Written by Alessia Maira, edited by Paolo Stohlmann

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges humanity faces today. Environmental policies and regulations aiming at addressing this challenge have been debated hotly in the past years. This article provides key information on Swiss environmental policies, framed in comparison with those of the EU.

Origins of the climate debate

The debate on climate policy gained international momentum towards the end of the 20th century when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was jointly established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (Jackson, 2007). 

Today, climate change is one of the topics at the forefront of public discourse. As one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, it needs to be addressed through proactive policies. But this is not as easy as it seems. Agreements and prevention measures are difficult to reach and put in place, both at national and international levels (OECD, 2022). Nevertheless, a number of countries and regions – including Switzerland and the EU – have put in place various measures to address the issue. The EU’s Green Deal, Switzerland’s long-term climate strategy, and other regional and international agreements are milestones in addressing the increasing relevance of climate change and its impact on our lives. The discourse is ongoing and further policies are still in the evaluation stage or yet to be implemented or ratified. What is certain is that, in order to achieve the maximum outcome, climate policies need to be discussed and implemented from a cross-border perspective. 

What’s the state of play in Switzerland and the EU? 

Switzerland and the EU cooperate closely regarding environmental matters and already share many of their environmental targets and policies. Since 2006, Switzerland has been a full member of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Environment Information and Observation Network (EIONET). In addition, EU legislation is also incorporated into Swiss legislation, both through bilateral agreements and independently in order to eliminate trade barriers (FOEN, 2021). 

At the national level, Switzerland has put in place a set of environmental goals to be achieved. A net-zero target was set in 2019 by the Federal Council, and in January 2021 the corresponding “long-term climate strategy for Switzerland” (Swiss Federal Council, 2021) was adopted, with the aim to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. 

Climate policies are also part of the Swiss political discourse. In June 2021, the CO2 law was rejected by the Swiss population, with most critiques related to the taxation of gasoline, fuel, and airline tickets (Soguel, 2021). On the other hand, the EU’s Green Deal, which proposes a different approach to these three points, could be an interesting inspiration for Switzerland’s future climate policies (Kocher, 2021). The EU’s Green Deal consists of a set of proposals adopted by the European Commission with the ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030, and achieving net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, effectively becoming the first climate-neutral continent. There are four major focus areas: sustainable food systems; sustainable mobility; biodiversity conservation and restoration; and the circular economy (European Commission, 2019). 

In 2021, the Swiss Federal Council adopted the “long-term climate strategy for Switzerland”, whose aim is to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 (Swiss Federal Council, 2021). This strategy is based on scientific research published by the IPCC that warns that humans and biodiversity will face dramatic consequences if the average temperature increases even by 1.5 degrees globally (IPCC, 2021). Because Switzerland is an Alpine country, its average temperature is increasing two to three times faster than the global average: the country is even more affected by climate change and rising temperatures, and the effects are already noticeable (Meteo Swiss, nd). Specifically, in the Alps and mountainous regions in general, climate change and temperature increases have an even greater effect on the harmony of the area. Melting glaciers, which in Switzerland are retreating at an alarming rate, have already “lost between 30 and 40% of their surface area and half of their volume compared to the 1850s, with a further 10 to 20% of their volume having disappeared since 1980” (Crea, nd). When snow and ice melt, they compound the warming effect because they are replaced by darker rock surfaces and vegetation that absorb more heat from the sun, leading to a rise in ground temperature and further melting  (ibid). 

According to the National Centre for Climate Services (NCCS), there are currently four possible climate scenarios for the future of Switzerland (CH2018 for the year 2060) if current levels of greenhouse gas continue to be emitted (Meteo Swiss, 2018). All these scenarios, which function as a basis for the government’s strategy, include changes in weather patterns and conditions such as dry weather, heavy precipitation, more hot days and heatwaves, and snow-scarce winters. The NCCS developed eight focus areas for climate change that are considered priority issues  to address, which will be expanded in the future (NCCS, 2021). The current issues being addressed are: hydrological principles, hail climate, crop pests, forest functions, civil protection, human/animal health, and food safety. 

Why foster discussion for an open climate debate?

Climate change is already affecting large parts of the world’s population. If not addressed, the current climate crisis will cause devastating effects. While a number of measures and policies to address climate change have already been put in place and there is a general agreement that CO2 emissions need to be reduced, governments worldwide are not yet harmonised in addressing the issue. Coordinated and cross-border climate policies are extremely relevant for a number of reasons. First, the consequences of climate change in one area of the world are likely to cause repercussions elsewhere: this proves that climate change needs to be addressed as a whole – internationally – rather than solely at the national level (Climate-Adapt, 2017). Second, different sectors are concerned with and impacted by climate change. Biodiversity, the circular economy, mobility, fair and sustainable food systems, construction, and energy, are only some examples included in Switzerland’s long-term climate strategy for 2050: this implies that holistic approaches are the go-to needed to implement successful policies.

