As part of efforts to decarbonise transport, Switzerland is aiming for a modal shift from road to rail and for improvements in public transport. The impact of road transit through the Alps continues to pose concerns and Switzerland lacks a proactive policy to promote electric vehicles as a way to decarbonise national road transport. Moreover, the number of diesel vehicles, which emit more particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOX) per litre of fuel burned than vehicles running on petrol, continued to increase. In 2016, diesel vehicles made up 29% of the fleet, up from 4% in 2000. With 74 road vehicles per 100 inhabitants in 2014, Swiss vehicle ownership is above the OECD average of 68. Nevertheless, since 2000 the increase of the road vehicle stock has been slower (23%) than the OECD average.

3.3. Climate change mitigation

GHG emission profile

Over the last decade Switzerland has achieved the goal of decoupling domestic GHG emissions from economic growth. Since 2000, Swiss GDP has grown by 28%, while GHG emissions decreased by 7% and CO2 emissions by 10% (Figure 1.8). As a result, today Switzerland is the OECD’s top performer in terms of intensity of GHG emissions.

Figure 1.8. GHG emissions are decreasing

The energy sector (i.e. fossil fuel combustion) remains by far the largest producer of GHG emissions (77%), though Switzerland managed to reduce them by 11% between 2000 and 2014 (Figure 1.8). As with TFC, the decrease was mainly driven by reductions in the residential sector. Over the same period, the performance of the transport sector was virtually unchanged (+1%), despite fast growth in passenger and freight traffic.

Switzerland fulfilled its first Kyoto commitment in 2012, and it set out more stringent, longer-term emission reduction targets in 2013 when amending the 2008 CO2 Act and, more recently, as part of its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). The CO2 tax on heating and process fuels was raised from CHF 36 per tonne of CO2 in 2008 to CHF 84 per tonne as from 2016, which is high by OECD standards but with a shallow tax base (road fuels are exempt). However, despite the relatively strong price signal created by the CO2 tax, Switzerland’s low carbon intensity, and thus the high marginal cost of further improvement, makes it challenging to reach the targets, i.e. reducing emissions by 20% by 2020 and 50% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels (Chapter 3).

Air emissions

Between 2005 and 2015 emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) decreased by 56%, far surpassing the 2020 reduction commitment of 21% under the Gothenburg Protocol of the Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention (FOEN, 2017b). The 2020 target of reducing fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 26% was also achieved early. However, in urban neighbourhoods and in areas of increased traffic, levels of coarse particulate matter (PM10) are still above the legal ambient limit values (FOEN, 2016a). Emissions of NOX and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have decreased, though not yet as much as targeted for 2020 (by 41% and 30%, respectively). Ground-level ozone remains too high in the southern Alps (Ticino canton), where the hourly limit value of 120 μg/m3 is frequently exceeded in rural areas over the summer (FOEN, 2017c). Nitrogen deposition still largely exceeds the critical loads of recipient ecosystems, with agriculture being the main source of nitrogen emitted into the atmosphere. Ammonia (NH3) emissions have decreased by only 5% since 2005 and thus proportionally are furthest from achieving the 2020 target (Federal Council, 2015).

With the decline in emissions since 2000, all major air pollutants have been decoupled (in absolute terms) from economic growth (Figure 1.9). The main sources of Swiss air pollution are motorised transport (NOX, PM10), wood combustion (PM10), agriculture (NH3, PM10) and industry (VOC, NOX, PM10) (Federal Council, 2015).

Figure 1.9. Air emissions are declining

Air quality

Air quality has significantly improved since the 1990s and all cantons have drawn up programmes of measures for air protection. However, particulate matter and ozone pollution still contribute to the premature deaths of some 2 000 to 3 000 people each year. The related public health cost is estimated at over USD 13.7 billion per year (2.7% of Swiss GDP in 2015), mostly related to cardiovascular and respiratory ailments (Roy and Braathen, 2017).

