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Climate change mitigation (Switzerland)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

During the last 50 years, the average temperature in Switzerland has increased by about 1.8 °C. In the same period, Alpine glaciers retreated dramatically. As climate change continues, the observed trends in temperature and glacier volume and surface area are expected to continue in the coming decades. Furthermore, heavy precipitation events are projected to become more frequent and more intense in all seasons, and summer heat waves and droughts are expected to occur more frequently and last longer (FOEN, 2009a).

The described changes will have a large impact on natural hazards, especially in the Alpine region. Because of this, Switzerland has a strong interest in limiting greenhouse gas concentrations and avoiding dangerous climate change.


The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Greenhouse gas emissions in Switzerland have remained relatively constant since 1990. Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for 85 % of total greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, Switzerland emitted 51.3 million tonnes CO2 equivalents, to which CO2 contributed 43.6 million tonnes. Methane (CH4) emissions have dropped by 19 % and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions by 10 % since 1990, with agriculture as the main source of these two gases. The use of synthetic gases has risen markedly since 1990, contributing 1.7 % to the national total in 2007.

In Switzerland, the observed temperature increase of 0.39°C per decade for the period 1961-2009 was accompanied by changes in several climate indicators. For instance, temperature extremes and the number of hot days and tropical nights increased whereas the extent of the average winter snow cover diminished and the seasonal freezing level (altitude, where surface air temperature is 0°C) has risen. Changes in precipitation were less pronounced than long-term changes in mean temperatures. However, a number of stations reveal a significant increase in precipitation in winter and spring (+2.7 to +3.1 % per decade; OcCC, 2008).

The observed changes had significant impacts on several natural and anthropogenic systems. Most prominent are the changes in the cryosphere. Between 1975 and 2000, Alpine glaciers lost about 25 % of their volume. A recent analysis has revealed that 12 % of the volume of Swiss glaciers was lost since 1999 (Farinotti et al., 2009).

Also water availability is affected in Switzerland. Despite the fact that Switzerland is in a favourable situation compared to other regions of the world, having about 5560 m3 of water available per year and inhabitant, long-term changes in snow cover and glaciation will have irreversible effects on run-off regimes. As a result, the generation of hydropower is expected to decrease (e.g. Piot, 2005) and the demand for irrigation in agriculture will grow (Fuhrer and Jasper, 2009). 

One of the biggest concerns in Switzerland with respect to climate change is the evolution of natural hazards. The retreat of Alpine glaciers results in a decrease in slope stability as described above. Mud slides and rockfall, as experienced for example in Grindelwald in 2006, are expected to become more frequent. In addition, the expected thawing of permafrost represents a costly risk for a vast array of transport infrastructures in the mountains. At lower altitudes, the risk of winter and spring floods is likely to increase due to the fact that precipitation increasingly falls as rain instead of snow, and due to the growing frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events (KOHS, 2007). In contrast, summer floods on the central plateau are expected to become smaller.

With present knowledge, it is expected that the consequences of rising temperatures will be manageable for Switzerland up to the mid-21st century. The precondition to this is that warming remains within the anticipated range. Nevertheless, several sectors will face big challenges due to climate change within this period and substantial adaptive measures will be necessary. These measures will require significant financial resources. However, compared to the costs of inaction, which were estimated in a previous study to amount to 0.2 % GDP in 2050 and increase to about 0.5 % GDP by the year 2100 (FOEN, 2007), the cost of timely adaptation will only be a small fraction in comparison to this large amount.


Greenhouse gas emissions by sector

Greenhouse gas emissions by sector

Contribution of individual gases to Switzerland's greenhouse gas emissions in 2008

Contribution of individual gases to Switzerland's greenhouse gas emissions in 2008

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

In 2007, transport-related emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) amounted to 16.3 million tonnes, or 32 % of total CO2 emissions in Switzerland (FOEN, 2009b). Emissions from the transport sector have increased by 11 % since 1990, with fluctuations reflecting economic development. Road traffic is responsible for 97 % of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions (excluding international air traffic). Around 70 % of these emissions stem from cars. Specific emissions per kilometer were reduced substantially due to technological developments, however, this improvement was offset by an increase in traffic volumes.

Apart from transport-related emissions, households are responsible for 20 % of all greenhouse gas emissions, which result largely from the combustion of heating oil. Since 1990, annual CO2 emissions from Swiss households have remained quite stable at around 12 million tonnes per year. However, emissions are strongly anti-correlated with winter temperatures.

Agriculture contributes approximately 10 % to the total national greenhouse gas emissions;most of the emissions are related to animal husbandry (CH4), manure management (N2O) and agricultural soil emissions (N2O).