Comparative analysis of the Swiss long-term climate strategy and the European Union’s Green Deal  

In the next paragraphs, a comparative analysis will be provided to explore the similarities and differences between the European Union (EU) Green Deal approach and the Swiss long-term climate strategy. This analysis will be focused on four different macro-areas: sustainable food systems, sustainable mobility, biodiversity conservation and restoration, and circular economy. The aim is to provide a short overview of the respective efforts that were put in place to address climate change, as well as open the discussion to more areas of collaboration and improvement. These areas are strongly linked and are included under the umbrella of the Green Deal: 

1. Sustainable food systems

The Farm to Fork strategy is one of the pillars of the EU’s Green Deal. Its goal is to promote a more sustainable, healthy, fair, and environmentally friendly food system by increasing organic farming in the EU by 25% by 2030 (EC, nd). In Switzerland, one of the goals is to achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency while also halving emissions by 50%, a goal that will be achievable only if reductions in other sectors are also respected (Swiss Federal Council, 2021). This fully aligns with the Farm to Fork strategy of the EU’s Green Deal, which also seeks to increase organic farming in the EU by 25% by 2030 (EC, nd). 

2. Sustainable mobility 

The sustainable and smart mobility strategy initiative is part of the EU’s Green Deal, and aims to promote sustainable and smart mobility systems through a 90% reduction of transport-related greenhouse gas by 2050 (EC, 2021). In Switzerland, the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions emitted by public transport  to zero (with a few exceptions) by 2050, according to the Long-term Climate Strategy (Swiss Federal Council, 2021).

3. Biodiversity conservation and restoration 

The EU’s forest strategy is part of the EU’s Green Deal, and aims to increase the quality, quantity, preservation, and restoration of EU’s forests, recognizing their relevance for human wellbeing. This flagship scheme will contribute to the target of climate neutrality by 2050 (EC, 2021).  Although not directly linked to the EU’s forest strategy, Switzerland has its own biodiversity conservation and restoration efforts in place (Swiss Federal Council, 2021). Furthemore, both initiatives aim to promote the preservation and restoration of forests and recognise their importance for human well-being. 

4. Circular economy

The Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) was adopted in March 2020 and it is one of the main pillars of the EU’s Green Deal. It aims to make sustainable products the norm in the EU by focusing on sustainable product design, waste disposal, creating less waste, and making circularity work for everyone (EC, 2020). Switzerland has a number of initiatives and strategies in place to promote a circular economy, which involve reducing waste and keeping resources in use for as long as possible. Examples include Circular Economy Switzerland, launched in 2018 with the intent to promote and advance the transition to a circular economy in Switzerland (Circular Economy Switzerland, nd). 

It is evident that both Switzerland and the EU have already implemented significant measures to address climate change. For instance, in the realm of sustainable food systems, Switzerland aims to achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency and reduce emissions by 50%. This aligns with the EU’s Green Deal, which seeks to increase organic farming by 25% in the EU by 2030. While the EU aims for a 90% reduction in transport-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Switzerland targets zero emissions from public transport. Biodiversity conservation and restoration efforts are also shared objectives, with the EU focusing on its forest strategy, and Switzerland emphasising its own biodiversity initiatives. Furthermore, both parties are committed to advancing the circular economy. Through continued dialogue and cooperation in these areas, Switzerland and the EU can enhance their joint efforts in combating climate change and fostering sustainability.

What’s in it for the future of the environment?

The upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, is scheduled to be held in Abu Dhabi from November 30 to December 12, 2023. During this conference, delegates and state representatives will engage in crucial discussions regarding the establishment of a global loss and damage fund to compensate vulnerable nations for climate-related losses and damages. This fund was agreed upon at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022 (UNEP, 2022). The specific focus will be on determining which countries will contribute to the fund and determining its management structure. Switzerland, while still undecided, is considering its participation in the fund, even though it has favoured alternative aid mechanisms (Jorio, 2023).

Additionally, COP28 will witness the inclusion of discussions on reducing emissions from food and agricultural systems to align with the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (ibid). The proposal to phase out all fossil fuels will also be on the agenda of COP28, but it is one of the most difficult to address due to several reasons, such as the need for significant upfront investments, potential disruptions to established industries, the requirement for international cooperation, and the perception of short-term costs outweighing long-term benefits. Sustainable food systems, mobility, biodiversity conservation and restoration, and the implementation of a circular economy all require great investment from governments in exchange for a future return.  Sustainability, which in the most simplistic terms can be defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, n.d.), includes not only sustainable climate policies, but encompasses a wide range of sectors such as the economy and society as a whole, which must be balanced towards the goal of sustainability. While economic growth that exploits natural resources might provide a good return in the short run, long-term outcomes and negative impacts on the environment are likely going to outweigh the positive results and will result in greater economic losses in order to be addressed. Under the Paris Agreement regulations, most nations agree that CO2 emissions must be cut to pre-21st century levels, but an agreement on common efforts to do so  is yet to be reached. The Swiss Government recognises that in the end, “climate protection measures costs less than unchecked climate change” (Swiss Federal Council, 2021). Achieving net-zero emissions is also of economic interest to Switzerland, both for reducing dependence from foreign fossil fuel providers and for higher domestic investments that would benefit the Swiss economy. What is certain is that climate change is an issue that affects the globe as a whole, and it, therefore, needs to be addressed globally. 


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