The 1983 Environmental Protection Act, 1985 Ordinance on Air Pollution Control and 2009 Federal Air Protection Strategy, along with adherence to various international conventions, are aimed at protecting the population, as well as fauna and flora, from harmful air pollutants. In addition, Switzerland applies standards for road vehicles and technical regulations for off-road vehicles that are often stricter than EU ones. Taxation has been introduced to decrease VOC emissions, and a heavy goods vehicle tax creates incentives to renew the fleet with less polluting vehicles (that comply with most recent EURO standards) or retrofit existing vehicles with particle filters (Chapter 3). Since 2008 the government has supported low-emission manure storage technology aimed at decreasing NH3 emissions from livestock farming, and encouraged use of low-emission design for barns and farmyards.

4. Transition to a resource-efficient economy

4.1. Material consumption

In recent years Swiss material productivity, defined as the amount of economic wealth generated per unit of material used, was among the highest in the OECD. However, its increase since 2000 has been driven only by GDP growth and is well below the 40% rise in OECD Europe (excluding Iceland and Norway) (Figure 1.10).

Figure 1.10. Material productivity is on the rise

With an average annual requirement of 12.3 tonnes of material per capita, Swiss domestic material consumption (DMC) is slightly lower than the OECD Europe average (excluding Iceland and Norway). Since 2000, however, it has increased by 9%, compared to an average decrease of 11% for the EU28. Non-metallic minerals, predominantly (nearly 80%) building material such as gravel and sand, account for over 60% of DMC, the largest share in the OECD; since 2000, their consumption has increased by 16%. Biomass (food, animal feed and wood) makes up a further 20%, with the rest being divided between fossil energy materials/carriers and metals. Since 2000, biomass consumption has decreased by 5% but that of metal ores has increased by 23% (Figure 1.10).

Introducing extended producer responsibility requirements for construction materials, as has been done in Germany, would create incentives to take end-of-life costs into account in product design (Watkins et al., 2012). Virgin-material taxes could also be considered to stimulate greater use of recycled substitutes; to that end, they should be confined to commodities where international trade is limited due to high transport costs relative to value (e.g. gravel, sand) (Smith, 2014). Another possibility would be to aim for a higher share of recycled material in construction materials (the share is currently only around 10%).

4.2. Waste management

Switzerland generated 77 million tonnes of primary waste in 2015, most of it excavated material (62%) and construction waste (20%). The remainder consists of municipal waste (8%), biodegradable municipal waste (7%) and hazardous waste (3%).

Over 80% of the approximately 15 million tonnes of construction waste produced each year in Switzerland is recycled, while the rest is sent to landfill. Aggregates taxes could be introduced to stimulate greater use of recycled substitutes instead of virgin construction materials (Smith, 2014). The recycling rate is lower for municipal waste at 51%, the rest being incinerated. Some 2.4 million tonnes of hazardous waste is produced annually, mainly due to remediation of contaminated sites, which must be completed by 2025. Around 25% of hazardous waste is recycled (FOEN, 2016b). Finally, Switzerland has built 235 plants for composting and fermenting biodegradable municipal waste (BMW), which includes food waste and sewage sludge. In 2000, Switzerland banned landfilling of combustible waste and BMW; both must now be incinerated or recycled. While a significant share of Swiss waste disposal is still by incineration, all 29 waste incinerators generate electricity and heat, covering around 2% of the country’s energy consumption (FOEN, 2016b).

Municipal waste

In 2015 Switzerland generated 742 kg of municipal waste per capita, the second largest amount among OECD countries, after Denmark. Swiss performance deteriorated by 13% with respect to the 2000 level, while the OECD as a whole improved its average result by 6%. Since 2000, municipal waste generation has not been decoupled from private final consumption: the former has grown by 27% and the latter by 25% (Figure 1.11). The unsustainability of final consumption patterns remains to be addressed, a point the previous OECD Environmental Performance Review had already stressed in 2007 (Chapter 3).

Figure 1.11. Municipal waste generation is rising

Seeking to reduce the volume of household waste, the vast majority of municipalities have introduced a tax per bag used, also called a bin-liner fee (Chapter 3).4 Provided for in the Environmental Protection Act (Article 32a), this contributes to meeting the end goal of full cost recovery (i.e. where fees are sufficient to cover all municipal waste disposal costs, including capital depreciation). The policy has been effective in reducing waste production and encouraging participation in recycling and composting, as an assessment in Vaud canton indicates (Carattini et al., 2016).