Relative emission trends in the energy sector

Relative emission trends in the energy sector

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

The emissions are projected to drop gradually over the Kyoto period, mainly due to the implementation of measures in the energy sector. Provided that the actual mitigation effects of these measures correspond to the estimated effects, and based on current estimates of the development of GDP, fuel prices and winter temperatures, the target as set out in the Kyoto Protocol should be met. However, these projections are subject to considerable uncertainty (FOEN, 2009a).

An emission reduction of 20 % (possibly 30 %) by 2020 compared to 1990 (FOEN, 2009a) is envisaged. To this end, the CO2 levy on heating and process fuels and the building programme, which aims at improving energy efficiency and use of renewable energy, are upheld from 2013 to 2020. The Federal Council proposed to the Parliament the introduction of stringent CO2 emission standards for new passenger cars and the compensation of transport fuel emissions. This will contribute substantially towards the 20 %-30 % target. The lines in the attached figure correspond to emissions in Switzerland for different scenarios; the bars at 2010 and 2020 are taking the effect of supplementary emission reductions abroad into account.

Projected emissions for various emission scenarios

Projected emissions for various emission scenarios


Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Switzerland has implemented a national policy framework that is aimed at mitigating climate change (FOEN, 2009a). Since 2000, the CO2 Act provides a legal framework for voluntary and compulsory measures. A CO2-levy is charged on heating and process fuels. The proceeds of this levy are partly dedicated to a comprehensive building programme that subsidises energy-saving measures and use of renewable energies. The example of the most important voluntary measure is the ’climate cent’, added to fossil transport fuels and providing funds for mitigation projects abroad and in Switzerland. Action plans promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy are put in place, aiming at reducing fossil fuel use by 20 % by 2020 and increasing the share of renewable energy by 50 % to approximately 24 % of total energy consumption by 2020, and to limit the increase in electricity consumption to a maximum of 5 % between 2010 and 2020. Ordinances regulating the use of synthetic gases and prohibiting disposal of combustible wastes in landfill sites minimise related emissions.

A Swiss ETS system is operational and companies can opt for a cap-and-trade scheme that grants exemption from the CO2-levy. Until now, the Swiss government does not intend to purchase certificates from CDM/JI projects. The major user of the flexible mechanisms is likely to be the private ’Climate Cent Foundation‘, which is administering the surcharge on fossil transport fuels.

Currently, Swiss climate legislation is being revised. Regulations for compensation of greenhouse gas emissions from combined cycle power plants and CO2 emission levels of the new car fleet, as well as the revision of the CO2 Act are under parliamentary discussion. It is planned to reduce emissions by 20 %, possibly even 30 % under the level of 1990 by 2020. The measures that should contribute to this target are:

  • the continuation of the CO2-levy on heating fuels

  • the refurbishment of buildings and the promotion of renewable energies in the housing sector

  • the introduction of emission limits for new cars (in line with EU regulations)

  • obligation to offset parts of the CO2 emissions of the transport sector (by using flexible mechanisms)

  • full compensation of emissions from gas fired combined cycle power plants

  • enlargement of the Swiss emissions trading scheme




Farinotti et al. 2009: Farinotti D., Huss M., Bauder A., Funk M., An estimate of the glacier ice volume in the Swiss Alps. Global and Planetary Change, 2009.

FOEN 2007: Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Auswirkungen der Klimaänderung auf die Schweizer Volkswirtschaft (internationale Einflüsse), INFRAS/Ecologic/Rütter + Partner joint-venture, commissioned by the FOEN, Bern, 2007.

FOEN 2009a: Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Switzerland’s fifth national communication under the UNFCCC, Bern, 2009.

FOEN 2009b: Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Switzerland’s greenhouse gas inventory 1990-2007, Bern, 2009.

Fuhrer and Jasper 2009: Fuhrer J., Jasper K., Bewässerungsbedürftigkeit von Acker- und Grasland im heutigen Klima. AGRARForschung 16 (10): 396-401, 2009.

KOHS 2007: Kommission Hochwasserschutz im Schweizerischen Wasserwirtschaftsverband (KOHS), Auswirkungen der Klimaänderung auf den Hochwasserschutz in der Schweiz. Wasser, Energie, Luft, 99(1), 55 – 57, 2007.

OcCC 2008: Advisory Body on Climate Change (OcCC), Das Klima ändert – was nun? Der neue UN-Klimabericht (IPCC 2007) und die wichtigsten Ergebnisse aus Sicht der Schweiz, Bern, 2008.

Piot 2005: Piot M., Auswirkungen der Klimaänderung auf die Wasserkraftproduktion in der Schweiz. Wasser, Energie, Luft, 2005.



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