While levels of municipal waste recycling are relatively high, they have only slightly increased since 2000 (Figure 1.12). Total recycling rates oscillate around 50%, with material recycling (metal, glass, plastic, paper and cardboard) amounting to 32% and composting to 21% (Figure 1.12). While Switzerland is not bound by EU waste targets, its recycling rate would meet the 50% target introduced by the EU Waste Framework Directive (EEA, 2013).

Figure 1.12. Half of municipal solid waste is recycled

4.3. Agricultural inputs

Alongside primary waste, inappropriate agricultural management methods, as well as misused fertiliser and plant protection products, result in negative environmental outcomes. Although Swiss agriculture applies more fertiliser than the OECD average (31.3 kg/ha compared to 24.7 kg/ha for nitrogen, and 10.6 kg/ha compared to 8.1 kg/ha for phosphorus), fertiliser use has been decoupled from crop production (Figure 1.13). Swiss nutrient balances rank in the middle for OECD countries; they have declined only slightly since 2000 (Figure 1.13). Switzerland also ranks in the middle among OECD countries for intensity of agricultural pesticide use (Chapter 4).

Figure 1.13. Use of nutrients in agriculture remains excessive

Seeking to encourage more efficient agricultural input use and more environment-friendly farm production methods, in 2013 the Federal Assembly approved a new policy package, Agriculture Policy 2014-17. Direct payments with explicit environmental objectives were set to increase under this package; they accounted for 6% of all direct payments in 2007-15 (Chapter 4). While farms account for over one-third of the national territory, nearly 9% of the agricultural area is under organic farming, which ranks Switzerland among the top ten best performers in the OECD.

5. The natural resource base

5.1. Biodiversity and ecosystems

Threatened species

As of the late 2000s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified as much as 79% of reptiles, 62% of amphibians, over a third of mammals and birds, and over a quarter of freshwater fish and vascular plants as threatened (i.e. vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered) (Chapter 5). These figures reflect the poor shape of Swiss biodiversity: for almost all animal classes, the share of endangered species is higher than the OECD average.

Land use and protected areas

Two-thirds of Switzerland is productive agricultural land and forest (36% and 31%, respectively, according to the last land use survey, in 2004-09). A further 25% consists of unproductive areas such as rocks and glaciers. The remaining 8% is built-up area, which since 1990 has been expanding by 1% per year (FSO, 2013). New settlements and urban areas were found to have expanded mostly at the expense of agricultural land, which declined by 2% between 1997 and 2009. Over the same period, forest cover grew, mostly in grassland areas such as summer pastures no longer used for dairy farming (Federal Council, 2015).

Areas protected under federal biodiversity conservation law cover only 6.2% of the national territory. The majority of these protected areas are reserves designed for game species conservation (Figure 1.14). Adding areas protected under cantonal and municipal law would bring the figure closer to 12.5% of the territory (Chapter 5). However, the World Wide Fund for Nature warns that many of the protected areas lack funds for effective protection and management (WWF Switzerland, unpublished).

Figure 1.14. There are few protected areas under federal law

Although Switzerland adopted a biodiversity strategy in April 2012, the development of the final version of the action plan took longer than expected and it was finally released in September 2017 (Chapter 5). A feedback process for stakeholders has been postponed several times, which delayed adoption of the action plan.

5.2. Water

Water quantity

Switzerland is not a water-scarce country, being endowed with some 6 400 m3 of renewable freshwater resources per capita. It extracts a low share of its available freshwater resources (4%), compared to the averages for OECD Europe (12%) and the OECD (10%). Over the last decade, Switzerland’s water abstraction was decoupled from economic growth (Figure 1.15). Studies on the impact of climate change on Switzerland’s water resources show that while the country as a whole is likely to continue to be able to cover its water needs, better information collection and collaboration at canton level will be necessary to ensure that water resources are well managed and distributed (Federal Council, 2015). In particular, land use intensification – for agriculture and construction of settlements, roads and industrial zones – threatens the protection of groundwater abstraction areas (Chapter 4).

Figure 1.15. Water abstraction is declining

Over time, many watercourses have been altered to meet increasing land and hydropower requirements, with a negative impact on biodiversity. In 2011, amendments to the 1991 Water Protection Act included four measures to restore river ecosystems. As the space reserved for watercourses has narrowed in many places, cantonal land use planning requirements were strengthened to allow the space necessary for natural river functioning. The amendments also provide incentives for rehabilitating 4 000 km of the 15 000 km of dyked watercourses by 2091. Moreover, the law now requires hydropower plant operators to reduce, by 2030, abrupt variations in river flow (hydropeaking) and obstacles to fish migration and sediment transport resulting from hydropower production. In addition, as hydropower production can result in insufficient residual water volumes, with a negative impact on biodiversity, the minimum residual flow standards set in 1991 were strengthened in 2011 (Chapter 4).

Water quality

Water quality in Switzerland has a mixed record: nutrient loads have been reduced overall but not everywhere, and micro-pollutants are an emerging concern, as is biological status. The construction of sewage treatment plants considerably reduced pollution in rivers and lakes. However, organic micro-pollutants are a rising challenge. These come mainly from agricultural pesticides but also from household personal care and cleaning products, as well as medication. Switzerland plans to manage the risks associated with micro-pollutants in urban sewage (by 2040) and pesticide use in agriculture (within ten years of the adoption of an action plan). To these ends, it is upgrading the 120 largest plants, accounting for 50% of treated sewage, to add a fourth treatment stage removing micro-pollutants. A pesticide licensing programme is in place to ensure that toxicity does not exceed certain risk thresholds, and the government is developing an action plan to reduce pesticide risk and encourage sustainable use (Chapter 4).

Switzerland also faces a challenge regarding nitrate concentrations in groundwater. The concentrations exceed the legal limit value of 25 mg/litre at around 25% of monitoring sites. As a preventive measure, cantons must designate groundwater protection zones around wells used for drinking water (Federal Council, 2015).

Recommendations on air, waste, environmental health and information

Air management

  • Further reduce levels and deposition of acidifying, eutrophying and ground-level ozone air pollution below critical loads and levels as set out by the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution; to that end, set more stringent emission reduction commitments for ammonia, ozone precursors (nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and methane), sulphur oxides and fine particulate matter (e.g. following the example of EU Directive 2016/2284 for the period beyond 2020) and achieve them in accordance with the polluter-pays principle while ensuring coherence with existing instruments (e.g. instruments to reduce agricultural nitrogen surpluses, EURO standards for vehicles, VOC tax for solvents).

  • Implement further measures to combat ground-level ozone in Ticino canton, including via more targeted and time-limited measures during the summer.

Waste management

  • Prepare a federal waste prevention strategy including indicative targets for municipal waste reduction.

  • Consider developing a national resource efficiency strategy to tackle the issue of high DMC levels; in particular, further improve recycling and material recovery of construction and demolition waste by assessing the cost-effectiveness of introducing measures such as extended producer responsibility requirements for construction materials similar to those in Germany, a tax on virgin materials extracted in Switzerland (e.g. gravel, sand) drawing on experiences in Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom, and a target for the use of recycled building materials.

Environmental health and information

  • Consider developing a new NEHAP with a view to cost-effectively tackling remaining health effects of pollution.

  • Strengthen efforts to raise public awareness and avoid public misperception of the state of the environment and of the risks facing Swiss ecosystems; to that end, develop public communication campaigns and foster environmental education at the federal and cantonal levels, and promote local awareness-raising approaches (e.g. as part of Local Agenda 21 and Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development).


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← 1. The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

← 2. In the past, Switzerland produced a small amount of natural gas.

← 3. Launched in 1991 by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, SwissEnergy fosters voluntary initiatives (e.g. through partnerships) to improve energy efficiency and the use of renewables.

← 4. Sankt Gallen was the first city to introduce the fee, in 1975.